revolutionising retail: 181st street deliver UK’s largest ethical shopping campaign

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In the midst of a cost of living crisis, with consumer spending down, and at the most competitive time of year for online marketing, 181st Street was tasked with designing a digital retail campaign to elevate over 100 small ethical businesses and increase their sales – without a penny in advertising spend.

Our high-impact #ShopEthicalInstead campaign achieved an organic reach of 4.7 million people and increased participating brands’ sales by an average of 18% in ‘Golden Quarter’ – the most important time for small business revenue.

These unrivalled results were thanks to the 181st Street team’s academic knowledge, exceptional communications skills and their ability to apply groundbreaking techniques never seen before in the sustainability sector.

Here’s how we did it…

The Background

#EthicalHour has been the voice of the sustainable business sector since 2016. Their ​​community and training has launched and grown thousands of ethical and eco challenger brands, and in 2017 they started #ShopEthicalInstead as a positive alternative to Black Friday.

From a behavioural perspective, anti-Black Friday campaigns don’t work. They deviate too much from the social norm, at a time when record levels of advertising spend and marketing exposure are re-enforcing mass consumerism messages. 

But many sustainable business owners feel uncomfortable promoting mass consumption, and often don’t have the margins to offer huge discounts. 

While the giants of the sector have achieved cult-brand status with their subversive messaging – such as Patagonia’s 2011 “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign – the truth is that small brands don’t have the audience, budget or access to the communications expertise needed to run this type of campaign. Most struggle to even get cut-through and conversion with standard persuasive sales messages.

That’s why #ShopEthicalInstead was always positioned as a positive alternative. A collaborative effort between ethical brands, calling on consumers to “vote with their wallet” and redirect money they would be spending anyway, into ethical and sustainable supply chains.

This messaging clearly resonated with the #EthicalHour audience. In 2020, the campaign reached 1.7 million people in November and December, and was featured in prominent industry press including Vogue Business, Ethical Consumer Magazine and Edie.

Feedback from participating brands was positive, praising the additional exposure and engagement the campaign brought them. Anecdotally, the team knew that it was driving sales, based on audience feedback, but there was no tangible way to track this built into the campaign, and little infrastructure available to scale to more reach, and support more brands.

Which is why they approached 181st Street to take the 2022 campaign to the next level. 

Under The Skin Of The Problem…

The average ethical small business has less than 6,000 followers, and achieving any level of cut-through is getting harder. 

These businesses usually make up to 80% of their annual revenue in Q4. If sales are slow, survivability isn’t guaranteed.

Consumers spend more of their disposable income during Q4 than at any other time of year, buying gifts for loved ones and treats for the holiday season. Which means it’s also the most competitive time for brands to be marketing online.

Total US advertising spend was $23 billion in 2018. $6bn of that – 25% – was spent in the 4 day shopping period from Black Friday to Cyber Monday. That’s simply too much noise for small brands to compete with.

However, achieving organic reach without ad spend is getting harder. Instagram shows your posts to less than 10% of your total audience, unless it gets significant levels of engagement. But in 2022, the average engagement rate on business accounts was only 0.54%.

And, in 2022, the average e-commerce conversion rate across all verticals was 2.5%. The amount of reach and engagement a brand needs to achieve to actually generate significant sales is becoming virtually impossible for small brands.

When it comes to Golden Quarter sales, the odds are stacked firmly against small businesses.

An Amplified Voices Approach

One social profile can only achieve so much reach, even with a large audience.

At the most competitive point of the retail calendar, it makes no sense for small ethical businesses to be competing with each other for airspace, when they’re competing against those big ad budgets too.

That’s why we invited them to take a more collaborative and strategic approach – working together to communicate one clear message, amplify everyone’s products, and create levels of engagement, brand recall and cut-through that a small business simply couldn’t achieve on their own.

While #EthicalHour had started the foundations of this with the #ShopEthicalInstead hashtag, and key points of engagement built into the campaign (in the form of their weekly Twitter chats), the campaigning infrastructure we built for them meant we could take this even further, drawing on techniques used in successful political campaigning.

In October, we ran a pre-launch campaign on the #EthicalHour socials, conducted brand research and did cold outreach to recruit over 100 ethical brands.

We then centralised content production to give every brand their own mini-campaign for their social channels. All the brands had to do was copy, paste and upload the content into their social media schedulers. We even gave them a calendar and guideline posting schedule to create peak moments of campaign awareness.

We also conducted founder interviews to create engaging video content focused on messaging most likely to drive engagement, from a behavioural perspective.

Most small businesses don’t have the resources to create the significant amounts of social content needed to get cut-through. Having our team create this for them not only increased their output, but helped drive engagement too. 

The campaign launched publicly on 1st November. With even big brands feeling the financial pinch, we knew that advertising budgets would be reserved for the end of the month – targeting payday and Black Friday. By releasing our messaging earlier, across over 100 social accounts with a combined audience of over 1 million people, we were able to drive awareness before online channels became too saturated, giving the brands time to get the combined audience into their sales funnels and work on conversion.

The methodology was proven in politics, but has never been applied in retail before. Thanks to our team’s academic expertise in behavioural science, and our audience-first approach, we were able to translate these techniques effectively.

But we knew it wouldn’t work without the right messaging…

Reframing The Message To Reflect The Times

Last year, there were 5.5 million small businesses in the UK, making up 99.2% of the total businesses in the country.

We are proudly a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, and while not all our high streets are the vibrant, independent spaces they used to be, the innovation, creativity, care and craftsmanship of small businesses has shifted their shopfront online.

Every purchase from a small business supports the vibrant, independent business community. Every purchase supports a shopkeeper. Every purchase matters.

2022’s #ShopEthicalInstead campaign fell in the midst of a cost of living crisis. Consumer spending was down. The cost of doing business was up, and ethical SMEs were feeling the impact more than most.

The campaign needed core messaging that would resonate with audiences in a tougher financial climate, in order to get cut-through and drive sales. That’s why we focused on humanising the economic argument – showing how ethical businesses pay living wage, support fair trade and take a stand against poverty.

Sustainable products often face criticism for being more expensive than their mainstream alternatives, and in a cost of living crisis, they can be seen as a luxury – even to the campaign’s target demographics, who still have the disposable income to shop from ethical SMEs. By focusing on this messaging, we were able to simplify complex sustainability arguments, and empower those consumers to shop with brands actively working to end the cost of living crisis.

For many of the brands involved, who often focus their marketing on their eco credentials, this new position showed them that sustainability isn’t their core selling point, and empowered them to try new messaging, backed by behavioural science and proven to drive more sales.

Micro businesses and small brands often can’t afford, and don’t need, a full-service agency on retainer to manage their social channels throughout the year. But that does mean they often fall into the trap of leading with ideological messaging – great for driving engagement within the echo-chamber, but not high-converting in terms of sales.

Which is why, as part of our pro-bono giveback to #EthicalHour and its members, we offered every brand involved in #ShopEthicalInstead a free marketing review session at the end of the campaign – to talk about how they could use batch production and content-through-process throughout the year to increase their social media output, and identify which behavioural-science backed messages would resonate best with their audience to drive sales.

The RESULTS By Numbers

  • 105 small businesses supported for free
  • 4.7 million people reached in November/December
  • 5,858 brand sales over Black Friday weekend
  • 5,858 trees planted thanks to impact partner Ecologi
  • 18% uptick in sales as a direct result of the campaign
  • 23 free marketing reviews conducted 
  • 33 video interviews conducted
  • 132 video clips produced
  • 1,050 social graphics created
  • 15 gift guides produced
  • 263% click through rate on gift guides in November

#ShopEthicalInstead’s Impact

#EthicalHour asked us to help assess the campaign’s impact against the Sustainable Development Goals:

The 2023 campaign put ethical consumption firmly on the agenda during the most active time for consumer spending. By tracking sales data, we could prove an 18% uptick in sales for brands involved.

Over the Black Friday weekend, the brands received a total of 5,858 sales. Assuming an average order value of £50, that’s £292,900 spent with small, ethical and sustainable businesses. Given the 18% uptick in sales as a direct result of the campaign, that’s £52,722 that would not necessarily have otherwise been spent in this responsible way.

To be selected for inclusion in the campaign, brands had to be committed to living wage supply chains and ethical employment practices. We made Real Living Wage a key message within the campaign’s narrative, which reached 4.7 million people during November and December.

We supported 105 small business owners directly, helping to up-skill them in marketing throughout the campaign, and by delivering 23 free, bespoke marketing reviews, to help their businesses grow.

We partnered with Ecologi to plant a tree for every sale made with participating brands during Black Friday weekend, which resulted in 5,858 trees being planted in Tanzania.

If you would like to see similar results, book a free consultation call.