Alan Mitchell: Eating away the core of seller-centric marketing

As consumer cynicism and product uniformity grow, marketers must look more at what people want, not at what can be pushed on them, says Alan Mitchell

A worm is turning at the very heart of the marketing communications industry. Currently this worm is so tiny you may not have noticed it. Yet it will turn the industry inside out.

This particular worm turns on a very simple point. We all know that successful companies offer products or services that meet their customers’ needs better than their rivals’ products or services. Otherwise, no one would bother to buy them. But until very recently nobody has bothered to apply the same fundamental insight to marketing communications. Enter the worm.

The worm says that not only should your products be designed to meet your customer’s needs, so should your marketing communications. Otherwise no one will bother to buy them.

Right now, marketing communications isn’t designed to meet consumers’ needs. You name the speciality – advertising, public relations, market research, direct marketing and so on – they all live and breathe the same singular purpose. They’re all designed to help sellers sell. In future, however, their acid test of success will be whether they also help buyers to buy.

Marketing communications hasn’t followed a buyer-centric agenda before, for a simple reason. Marketing was invented for an industrial age when the value companies offered came embedded in their products. What we sold was how we added value for consumers. How we sold it was our business. We just knew we had to sell it if we were to survive and make a profit.

As a result, marketing evolved into a Janus. On the one hand – when it came to products and services – it was utterly obsessed with the needs of the consumer. But when it came to marketing the industry itself, it was equally obsessed with the needs of the producer. New product development is all about getting the company to do what the consumer wants. But marketing communications is all about getting consumers to do what the company wants. So when it comes to their own activities, marketers hardly ever practise what they preach.

That doesn’t mean they don’t add value. Advertising, for example, benefits consumers by stimulating competition. It subsidises the media, providing us with free (or very cheap) editorial content. And it provides information that helps us make choices.

Yet, it’s not designed to do any of these things. They are merely a happy by-product of its fundamental purpose – helping sellers to sell. And, unfortunately, this fundamental purpose also creates disadvantages to consumers.

The content of most marketing communications, for example, is thoroughly self-interested. It’s about getting the consumer to choose a company over its competitor, regardless of which is the best decision for the consumer. This means that as far as consumers are concerned most ad messages are untrustworthy. Former Coca-Cola chief marketing officer Sergio Zyman’s remark that, “even if your product isn’t that different, better or special, it’s the job of the marketer to make people think that it’s different, better and special”, sums it up. Why should I, as a consumer, give the time of day to messages driven by such attitudes and motives?

Advertising is also a narcissistic activity. My brand communications are designed by me, to grab your attention, so that you can see how wonderful I am. This has nothing to do with the information and communication needs of the consumer. It’s defined entirely by the needs of the producer.

What’s more, the more each advertiser shouts “Look at me! Buy me!” the harder it becomes for consumers to sift through the cacophony of messages to find the bits of information that are really useful to them. Indeed, as each advertiser attempts to cut through the clutter to grab its target audience’s attention it only adds to this clutter.

Enter the worm. In an age of information overload, people’s attention becomes rare and precious. The result is power shifts (very slowly, perhaps, but inexorably) from media-owner (advertiser) to attention-owner (the consumer). This means that communication and information exchanges take place increasingly on terms dictated by the consumer.

Marketing as a service to the consumer looks at the whole communication and information process from the viewpoint of the consumer-as-buyer. It is designed to help buyers buy rather than help sellers sell. Such helpful information can take many forms.

Objective and impartial product and price comparisons are one example. In the US, for example, Whirlpool has invested in a website which provides consumers with impartial advice on the pros and cons of competing electrical goods. In Europe, instead of vainly trying to attract consumers to their own individual websites, airlines have formed a consortium to provide consumers with the comparative information they need to make purchasing decisions.

Information which helps me tackle the problem in question is another example. Soap powder companies increasingly provide advice on stain removal. Food manufacturers offer recipes and cooking tips. Mortgage providers provide home-moving checklists and advice. The potential power of this approach is illustrated by the Huggies Mother and Baby Club, which embeds good old-fashioned product promotion in a newsletter that provides mothers with helpful advice about child development and health, plus access to other relevant and useful products and services. With the assistance of this device Kimberly-Clark has come from nowhere to challenge P&G’s mighty Pampers for market leadership.

A third, more specialist approach, is to help consumers cut through the clutter via consumer agent services, which actively seek out relevant offers and information from sellers on behalf of buyers.

What unites these examples is that they each provide consumers with a high return on their attention. And the more common these approaches and services are, the higher consumers’ expectations of all communications and information will rise.

So far, the entire advertising effectiveness debate has been conducted without considering advertising effectiveness from the consumer’s point of view. Yet, in truth, the only effective advertising is win-win advertising: it is advertising that provides a return to both sides. That’s why this worm will continue to turn: who wants to be ineffective?

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