Alan Mitchell: Have marketers missed the point of marketing

According to a recent survey, consumers are distrustful of marketing. Is this because marketers have lost touch with the consumer? asks Alan Mitchell

It’s our job as marketers to build trust, forge close relationships with customers, communicate effectively and facilitate choice. So what do the following results from the joint Marketing Forum/Consumers’ Association research unveiled at last week’s Marketing Forum tell us?

When asked whether they agree or disagree with various statements, 83 per cent of consumers agreed that: “As a consumer, companies just see me as someone with money to spend”. Nearly a quarter (23 per cent) agreed strongly – so much for building close relationships.

Over three-quarters (76 per cent) agreed that “Many companies see their brands as a way of pushing up prices” – so much for brands as guarantors of good value.

Some 78 per cent agreed (19 per cent strongly) with the statement: “Companies like to pretend that their brands are really different, but actually there’s rarely any substantial difference between them.”

And 75 per cent of consumers agreed that: “These days there are so many products and services available that it’s often hard to choose which is best for me” (15 per cent of them strongly). Also, 70 per cent agreed that: “I don’t trust most advertising of products or services because they’re just trying to sell me something” (22 per cent of them strongly) – so much for branding as a means of facilitating choice and building trust.

The research isn’t all bad news for companies. 60 per cent agree (eight per cent strongly) that “I know I can trust wel

l-known brands to deliver their promises,” and 62 per cent agree (eight per cent strongly) that “Brands make choosing the right product for me quicker and easier”. In addition, despite their scepticism about advertising messages, 55 per cent agree that: “Advertising helps me find the products I want” (though at the same time, 41 per cent positively disagreed).

But considering the enormous sums of money, talent and effort that companies invest in marketing, these results are appalling. The net effect of marketers’ combined best efforts to build trust, get close and communicate effectively is that consumers are ambivalent at best and downright disgruntled at worst.

The question is why? There are three possible causes. First, marketing has become much too seller-centric. It’s done by sellers, for sellers, to achieve sellers’ objectives. It focuses so hard on the go-to-market needs of sellers that it almost completely ignores the go-to-market needs of its customers: the buyers. As marketers, we insist that companies look at their products and services from the point of view of the customers: does it add enough value to the customer to be worth buying? But if we don’t apply the same test of value to our own marketing activities, how can they add value to consumers as buyers?

Consumers sense that they’re just targets with money to spend and that companies see brands as a way of pushing up prices.

Second, traditional marketing is beginning to suffer an ailment of old age: diminishing returns. Take increasing product parity. Back in their early days, brands were invented to efficiently communicate the unique benefits that made products different. But as product parity has set in, this original purpose of branding – which provided a clear benefit for consumers – has been turned on its head. Branding has evolved into a means of hiding underlying sameness rather than a device to communicate uniqueness. No wonder consumers feel that companies like to pretend that their brands are different.

A third contributing factor is that marketing has fallen victim of negative system effects – when the sum of many individually rational decisions adds up to collective irrationality. It’s perfectly rational for each individual company to want to communicate with prospective customers. But the net effect of thousands of such individually rational decisions is to bombard consumers with message overload – clutter.

The same is true of product proliferation. It’s entirely sensible for one company to bring a “new, improved” product to the market, with this added gizmo or that extra feature. But when thousands of companies all do the same thing, they end up turning choice – supposedly the greatest consumer benefit of all – into a chore.

Seller-centricity, diminishing returns, negative system effects. These hallmarks of the modern marketing scene explain a lot. First, they are the source of today’s crisis in marketing effectiveness. However hard you try, if you are swimming against a tide of scepticism and cynicism, you’re going to find it difficult.

Second, they demonstrate why this crisis cannot be explained in terms of individual company’s failure to apply up-to-date marketing skills, tools and techniques. Precisely the opposite. The crisis is actually created by the way we do marketing. More and better marketing as we know it is not the solution. It’s the problem.

Third, because this problem isn’t created by any individual company’s marketing actions, it cannot be addressed by any individual company attempting to improve its marketing prowess. Because it’s created by the collective effects of marketing on consumers – by how the system works as a whole – it can only be resolved by changing the way this system works.

How? Here’s one suggestion. Marketing today has its roots in an industrial age when marketing as an organised, professional process was a 100 per cent seller monopoly. It was top down; all about sellers sending messages to buyers. Considering the fact that marketing is supposed to be driven by information coming from consumers – understanding consumers, getting close to them – this is a peculiarly inefficient, roundabout and uninvolving way of doing things.

Today, however, we have the means to encourage, enable and organise consumers to reverse the flow of information at the heart of marketing; to help consumers say: “Here I am! This is what I want!” Doing this would have the double effect of building consumersí confidence in the marketing process – by letting them take charge – and of short-circuiting many a costly marketing activity. Who needs targeting when someone is saying: “Here I am, please talk to me”

However, it also demands that corporations cede their monopoly control over marketing, to give consumers even more power. The challenge of marketing effectiveness is beginning to run deeper than most of us ever suspected.

Alan Mitchell, asmitchell@aol.com

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