The cost-of-living crisis is becoming the leading ‘cause’ for consumers. Alex Lewis, Co-Founder of Revolt, shares the issues that matter in 2023 and explains how brands can shift their corporate behaviour and marketing to provide simple solutions that make a difference.

After a volatile year for many countries’ democracies, we are seeing a significant shift in public focus, with social and political causes uppermost in people’s minds. In 2022, people all around the world saw their food and energy costs rocket and the ‘cost-of-living crisis’ became the hottest topic of conversation and dominated the headlines.

According to the UN Development Programme, in the most developed countries one in four people are now struggling financially (World Economic Forum) and by May last year, The Food Foundation was reporting that nearly one in seven adults in the UK said they couldn’t afford to eat every day – an increase of 57% since the start of the year.

This shift in public focus from sustainability to the cost-of-living crisis has been borne out in Revolt’s own consumer research. Produced from a survey of 5,000 people across five global markets, our annual Causes That Count report indexes the top 50 causes and assesses how important they are to people.

Revolt’s 2023 ranking revealed a general shift in people’s focus, with political causes dominating the top 10 in all five markets. After coming first in last year’s ranking, ‘Climate change’ dropped three places in the overall ranking, being replaced by issues that many might feel have more immediate and personal impacts – ‘Access to healthcare’, ‘Unemployment and job security’, and ‘Poverty, hunger and homelessness in my country’. We also saw nearly all other environmental causes fall down the ranking as they became less top of mind: ‘The plastic crisis’ dropped seven places to #38, and ‘Biodiversity and species extinction’ dropped by six places to #33.

It’s clear that people are inevitably less focused on the environment than they were twelve months ago. It’s not that individuals are no longer interested in climate change, but rather that issues with more immediate and direct personal impact are considered more pressing. Not surprisingly, ‘Large scale conflict and wars’ has risen 11 places to #5 since the last report, as people around the world not only observe the human cost of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but also take stock how the war the way is impacting their own lives.

‘Gender equality’ has made a small increase, rising three places to #42. We’ve seen key issues around the world, including Roe v. Wade being overturned in the US, and the continued and often brutal restrictions on women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan. So it’s not surprising that gender equality is becoming an increasingly import issue for people, but it’s still low down in the overall ranking of causes. From an education and awareness perspective, there is still arguably much to do and brands can play a key role here in supporting gender equality movements. Similarly, ‘race relations’ has made a small increase in the ranking, rising from 32 to 30 year on year. Through their cause-related activities, brands have an ongoing responsibility and opportunity to help create a more inclusive society.

‘Artificial intelligence and its impact on people and society’ has now entered the rankings for the first time at #46. Clearly AI is not a new issue, but ChatGPT and issues around fake content have taken centre stage over the past 12 months. While AI can be a force for good, there is growing public concern that generative tools could take people’s jobs and that algorithms can lead to systemic bias. AI will be an ongoing opportunity and challenge for brands as they seek to leverage its potential in creativity and efficiency, while being mindful of its potential harm for people and planet.

But arguably, the biggest opportunities and challenges for brands right now relate to the cost-of-living crisis. All brands are having to assess or reassess their strategy for managing the cost-of-living crisis and consider how this impacts their marketing and communication.

Brands should listen to their customers to ensure they understand how the crisis is really affecting them and how that experience is changing. For example, Iceland has leaned into its ‘Talking Shop’ initiative during the crisis to enable it to understand the concerns of staff and customers.

Many people are experiencing fear and uncertainty, so brands have an opportunity to help consumers be or feel in control. For example, HSBC is offering customers and non-customers alike an online financial health check, with recommendations of actions that can been taken to improve finances. But even with control and clarity, many families are still facing some very difficult decisions. Framing options as choices rather than cut-backs can create a more positive role for brands. Sainsbury’s recently launched Sainsfreeze, showing how unused fresh food can be frozen. This initiative helps people to save money but is also helping them to be more sustainable.

And brands can also play a key role in driving sustainability during the cost-of-living crisis. The shift to cheaper, less sustainable products and services, could actually have an unintended effect on the cost-of-living crisis. The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit estimated that the soaring food inflation was caused by energy price shocks and climate change. The problems that climate change create, such as extreme weather and weakening soil health, will only continue to exacerbate the issue.

Brands can help by making sustainability as accessible and affordable as possible. For example, the cleaning brand Method is helping people go green with plant-based, biodegradable cleaning products at a more affordable price. US retailer Target is taking a different approach by ensuring that it stocks and showcases sustainable beauty brands such as Hey Humans and Anomaly.