A skin-deep caring image is the new formula for good marketing

George Pitcher is chief executive of issue management consultancy Luther Pendragon

Pictures of friendly service engineers in press advertising accompanied by copylines that enjoin us to believe that the company puts its customers first and foremost in all its considerations should, by now, be enough to make us start counting the spoons and putting the wallet in a pocket with a zip.

“You, the customers, are the only people who matter to us” is a concept that doesn’t bear up to the crudest examination. If the company has publicly-quoted shares, its shareholders will matter more than its customers, because without them there would be no company. Unless the company is completely unenlightened, its staff are likely to be at least as important as its customers – again, no staff or bad staff means no customers. Then there are the company’s directors, who make up or approve this customer guff – are we really to believe that customers are more important to them than their families or the remuneration that supports them?

Of course not. But the market has grown used to these platitudes. We know that the listening bank doesn’t, but after the scores of stories that fly in the face of the advertiser’s claims, we are past caring.

The trouble is that “caring” is currently a significant sociological trend. It is difficult to know whether events of this decade, such as a landslide New Labour victory and the phenomenal public response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, are a cause or a symptom of this new fashion for caring. But it must be beyond doubt that it is now cool to care, just as in the Eighties it was cool to consume.

Companies have an opportunity here and it really isn’t a very complex one. They have, in any event, to satisfy the processes of marketing by establishing what the market wants and whether they can deliver it. If this can be wrapped up as an added value of customer care, then so much the better.

Two swallows may not make a summer, but, in the food or drinks industries at any rate, they make you a trend. It’s with this precedent in mind that I cite two examples of companies – one in telecommunications and the other in the motor industry – that appear to be developing the customer-care theme in a practical, Nineties manner, rather than the cosmetic and downright deceitful way that is traditional.

On Monday, Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC), the conglomeration of Mercury Communications and three cable providers, launched an alleged 50m campaign under the catchy line: “Wouldn’t it be great if telecommunications companies actually wanted to know what customers really want from them?” Well, yes – give that man a degree in marketing.

But the theme is actually less trite than it sounds when one takes into account the state of the British cable industry – in this light, CWC’s question begins to sound positively sarcastic. One of the cable companies absorbed in the new conglomerate is Videotron, London’s largest cable provider.

Whatever Videotron’s technical expertise, its marketing sucked. What can you say about a cable company that doesn’t put its service phone number on its bills and doesn’t lay on enough phone lines to cope with demand for Sky Sports when there’s a big football match on? And I know that this experience of the cable industry is not untypical.

Telecommunications must be an industry that is aching for interactivity and it’s a disgrace if it doesn’t provide it. CWC’s survey of an initial 1.5 million homes, asking “What can we do for you?” is a step in the right direction. The clever bit is that I imagine that the CWC conglomerate is centralising services, while making service appear more personal at a local level. There is some rubbish in the questionnaire, such as whether you would break up an affair with someone over the phone (no, but I certainly would want to break up with my cable provider over the phone), yet with donations to Barnardo’s for every completed form, CWC is playing both the customer and the care cards strongly.

The motor industry case is probably an exemplar of the entire customer-care genre. Daewoo last week launched three new models with names as instantly forgettable as the overall marque is unpronounceable, and repeated its potent gimmick of free test-drives for a year. The growth of Daewoo in the UK owes much to its philosophy of scrubbing round the discredited dealership system of car retailing and providing an after-sales service that delivers things rather than vague promises.

Since it started 30 years ago with seed capital of $10,000, Daewoo has grown to have a worldwide turnover of $88bn (55bn), making it the fastest-growing international corporation and Korea’s fourth-largest company. It took a year to achieve a one per cent market share in the UK after its 1995 launch (Mazda took 24 years to get to 1.2 per cent). So it must be getting something right.

My guess is that, by luck or judgment, Daewoo has hit the UK market with a customer-care philosophy that suits the moment and has pushed many more Anglo-Saxon operations in the same direction, CWC included.

That philosophy is really one of back to basics – establish what customers want and give it to them. It has added benefits. It means you establish communication with your customers. And it means a good deal of free publicity – like this.

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