Alan Mitchell’s book Right Side Up is a meal for thought. It describes a revolution in progress. It is meant to provoke. It illustrates the new-found democracy of the consumer – the “buyer”. It challenges the paradigm of “seller push”. It cites examples of those who are seizing the high ground of opportunity. Although it makes us uncomfortable, this is not a book of doom and gloom and does offer some rays of hope.
Mitchell’s appetiser is the assertion that marketing has been based on “helping sellers to sell”. This is timely, given the Prudential’s recent decision to consign its sales force to the dustbin of Victorian history – a sales force which, a little over a decade ago, was 10,000 in number. Marketing as we know it, Mitchell asserts, has been “for sellers”. He suggests, that it is time to ditch the insulting term “consumers”, with its connotations of passive consumption.
The main course puts the notion of “buyer centricity” on the table. It’s a new way of thinking about marketing or a way that some companies are already adopting. For example, HomePro.com has developed solutions for time-poor homeowners wanting repairs or renovations by connecting reputable pre-vetted building contractors to “buyers”.
Mitchell rails at the increasing inefficiency of advertising; the waste inherent in a communication process that charges for “eyeballs”, regardless of the interest of the buyers behind them. Another area of waste highlighted is the retail and distribution system, and he gives an example from the US, where it is estimated that 30 per cent of printed books end up being pulped. Dell is a company cited as tackling inefficiency in this area, through its build-to-order system. (Although as a recent buyer from Dell, I wish it could adopt a customer-friendly approach to delivery, rather than the its present strategy, based around the days that suit Dell with no ability to specify delivery time.)
Particularly striking is his list of “skewedness”- the volume of business accounted for by a small group of customers. For example, in the US, nine per cent of airline travellers account for 44 per cent of airlines’ revenues. He promotes the intelligent use of information – buyer information. “By filling the information hole at the heart of the marketing system.a database turns anonymous entities.into identified named customers.”
Mitchell also explores the role that “consumer agents” do and could play, as a more perfect conduit of buyers’ needs. Although he acknowledges that agents, and other groups set up to serve a group of interested buyers, such as mutual organisations, are far from perfect.
He encourages us to recognise the importance and role of human emotions and challenges much of the hollow language adopted by marketers. Nothing illustrates this better than the assumption of customer relationship management (CRM) that a customer wants and seeks a “relationship”. In reality the “relationship” is a mask (of the hypocritical sort) for a “cross-selling” campaign. He suggests that today’s buyers are more critical, in a world of parity products, of the people behind the brand; they are evaluating future purchases against a new set of criteria, one of which is “trust”.
Mitchell throws down the gauntlet to the marketing community and challenges us to question whether our marketing is worth buying. He cites the car industry, where the dealer often amounts to little more than an extension of the manufacturer’s operation, and where new Web ventures are being developed providing new information to the buyer, thus shifting the balance of negotiating power.
Another challenge is aimed at brand management: Mitchell calls for a review of current thinking and believes that brand value needs to be measured by the buyer not the company. Retailers are in the dock, too, particularly over their “seller-centric” approach, which focuses on the need to generate a return from the physical space they occupy.
Finally, for dessert – and the way forward – I like his articulation of a “passion brand” where the “exchange with its audience takes place primarily not at the level of exchanges of money for goods and services, but at the level of meaning: motivations, beliefs and enthusiasms”. He cites Manchester United fans. Another example of the way forward, is Unilever which is exploring the territory beyond just selling products, through a solutions agency, MyHome.co.uk, with a clothes and home-cleaning service.
Ultimately, he is upbeat about the future: he shrewdly observes that a buyer-centric approach is not the end of marketing, but its beginning.
Perhaps we should be evangelising the gospel of Mitchell by e-mailing the publisher of this excellent book – suggesting how much we are prepared to pay for it.
Reviewed by Raoul Pinnell, vice-president of global brands and communications at Shell International
Right Side Up is available from HarperCollins Publishers, at the special price of £16.99 (rrp £19.99) including postage and packaging. Telephone 0870 900 2050 and quote department 832D