Marketing that refuses to serve the customer

Designing products with the customer in mind is all very well, but marketers need to learn to accept the customer’s viewpoint all the time. By Alan Mitchell

Speaking at the Marketing Society annual conference last week, Gayle Moberg, a board director of Research International, made the interesting comment that “consumers love their brands, but hate being marketed to”. When asked to expand later, she gave such a simple, obvious response that it seemed to pass by without anyone taking much notice.

Whereas a product fulfils a need, she said, “the marketing aspect doesn’t actually fulfil a need”. Indeed, marketing feels more like an “imposition”; she suggested: something that gets in the way of making your own choices and discoveries.

Later on, Tesco marketing director Tim Mason debated with Sheila McKechnie of the Consumers Association about the pros and cons of marketing. Real marketing is all about satisfying customers, said Mason: truly understanding customer needs and driving the organisation to meet these needs. When that is done, “marketing over-delivers”.

McKechnie replied that marketing is all about “driving sales” and that marketing communications do not supply consumers with useful information. On the contrary, she argued, sectors such as financial services, mobile phones and deregulated utilities deliberately indulge in what she called “confusion marketing”. She concluded that “the customer is not at the heart of the marketing agenda”.

These are pretty familiar dividing lines. But why, decade after decade, do we find the same cliché and arguments surfacing again and again, without any apparent change or progress?

The answer is not that one side is right and the other side wrong. It is because both sides are right. If you go to its core, modern marketing is a Jekyll and Hyde activity, containing both aspects.

When it comes to the product, marketers take the point of view of the customer or

user, because doing so helps them to create a product that will sell. So when it comes to the product – what a company makes – it is marketing’s job to align the company to the needs of consumers; to get the company to do what consumers want it to do.

But when it comes to taking the product to market, marketers undergo a Jekyll and Hyde switch. Suddenly, they start looking at consumers from the point of view of the company. When it comes to taking the product to market – how the company sells what it has made – the job of marketers is to align consumers to the needs of the company, persuading consumers to do what the company wants them to do, changing attitudes and behaviours in favour of the product.

In other words, as Moberg and McKechnie pointed out in their different ways: while products focus on the needs of consumers, marketing, in this go-to-market form, stops focusing on consumer needs and focuses solely on the needs of the company.

There is a very simple explanation for this apparent contradiction. Companies focus on consumer needs and wants when it comes to their products and services because a product that meets people’s needs sells more easily and more effectively. The underlying purpose of customer focus is to sell more goods or services, more profitably.

Likewise, the underlying purpose of marketing communications is to sell more goods and services, more profitably. Except that this time, it is done by presenting information that is useful for the company rather than the consumer; doing things designed to influence consumer attitudes and behaviour in the company’s favour, and so on. In other words, meeting the needs of the company, rather than the consumer.

The Jekyll and Hyde attributes of modern marketing then – absolute consumer understanding and focus and sometimes cynical manipulation – are just two expressions of the same phenomenon: when all is said and done, modern marketing is seller-centric through and through.

That being the case, what conclusions can we draw? Well, one is that successful brands will continue to be loved, and that consumers will continue to hate being marketed at. While brands meet our needs as consumers, marketing (in its go-to-market manifestation) doesn’t address our needs as buyers. When it comes to its own activities, marketing exempts itself from its own ultimate rule: “Look at what you do from the customer’s perspective”.

That is why marketing will forever be “under attack” (the theme of this year’s Marketing Society conference), forever be dismissed as “full of hypocrites” (as it was by McKechnie), forever be hounded by regulators, pressurised by pressure groups and bad-mouthed by a media which finds the words “marketing” and “ploy” as naturally compatible as “bee” and “honey”.

A knock-on conclusion is that marketers will never discover the secrets of marketing effectiveness or accountability. We know that a product will never sell effectively if it fails to meet the needs of the consumer. So why do we try to measure marketing effectiveness and accountability solely from the point of view of the company?

A third conclusion is that there is a huge opportunity for buyer-centric, as opposed to seller-

centric, marketing. Instead of only looking at the product from the point of view of “the consumer”, buyer-centric marketing looks at markets and going to market from the point of view of the buyer.

That involves huge change. It requires different structures: the function, discipline and skills of marketing – matching supply to demand, and connecting buyers to sellers – need to be excised from their current location within selling companies and to become a standalone consumer service. It also requires a different business model, one that approaches companies from the consumer’s vantage point, rather than approaching consumers from the company’s vantage point.

Only when this happens will the endless set-to be commuted into new and higher levels of consumer value. Mark my words, it will happen.

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