Long live the consumer

by Tom Albrighton 3 May 2012 Branding, Digital and social

So many things are being pronounced dead these days, the business concept morgue must be working overtime. Recently, we’ve had Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts announcing that both marketing and management have bitten the bag, while a recent Guardian blog by Scott Hendry of Gyro imparts the sad news that the consumer has thrown a seven. (It’s entitled ‘In marketing the consumer is dead, long live people’ and is worth a read, as are the comments.)

Roberts’ pronouncements are insane showboating that he’s probably hoping his clients won’t read. But Hendry’s piece is more interesting because it sets out a position that is fast becoming orthodox in much of the marketing world.

Basically, the argument is that ‘everything has changed’, and that marketers need to abandon traditional approaches and embrace new ones if they want to remain relevant. Hendry takes the word ‘consumer’ as his starting point, observing that ‘the name suggests an inanimate object rather than a person who we are clearly trying to understand and engage with’.

We need to strip away the veneer of the consumer and allow people to be at the centre of our thinking. This will enable us to construct a more interesting relationship where we aren’t simply after that “one night stand”, treating those buying our product as simply a way to get to the next sale. What we need to do is deliver a more meaningful and useful experience to people, one that has a mutual benefit at the heart of the relationship.

All consuming

It’s right that we should think of consumers as people. But at the same time, there’s no need to get tied up in semantics. ‘Consumer’ is just a label that we wear – like ‘father’, ‘gardener’ or ‘gamer’.

'Shopping' by vierdrie

When we consume, we select, buy and use products. That’s all. While I may not define myself exclusively as a consumer, I have to accept that it’s one role I play in my life. And we’re all consumers to some extent.

What’s more, marketers have long understood the importance of connecting with people on a human level, without being patronising, manipulative or cynical. As David Ogilvy said, ‘The consumer is not a moron, she’s your wife’.

Whether we call it ‘selling to consumers’ or ‘constructing a relationship’, we’re basically talking about something the best advertising professionals have always done: reaching and persuading people with insightful strategies, thought-provoking creative and brilliant execution.

Deeper connection

Some marketers today don’t like the word ‘consumer’ precisely because of its narrow focus on one aspect of life. They prefer ‘engagement’, which denotes interacting with people at times when they’re not wearing their consumer hat – most notably, when they’re using social media or entertainment channels. The holy grail of engagement is for brands to form a deeper, more meaningful connection with the people who choose them.

Most marketers position social media as a channel through which this can be achieved, but this kinda confuses cause and effect. What really happened was that marketers saw people connecting like crazy on Facebook and Twitter, and have been trying to get in on the action ever since. As part of the ‘everything has changed’ credo, this is usually positioned as some sort of ‘power shift’ from brands to people, or ‘putting people at the centre’, as Hendry expresses it.

Real benefits

If engagement really was a laser-focused quest to understand people’s needs, it would be a worthy goal. The problem is that it often confuses ends with means, providing little more than desultory entertainment that ‘engages’ only on the most superficial level. While the brand may succeed in extending its reach outside ‘consumption’, the relationships it builds are thin, transient and ephemeral.

Arguably, they’re dishonest and transactional too, because they don’t admit their true motive. At the end of the day, companies initiate relationships with prospects because they want to sell them something they don’t yet know about. If the motivation came purely from the other side – people inexorably seeking out the stuff they need – there would be far less reason for brands to exist. Sometimes, it seems that marketers want to wish this truth away.

Another inconvenient truth is that the customer has always had power – economic power, based on their buying decisions. And the fundamental company/customer transaction of ‘money for benefits’ has not changed because people have the ability to post things on Facebook. Firms create value for people to consume; firms can’t really be people’s friends, and people can’t really create value like firms. Sorry about that.

Eternal truth

Despite his valiant insertion of buzz phrases like ‘empowering people to express themselves’, ‘human relevance at the heart of the conversation’ and ‘long-lasting relationships’, I think Hendry understands this very well (perhaps because he’s a down-to-earth planner, not an airy creative).

The real heart of his article is this:

That’s why it is just as important as ever that we find benefits within products and services that meet a human need.

Amen, brother. This is the oldest, most eternal truth of marketing ­– as Hendry admits by saying ‘just as important as ever’. In some ways at least, nothing has changed.

Marketers love new things, and the ‘humanly relevant solutions’ that Hendry cites are all new or recent. But that simply reflects changing times and tastes. Today’s commodities, like loo roll and sliced bread, were yesterday’s earth-shaking innovations.

When you look at them, Hendry’s chosen examples are some of the most transactional and unengaging commercial projects you could hope to find. One is iTunes – a classic ‘walled garden’ that pushes its users towards Apple’s own music store and will only work with its own music player, the iPod. It may be ‘humanly relevant’, but it’s brutally manipulative in the way it exacts commitment in return for benefits. (And it comes from a company that does almost nothing in social media.)

They create, we consume

Many, many people are happy to let Apple into every area of their lives and pay for the privilege. But they don’t do it because they love the brand, or want to have a relationship with Apple. It’s because Apple’s products offer killer benefits that they just can’t get elsewhere (or, perhaps, that they believe they can’t get elsewhere). In other words, people love consuming what Apple creates.

Personally, I think the ‘consumer’ label is both honest and empowering. It’s honest about the type of relationship brands ultimately want to have, and it’s empowering because it highlights the most important way that people to talk to brands: choosing their products.

Le consumer est mort. Vive le consumer!

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