Mark Ritson: Your customers may well be stupid, but they’re still yours

Even if we smack our heads in frustration when consumers make stupid choices, there’s nothing worse than a marketer who wastes money ‘educating’ a market. Customers’ perceptions must become your reality.

Mark Ritson

In the history of modern terrorism you would be hard pushed to find a more extreme or tragic conflict than the one fought between Colombian Government forces and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, as it is known in Spanish or, even more commonly, FARC.

For more than four decades this neo-Marxist force has been hidden in and around the base of the Andes mountains conducting a wide array of guerilla attacks on those that oppose them.

During that time, FARC has been accused of killing nearly 250,000 people and displacing millions more. So imagine the relief when, just over a year ago, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos announced that after four long years of intensive negotiations a historic peace accord had been signed.

The deal, which had to be formally ratified via a democratic vote, was signed by President Santos and FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez last week. According to the agreement, all conflict would cease, special courts would be set up to try FARC aggressors for past crimes and 10 seats in the Colombian Congress would be set aside for FARC representatives. The agreement was widely praised by both the US and EU as a significant moment in world history.

And then in the poll designed to ratify the agreement earlier this week, the Colombian people voted it down. Despite decades of murder and most of the regions worst hit by FARC voting heavily in favour of the new accord, the peace deal was rejected by 50.2% to 49.8%. The agreement collapsed, the guerillas disappeared back into the jungle and presumably, right about now, the shooting will start again.

Changing the trajectory

Readers might recognise the achingly close margin, surprising result and the decades-long implications that will ensue from their own experiences in this country earlier in the summer. While it would be churlish to compare the pain of the Colombian people to that of us Brits and Brexit, it’s clear that in both cases a relatively small margin of people has changed the trajectory of history forever.

READ MORE: Consumer confidence rebounds to pre-Brexit levels in September

What makes all of this horrifyingly fascinating from a marketing point of view is that marketers are possibly the only people not surprised by either the FARC or Brexit outcomes. Indeed, among the news reports the next day showing scores of Colombians wandering the streets looking dazed and dismayed I could have sworn I spotted a couple of Bogotá-based brand managers carrying on as if it was business as usual.

You see, what makes marketers special is that we have, from the very outset of our careers, become accustomed to the idea that most people – and I am reaching for a better word as I type these letters – are pretty much morons.

Any decent marketer turning 40 should have conducted at least a dozen major pieces of market research by now. Among the brand preference data and perceptual maps, the other recurring finding that keeps popping out of the data is that the consumers you prize so much are, more often than not, completely wrong in their viewpoints and perceptions.

It was David Ogilvy who first observed, with a huge dollop of sexism, that the customer was not a moron, she was your wife. Let’s certainly fix that gender imbalance by noting that these days the customer is more likely to be your husband, but let’s go further by also disagreeing with Ogilvy about the moron bit too. Quite often, it turns out they really are pretty much stupid.

Whether it be their inability to tell the difference between red or white wine while blindfolded (true 80% of the time when the wines are served at the same temperature), or continuing to believe that a supermarket running special offers is cheaper than one with everyday low pricing (even though baskets are on average 10% less expensive in the latter), we have grown accustomed to a customer that gets it wrong more often than right.

READ MORE: Behaviour versus demographics: Why the term ‘millennial’ is useless

And yet for all that stupidity we, as marketers, must not only acknowledge the mistake but incorporate it into our strategies. I call it the humility of marketing: the realisation that no matter how smart you might think you are as a marketer your main role is charting the stupidity of your customer and accepting that their perception must become your reality – whatever your own supposedly superior viewpoint on the issue.

There is nothing worse than a marketer who wants to spend millions of pounds and hundreds of hours ‘educating’ the market about where they are going wrong. Safer to shrug, cast your eyes to the heavens and remind yourself that the goddess of marketing is patient, understanding and usually smacking herself in the forehead in frustration at the moronity of all she surveys.



There are 2 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Al King 6 Oct 2016

    Please tell me more about this “goddess of marketing” please. Couldn’t find anything on the internet (a girly pink logo?), but am more than happy to bend a knee and get penitent is she can make life a little easier.

  2. Vanessa Horwell 12 Oct 2016

    Thank you for another honest and refreshing piece, Mark. Your analysis serves as a much-needed reminder for those of us in the marketing disciplines to embrace the fundamentals of clear messaging, well-identified goals and achievable strategies that connect – as much as possible – with our customers and consumers. We certainly can’t convert all of them, but we should do our best (and much better) to help them understand. It feels like along the way in achieving that, we’ve lost our way.

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