We must reinvent marketing for empowered consumers

In a changing media climate where consumers are ever more demanding, the key to continued success for brands is to meet their information needs

The question confronting the advertising and marketing services industry is simple: “What the heck do we do now?”

For most good brands – that is, brands that offer their customers genuine value – the current transformation is good news. But there’s a hurdle to clear: to turn threat into opportunity we need to reinvent marketing services.

Here’s the problem. One hundred years of near 100% push media have generated an illusion of control among advertisers. This has led to a misplaced quest for increased control and the institutionalisation of flawed operating assumptions. It’s these illusions and goals that now need to be exorcised.

The advertiser’s illusion has its roots in demonstrable fact: when advertisers advertise a product or service, sales go up. Or – the other side of the coin – if they fail to advertise, sales begin to drift down. Advertisers therefore observe (or hope to observe) a clear link between cause and effect: if we put a message out into the market, consumers act on it.

Thus an underlying theory of advertising has emerged: advertising works by lodging messages in consumers’ heads, which have the effect of changing consumer attitudes, preferences and behaviours in favour of our brand. And this illusion of control has mutated into a quest for ever more control. Enter the debilitating disease of brand narcissism.

Brand narcissism places “brand building” (rather than providing customer value) at the heart of marketing. It addresses two core questions: what are the needs of the brand (awareness, preference, market share etc); and how can we change consumers’ attitudes and behaviours to make sure these needs are met?

This in turn generates a schizophrenic approach to marketing: while marketers assume that it is the job of the product to meet the needs of the customer, they also assume it is the job of marketing communications to meet the needs of the seller. The acid test of marketing effectiveness has always been benefit delivered to the seller in terms of sales and margins.

Bypassing irrelevant information

In a world where push messaging was the only option, these illusions and diseases were perhaps inevitable. But consumers experienced them more as curses than blessings, in the form of irrelevance, irritation, interruption and intrusion. So when opportunities to block, skip or bypass messaging by searching for and accessing the information they really want arose, consumers seized them. So, what is the alternative?

First, the advertiser’s illusion is indeed an illusion. Yes, advertising has many subtle and important effects. Never underestimate the power of fame, for example. In a crowded room, you gravitate towards the familiar because it seems less risky. This was enough to make advertising “effective” for decades.

However, consumers have always operated in “search and filter” mode, looking for information that’s relevant to their lives, acting upon it when they came across it and filtering out and discarding the rest. The test of advertising effectiveness was never the power of the message. It was whether consumers thought it worth picking up and using. It wasn’t about messaging. It was about value.

Advertisers never were in control, and never will be. The success of search, filter and access mechanisms such as Google, set-top-box fast forwarding, and on-demand content simply exposes a reality that has always been there. Consumers have always been filtering and accessing the information they want. Today’s technology is simply providing them with new tools to help them do this more efficiently.

So how to operate in this changed environment? Answer: by aligning brands to consumers’ information needs; and by reinventing brands as information services to consumers. Brands can deliver value on two fronts: via the functionality of their products and services; and via the trusted information, ideas, stimulation, inspiration, advice and expertise that consumers need to solve their problems and reach desired outcomes. Information worth searching for, in other words.

Every nook and cranny of product opportunity has been explored. But the information service opportunity has lain ignored and unexplored for a century, and getting there won’t be easy. First, it means managing the process of transition. Murdoch may be right about the coming shift from push to pull, but right now it’s still in its infancy. Progress will be uneven in degree, pace and timing across different consumer segments, media channels and product categories. And it will only go so far: we’re not about to flip from 100% push to 100% pull. This makes managing the migration complex and difficult – any changes we make need to be implemented in line with the market, not ahead of it.

Helping consumers find what they want

Yet brands need to prepare for a different future and to anticipate and lead this change. Right now that’s mainly a research and development challenge. When it comes to the problems they face, what are the information needs of product and service users and how can we help them solve these problems? What are different customer segments’ preferred methods of accessing, acquiring and using information? How can we use our marketing skills, techniques and budgets to make this information available how, when and where they want it? Only dedicated research will find the answers.

Meanwhile, status quo pillars of market research, advertising, direct marketing and PR need to be reinvented to contribute to, rather than contradict, the new environment. As Simon Williams, strategy and synergy director at Creston, comments: “The traditional marketing paradigm needs to be augmented by pull dynamics rather than push.”

It goes without saying that products must be worth buying. Why else would anyone choose them? But it’s a testimony to the strength of brand narcissism and marketing schizophrenia that it seems odd to suggest that marketing communications should be worth buying too – that they should be judged from the same perspective of consumer value as the products themselves. But of course they should. Because in a pull environment, the marketing communications that are “worth pulling towards me” are the ones that will flourish.

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