“Leather needs simply to engage consumers at point of sale and be where consumers pay the bill,” said one commenter on LinkedIn recently.
Every sector of the leather business faces multiple challenges, a bit like a congregation of perfect storms. Two weeks ago, we looked at some of the issues facing the automobile leather business, recognising that I should expect criticism for overlooking some major points.
Instead, the main response, via LinkedIn, demanded the leather industry bypass involvement with the “influencers” and simply engage consumers directly with the truth about leather at the point of sale. When I queried if “simply” was a fair description of getting to the consumer, a reply bounced back with a cut-and-paste dictionary definition of the word “simply”.
While I recognise the suggestion was well-intentioned, and worked in 300BCE for Aristotle, it can only be a small part of the solution today. In fact, the automobile industry helps make the point. Even assuming the purchase is not done remotely, no great point of sale activity can take place if the brand does not offer leather as an option.
Yet, reaching consumers in time to persuade the brand to offer leather involves using influencers like the press, the trade press, designers and a range of good user groups. The swing tag approach is for post-purchase comfort, but dead as a sales tool. McKinsey research on the consumer journey shows that two-thirds of consumers engage with brands after purchase and “this engagement has a meaningful impact on the likelihood of a repeat purchase”.
Porter’s Five Forces
If a brand sets itself against using leather, the supplying tanneries mostly struggle to force a change – check your Porter’s Five Forces tool to show how the power of the tannery has weakened as “better” substitutes became available.
In almost all purchase decisions these days, the linear classical decision-making process is obsolete, holding only for the biggest most complex purchases where even then the customer decision journey is difficult to unentangle. In buying an electric car where issues of range, charging and high initial cost are top of mind, the material on the seats is less of a priority than in the days when the more emotional aspects such as leather smell and doors closing silently clinched the sale.
It is easier for company-leased vehicles where these matters can be worked out centrally, but the first-time purchase of an electric car is a high-involvement purchase for the private individual that they often find confusing.
When looking at consumer behaviour, some of the aspects we need to consider in psychological terms are the motivations, perceptions, learning and the beliefs and attitudes consumers hold. For the leather industry in the 2020s, we need to recognise that we are working with conditioning and observational learning to bring about attitude change among consumers who do not have the understanding of agriculture, nature and the sources of food their parents had.
Many of them have been taught through their early years that there is something wrong with the livestock and leather industries. With no pushback from the leather industry over the past 30 years, some of these negatives are deeply engrained and easily exploited by terminology such as “vegan leather” or “animal-free leather”.
So, finding the right individuals and groups to talk to, and having the right messages is far from simple. I have great admiration for tanners who have worked so hard over recent years to find the words that can help persuade those who still can be persuaded – and market research (another important element that until recently has been totally missing from our toolbox) suggests there is a large number – that leather can be an example of how not to waste resources and make our life better with lasting objects of beauty and high performance.
And we should not forget that the messages must be supported by the reality in the tannery so, for at least the last two decades, most tanneries have been steadily investing to reduce water and energy consumption.
From the EU RESTORM project at the start of the century, through the founding of the Leather Working Group 15 years ago, we have seen a steady investment to improve all environmental and CSR aspects of the industry right up to recent and current work on detailed life cycle analysis.
Where leather has been reinstated, it is not because a tanner was able to chat with consumers – vital although that is from school onwards – but because they were able to meet the demands of (often quite hypocritical) brands to prove their sustainability and traceability credentials along with a bundle of important ESG matters, all supported by proper auditing and analysis.
So I very much support the COP27 statement and the amazing fact that industry groups from all around the world signed it. It updates our arguments and our language. It gives us another document to send off to politicians, journalists and all manner of trade associations and promote elsewhere.
I think it helps our industry as much internally as externally and it reminds some of those regions that want to be part of the future success of leather of the need to enforce labour and environmental rules. The consumers whose positive emotional reactions to leather we crave are soon put off when told about irresponsible processing – this is a long hard all-or-nothing battle for minds and our future.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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