Alan Mitchell: Would Sir care for a little snake oil as well?

According to a new report, marketers have forgotten how to flatter, charm and bully consumers into happily parting with their cash. By Alan Mitchell

I was in Cairo for a conference when, as I strolled down a little side street, a perfume-seller lured me into his lair. First came the tea, ostentatiously poured and presented. Then came the yarns. About the exquisite quality of his perfumes. Their provenance. Stories about how the Pharaohs used them, and so on. “Sniff this! Try that! Would you like more tea?” The show was so good that even for an uptight, curmudgeonly Brit like me, the question was not whether, but how much I was going to spend.

Showmanship. Chutzpah. Flim flam, flirt and fun. Back home in the West, marketing has become so rational and so obsessed with pandering to the customer that it’s forgotten how to engage people – and how to persuade them to part with their money. So argues Stephen Brown, professor of market research at the University of Ulster, in a recent Harvard Business Review article. Traditional “find out what your customer wants and give it to him” marketing has gone too far, he suggests. And it’s not the universal verity – applicable anytime, anyplace, anywhere – that it pretends to be.

In fact, our slavish attempts to do customers’ bidding have created a “neutered, defanged, Disneyfied version” of marketing that’s both boring and ineffective, declares Brown. “Giving people what they want, whenever they want it, isn’t always the smartest strategy,” he says.

That’s partly because consumers never really know what they want; they don’t even know what they don’t want – they’ve been known to reject such blockbusters as the Sony Walkman in research. It’s also because contemporary consumers are embarrassed by marketers who “get down on one knee and promise to love, honour and obey”. Brown notes that the last place consumers are going to look for the truth is in a marketing campaign.

Instead, he suggests, we should return to the time-honoured ways of our Cairo salesman – the blatant huckster. Forget about kowtowing to consumers. “They’d much rather be teased, tantalised, and tormented by deliciously insatiable desire,” he says.

Brown suggests five main ways of doing so. First, by fostering a “now-or-never” mindset among consumers, by delayed gratification (look at the build-up to the Harry Potter film), by creating shortages, which give to-die-for status to merely desirable items (PlayStation 2) and via “buy now while stocks last” promotions. Second, play information games by inventing “secrets”, which flatter those in the know and intrigue the rest – just look at all the “secret” formulae (Coca-Cola), or how Harry Potter marketers withheld details of the latest book. “A tour de force of customer torment,” enthuses Brown.

Third, generate hype, because “in a world of incessant commercial chatter, amplification is vitally necessary”. The idea is not only to be talked about, but to get people talking about the fact that you are being talked about. Yet again, Harry Potter is a good example. Another way to build hype is to cause affront, Benetton-style. Or to undertake stunts like putting Pizza Hut logos on Russian rockets.

Fourth, make your marketing fun, amusing, entertaining. Marketing “has forgotten how to flirt” complains Brown. Play tricks and games, Tango style. Be a prankster and proud of it.

Brown is obviously right, to a degree. Showmanship is fun, and it works. The question, however, is who exactly could use more of this “retromarketing”? How much? In what circumstances? Tellingly, most of Brown’s examples relate to one consumer segment – youth – and to quite specialised categories: transient and fashion-related offers. It’s a minority strategy, in other words. The trouble is that truly customer-centric strategies are a rare breed. As Brown points out, most fall at the first hurdle set by today’s cynical and sophisticated “I know that you know” marketing environment.

“Consumers are wise to the wiles of marketers. It seems to me, therefore, that consumers treat marketers’ customer-centric claims with considerable scepticism. No matter how much marketers claim to really, really love their customers – to have the customer’s best interests at heart, etc. – people will always treat it with a pinch of salt. And rightly so. Marketers aren’t philanthropists, nor should they be. They’re out to sell stuff. Consumers know that. So the key question is how do you persuade/cajole/encourage/seduce the sceptics to part with their hard-earned cash? Is it by telling them that you really care for them – honest! – or is it by taking their scepticism into account?” he says.

One way of addressing this problem is go the whole hog with customer-centricity, by migrating towards a “consumer agent” role. But that’s a big leap. It’s more than a new marketing strategy. It’s a new type of business model that needs a new type of brand. And only a few companies are in a position to remodel themselves convincingly and credibly.

Another is to be innovation-led, not customer-led: putting imagination and creativity – not the consumer – at the heart of the company. Another route is to follow Brown’s advice, and to become “a good-old-fashioned lovable rogue” because, as he puts it, “consumers appreciate the true transparency of the blatant huckster”. The downside of this, as Brown admits, is that it also sets consumers and marketers at loggerheads: “Consumers want to dislike marketers, they like to dislike marketers, they need someone to hate.”

And that leaves most companies in the middle, stuck with mundane “here we are, this is what we have to offer” marketing, tarted up with a little “dangerous” cheek or a damp squib surprise and a smidgeon of customer-centric rhetoric (which doesn’t wash). None of this is very convincing, nor is it very efficient.

So which way forward? The answer, of course, is that it depends. Companies can try to build many different sorts of relationships with their customers, from remote arm’s-length transactions through innovation-based leadership, to information-sharing and agency-style relationships and post-modern hucksterism. Whichever, how companies go to market and the nature of these relationships is becoming as important a source of differentiation as the product or service itself. And halfway houses won’t work.

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