Consumer segmentation: Research from the Henley Centre and Marks and Spencer

Many companies selling to UK families have a strong sense that consumer demands are shifting rapidly. M&S recently talked to Carbon Commentary about its perceptions of changes in attitudes and behaviour. This article compares its results with those of a survey by the Henley Centre in summer 2007. During the last year or so, the percentage of 'green zealots' in M&S research has risen from 3-4% to nearer 8%. Henley also sees a figure of 8% for the two greenest groups 'principled pioneers' and 'vocal activists'. A further 31% (Henley Centre) or 30-35% (M&S) are actively concerned and want to adjust their behaviour. There has also been a big growth in this group in the last year.

In both surveys another third are aware of environmental and ethical issues, but are unlikely to take active steps unless pushed. A final quarter or so don't care very much. M&S says that they are 'struggling'. Henley calls them 'disengaged'.


Consumers do not generally see climate change as the most important environmental and ethical issue

M&S's strikingly ambitious Plan A has five sets of targets. Only one of these relates to climate change. M&S emphasises the hierarchy of consumer concerns that drove it towards the wide spectrum of targets in the 100-point Plan.

  1. Food and Health: consumers want food to be made from high quality ingredients, with no additives and minimum amounts of salts, saturated fats and other undesirable ingredients.
  2. Ethical sourcing: M&S customers generally want to buy goods that are made and sold under what might be called 'FairTrade' conditions. Suppliers are paid properly, workers are not exploited and environmental damage is minimised.
  3. Better recycling, less packaging
  4. Climate change

M&S commented that Food and Health was 'way out on its own' as an issue, but other concerns have been creeping up to match it. Respondents to its surveys are now much better informed about environmental issues but 'there's still an awful lot of confusion'.

M&S customer segmentation work throws up 4 groups:

  • A: Green zealots: people who will actively seek out the most ethically and environmentally responsible products. Climate change is particularly important issue to these people.
  • B: Those interested and concerned, but often uncertain how to shop to achieve their ethical objectives.
  • C: Aware of the problem, not certain that their actions can have much effect or that they need to shop differently.
  • D: Struggling, do not give high priority to issues covered in Plan A.

The company gives some approximate figures for the numbers in each group compared to the numbers of three years ago.

Marks and Spencer consumer segmentation

Group Now 3 years ago
A 5-10% 3-4%
B 30-35% about 15%
C 30-35% about 50-60%
D 25-30% 25-30%

The key change in the last few years has been the move from group C to group B. The A family has grown substantially but still remains a small percentage. The strugglers have largely remained in the same group. To put it in simple terms, the mainstream M&S customer has shifted from a C to a B. This makes Plan A seem entirely logical, though I think the company may actually be moving somewhat faster than its customers. Plan A almost seems to suggest that M&S thinks that its core shoppers are just about to shift to Group A.

M&S's numbers have great similarity to those produced by the Henley Centre in mid-summer.

Henley Centre consumer segmentation

Group Percentage Closest M&S group M&S percentage
Principled Pioneers 4% A 8%
Vocal Activists 4% A
Positive Choosers 31% B 30-35%
Conveniently Conscious 35% C 30-35%
Disengaged Onlookers 26% D 25-30%

Henley makes the point that consumers in group A will already be choosing their goods and services with care. Group B will tend to make the same purchase decisions, though they may be less vocal about their preferences. Group C will not take active measures themselves, but Henley says that they will not object if companies selling to them 'edit out' products that do not meet reasonable ethical or environmental standards. This is consistent with M&S's view that its customers wanted the chain to take positive actions to improve the environmental attributes of the products its stores sold, even at a small increment in the price.

Perhaps the two main features of these research findings are:

  • Trusted brands do have some freedom to take less environmentally acceptable goods and services off the shelf. Three quarters of the population accept that issues such as climate change should affect what is selected by retailers for sale.
  • The zealots are growing in number, but don't yet form a mass market for most products and services. Products like British Gas's Zero Carbon tariff (covered in Carbon Commentary Newsletter #1) will be taken up by this group, but will struggle to penetrate beyond this demographic.

Separately, Henley comments that the most concerned consumers do not strongly congregate in a particular age group, social class or region of the country. This finding is entirely consistent with other surveys. Boden mums in Surrey may not be any more likely to search out ethical brands than middle-aged male teachers in Gateshead. This makes ethical marketing more difficult because target audiences do not correspond well to well-understood existing demographic segments. It will be interesting to research what TV the zealots watch and which web sites attract their regular attention. My guess is that these consumers are disportionately members of ethical pressure groups such as WWF and Greenpeace. The Friends of the Earth mailing list is going to get more valuable.