A militant Joe Public chokes up with rage

One of the key problems facing marketers is a relegation of their status.

One of the key problems facing marketers is a relegation of their status. Early last year, the Marketing Society published a “Manifesto for Marketing” highlighting the issue. Either marketers become customer champions, growth drivers and innovators or they will find themselves on the discard pile, it concluded. A similar message can be distilled from the more recent Booz Allen Hamilton/ANA report, which looked at a three-way categorisation of “growth champions”, “senior counsellors” and “brand foremen.” No need to guess which are aspirational and which is the flunky role. And yet, in reality, how much scope does the average marketer have in escaping brand serfdom?

A good place to start might be British Gas. It has much unrivalled awareness, market dominance and a formidable marketing budget – all good reasons why it has been able to attract marketing directors of calibre. It also has an unrivalled talent for attracting headlines – and herein lies the problem, as they are usually the wrong ones.

If you were to ask customers what they most associated with British Gas, it’s possible they would come up with loveable little gas flames or a caring policy towards pensioners on the breadline. But most likely their first reaction would be choked outrage at extortionate gas price rises. No matter that underlying wholesale gas prices (about half the charge to consumers) this year have been 75 per cent higher than the average for 2005, which itself saw prices soar by 44 per cent. Or that British gas exploration in the North Sea is falling much faster than expected. It is the sense that British Gas and its owner Centrica are profiteering from misery by leading the price charge that is likely to be uppermost in people’s minds.

Centrica may comfort itself that gas consumers have little option but to grin and bear it as the rest of the market will soon be forced to follow suit with steep price rise. But it would be unwise to push its luck too far. There is evidence that consumers are becoming more militant. A recent report from the National Consumer Council identified what it called mounting “consumer rage” directed at companies which, through greed or incompetence, attempt to extract short-term profit at the expense of the long-term customer relationship. Among the pet hates were hard-sell marketing, robotic call centres and poor after-sales service. Financial services, telecoms – and utilities – were the worst offenders.

This picture of seething consumer discontent fits ill with marketers’ professed concern for “the customer experience”- ahead of brand building. Is it no more than fashionable rhetoric? Not altogether. Part of the problem lies in marketers’ current obsession with metrics. The language of metrics may play very well in the boardroom and finance department, but it’s not such a winner on the street. Loyalty guru Fred Reichheld has pointed out that every customer transaction has two aspects: what he calls a “substance” (for example, money changing hands) and a “shadow” (impact on the customer’s future behaviour). The first is easily measurable in sales; the second is certainly not. Yet, given it amounts to goodwill (or otherwise) who is to say it is not the more important of the two?

Which suggests that, if marketers do wish to become growth champions and senior counsellors, they need to change their mindset, fast.

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