Marketers are urged to get real

As the world becomes more artificial by the minute, consumers are beginning to rebel and demand the genuine article. However, marketers face their own identity crisis and are having to adopt new techniques to get their message across.

SBHD: As the world becomes more artificial by the minute, consumers are beginning to rebel and demand the genuine article. However, marketers face their own identity crisis and are having to adopt new techniques to get their message across.

Do you ever have trouble buying birthday cards? I do. Once it seemed marvellous to send a friend a Van Gogh or a Rosetti through the post. But nowadays it seems naff. Worse, the idea of trying to convey a message of personal warmth via an artificially manufactured product such as a card appears increasingly a contradiction in terms.

Once, it seemed special to buy cheap reproductions of great works of art to hang on your walls. Now, the shop chain that led that market, Athena, has closed. At one time, it was progress to be able to see a play or listen to music in the comfort of your own home. Today, the more there is to watch on TV, the less there is to watch; the more films and pop records produced, the fewer that seem to strike a chord.

Why this sense of dissatisfaction? In a world that seems increasingly “artificial” there’s a burgeoning consumer search for the genuine, the meaningful, the authentic. It’s a search that could shake modern marketing to its foundations.

Somewhere along the line over the past 40 years or so, man’s relationship with nature – and with his own culture – has flipped into something totally new. Our technologies have made us an elemental force strong enough to rival the elements themselves. The mass reproduction and global dissemination of words, sounds and images has turned the process of creating meanings and cultures upside down.

Once, culture was “what we do around here” – the way we talk, what we eat, the music we enjoy, the art we create, the attitudes we hold, the social relationships we have. For many years, marketing industries’ ability to reproduce aspects of cultures for broader consumption seemed like an exciting adventure, allowing consumers to “discover” new types of music, new foods, new holiday destinations, new artistic imagery, all of which was captivating – for a while.

But then it started to go wrong. Because these new products and lifestyles were consumed and not lived, we are beginning to get bored with them, restlessly passing on to something new. And it’s begun to dawn on consumers that there is something artificial and empty about this supermarket aisle, pick-and-mix approach to the meanings we create for our lives.

At the same time marketers’ natural instinct has begun to fail them. This instinct says “well, if consumers want genuine cultural authenticity then we shall manufacture it for them”. Yet, by definition, mass media and manufacturing – the sea in which modern marketing swims – are incapable of doing so. The more “marketing-led” our cultural industries become, the less their meanings are authentically “farmed” from living local cultures. Marketers could once touch any consumer desire and turn it into commercial gold. Now that genius is becoming marketing’s Midas touch.

There is no going back, of course. Globalisation of media is here to stay. So is the technological and industrial revolution that created it. Just as our food is increasingly made rather than grown, so is our culture. But that doesn’t mean our psyches have come to terms with it. Hence that vain but instinctive search for authenticity.

Marketers are also finding it difficult to catch up. Coping with the consumer identity crisis is complex enough. But facing up to their own identity crisis is far more difficult. After all, their instincts are also sending the wrong signals.

As Dan Wieden from Wieden & Kennedy put it at last year’s D&AD Festival, modern marketing’s instincts were ingrained in a world that was clearly divided into subject and object: where subjects (scientists, marketers) experimented with objects (nature, consumers) to understand them better and to manipulate their behaviour. It’s now moving on. One sign is the rising tide of environmental concern, another the emergence of “anti-marketing” values that prioritise the small, the local, the genuine and the authentic.

It takes many forms. The hottest beers in the US are those brewed by local micro-breweries or, increasingly, imported British brews which carry oodles of authenticity.

As for soft drinks, Snapple made it big on an anti-marketing platform in the US, forcing Coca-Cola to try and copy it with Fruitopia.

Training shoe “upstarts” are meanwhile making a mockery of mega-advertised, mega-hyped, mega-priced brands like Nike. The boom market this year is “retro” sneakers, selling at $50 a throw, whose only marketing is small ads in magazines. Nike’s market share is down 6.3 per cent, while Adidas, which cottoned on to the retro, anti-marketing trend is up 64.5 per cent.

So how does one move beyond the subject/object relationship between marketer and consumer? Last week, at an IPA conference on advertising effectiveness, Canadian management consultant John Dalla Costa suggested marketers should think less about the objectives they want to achieve (that is, manipulating consumer behaviour) and more about “extending respect to consumers”.

“Marketing should not be seen as a tool to induce sales, but as an expression of service,” he said. Instead of “re-engineering” marketing we should be “rehumanising” it.

It’s one of many experiments along the same lines: ads that deliberately play with the advertiser/consumer relationship; cause-related or public-purpose marketing; infomercials; interactivity in media; the honest no-frills sales pitch; a fascination with word of mouth and the “brand advocate”; attempts to involve consumers in brands’ development; relationship and loyalty marketing. These are not just interesting tools or techniques. Their true value lies in their attempt to confront the fundamental changes taking place in the relationship between marketer and consumer.

Don’t expect an easy answer soon. Like our relationship with nature, it’s complex. But at last, thoughtful marketers are beginning to tackle it. Meanwhile, I won’t expect my birthday card problem to go away just yet.

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