John Coll
Mar 12, 2015

You get the consumers you deserve

If you can't truly place yourself in the consumer's context, you can't hope to earn your place in the consumer's mind during purchase opportunities, writes John Coll, senior director, Flamingo.

John Coll
John Coll

As a busy brand marketer it is all too easy to lose sight of the context in which your brand is operating. There is so much to do… budget planning, profit planning, working with the sales guys for a listing presentation with a retailer, checking in with the factory on production issues, being on top of your innovation pipeline, keeping it on track…busy busy busy.

Marketers are likely to respond with something like ‘Context you say? We know all about context."

But for me context is one of those big fat small words, liike ‘insight’: it's loaded with myriad interpretations, none of which are wrong, but all of which will be flawed.

I am not going to offer the perfect solution here, because I actually don’t think that exists. Context, as well as being a big fat small word, is also a dynamic environment, particularly for a consumer goods marketer, and being dynamic means constantly changing. And so, therefore, must we.

Bill Lee in Harvard Business Review of August 9, 2012 was very clear in his view of the future…

Traditional marketing—including advertising, public relations, and branding and corporate communications—is dead. Many people in traditional marketing roles and organizations may not realize they’re operating within a dead paradigm. But they are. The evidence is clear.

His argument in summary is that:

  1. Buyers/consumers are not conforming to the old model, they are out there researching online, speaking with friends, getting other peoples opinions on a possible purchase, in short, doing their homework.
  2. The CEO is losing confidence in the ability of the marketing team to demonstrate the return on investment for all of the marketing dollars they are spending.
  3. Finally, companies are not adapting quickly enough and still rely on a multiplicity of agencies; creative, media, promotion and research to advise them on how to work in this dynamic.

I have a lot of sympathy with this position, but I would like to explore some of these in a different way to that of Bill Lee.

Buyers and consumers have always done some homework before making a commitment to buy, particularly on a high-ticket item. They would talk to friends and family and colleagues. So what we are actually seeing now is not a behavioural change but an information availability change.

The Internet and social media means that there is more information available and much more detailed than was ever the case before. However, just because it is available does not make it all good information. We talk about consumers being overwhelmed by choice. Now they are often overwhelmed by information. So the points of view of family, friends and colleagues are still very important.

Back to context. Marketers too easily fall into the belief that consumers care about their brand as much as they do. The truth is, consumers do not. You may well have helped them. For example, promotion activity has often served to group brands into a repertoire choice, and when a purchase is needed it is whichever brand is on offer that will do. They are all seen as ‘much of a muchness’, even if that one ad did make me laugh out loud.

You have to earn your place in the consumer's mind at every possible purchasing opportunity, not just by producing humourous advertising, but by having a distinct and relevant point of view that makes the consumer want to buy your brand and be prepared to pay a little more for the privilege. Brands disappear and consumers adapt, it is all very Darwinian.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

By the way, do not expect the retailers to be of much help to you. It is they who push for promotions and push for innovation to keep your product story alive and on the shelf, but they rarely bear any of the risk. They are probably making more profit on the private label anyway.

What about the CEO? Well this is not a new challenge either. John Wanamaker, a retail pioneer of the 19th century, is famously quoted as saying, "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."

Now that we can measure more things more accurately it is a growing frustration that marketing has not fallen into step so smoothly. Don’t get me wrong, it is much more metrics-informed than it has ever been. There is a very obvious desire to provide this metric-led assurance to the board. It is just that there is a hugely unpredictable element called the consumer that just will not play by the rules they keep being given. The result is frustration all around.

And the bigger companies are typically the most metric-laden and slowest to adapt to what they see happening around them. They risk being reactive and a follower, which is not a good place to be for many companies. So how do they keep nimble and look ahead and pursue calculated (insofar as they can be) risks?

What about all of those agencies advising you? They didn’t get there by chance. They work hard to understand the brief, the creative challenge, to make a connection to the consumer. But we have all, at some point, come to work and started to act and think ‘corporate’. We have stopped acting and thinking like a ‘consumer’, though we are one of those outside of the office all of the time.

Actually, let's be honest. Some people can never switch their heads on in this way when they are in the office, and for them the word 'context' may as well be a foreign language. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose (The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing).

Keeping in mind the business context of your competitor, the agency relationships, the factory demands and the requirements from the board are all important. But if you lose sight of the consumer context you dramatically increase the risk of all of these decisions and actions being sub-optimal.

So how do you keep that consumer context in mind?

  • Remember you are a consumer too. Suspend yourself in the moment, park your corporate head and ask yourself, would you buy it, use it, find it effective? What does the price ‘feel’ like? What have you done for the consumer to make them feel that way?
  • Listen to the consumer research. What is the point of spending all of that money if you don’t apply the learning? The cultural context is immensely important in understanding how the consumer interacts with, responds to and uses your product, your brand, the environment it is used in and the emotional value it gives back to the user. Be consumer-fed not just consumer-led. It is a huge wealth of knowledge to get you to a better place. You still have to do the work and to deliver for the various stakeholders, including that elusive unpredictable consumer.
  • Invite your CEO, the board, your agencies, and everybody who ‘touches’ the brand to do the same thing. If you all cannot care enough to take some time out to ‘feel’ like a consumer, why should they care about you? It could be the action that lifts you above the repertoire.

John Coll, senior director, Flamingo


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