Guest editorial: Tomorrow’s companies of choice

September 01, 2003

In today’s crowded marketplace, consumers are increasingly looking for companies that will help – not hinder – their ability to make choices. The door for good corporate citizenship has never been more open, Michael Willmott and William Nelson argue.

Choices, choices. The last two decades have seen a flowering of consumer choice in the UK, on supermarket shelves, in financial services, in telecoms and energy providers, in media channels, and on the high street in general, as products and services become ever more diverse and individualised.

On the plus side, the increasingly affluent consumer now has a marvellous plurality of products and experiences through which to express and enjoy their individuality.

The complexity of today’s consumer markets, however, does not necessarily work in favour of the consumer all the time. Effective consumer choice does not simply mean lots of choice. It requires time and information – elements that are not evenly distributed.

The responsible company, therefore, needs to ensure that all consumers have equal access to these same levers of choice. Take older, disabled or less affluent consumers, for example, who may have lower geographic mobility and less access to independent advice. Recognising and reacting to the fact that some consumers may feel powerless in the face of expanding choice – rather than empowered – will mark out the companies of the future.

In addition, the expansion of choice means that consumers are increasingly looking for companies they can trust to help them negotiate the ever-crowded marketplace of today. Relying on a trusted brand, for example, represents just the kind of “choice-limiting” strategy we are seeing among consumers. Our research also found that a small number of consumers are applying ethical criteria to help them narrow down the choices they have on offer.

There are wider implications for the role of ethics and corporate citizenship, however, as markets become increasingly too complex for individuals to manage. Insofar as these facets of responsible business genuinely lead companies to champion consumer interests, they will not only engender trust in the company and the value of its offer, but these values will also enable the company to choose or edit-down choices on consumers’ behalf.

Failure to genuinely represent consumers’ interests, however, will inevitably cause consumers to look to other sources of information – a shift that the evolution of information technology is already facilitating. It may not happen over night, but it’s only a matter of time before the disparate consumer information and rudimentary price-comparison internet sites of today converge to enable consumers to filter out unethical products or “bogey-brands” as easily as nut traces or poor value products.

There is no turning back the clock, limiting choice rather than facilitating it. Companies who do not facilitate choice or cannot expose themselves to choice – relying instead on consumer inertia, pushy marketing and unquestioning habit – will be found out. Tomorrow’s corporate citizens, on the other hand, whose values earn them the right to manage or edit our choices, are set to prosper.

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 71 – September, 2003

Michael Willmott is co-founder and director of The Future Foundation, a research-based think-tank advising on changing consumer needs. William Nelson is analysis manager at The Future Foundation.

Complicated Lives, a new book by Michael Wilmott and William Nelson, is published on August 28. For more details, email: