Consumers are not dependent on us. We, marketers are dependent on them.
Brands have moved off the side-lines to become active participants – infusing the consumer perspective into their approach to leadership, strategy development, and tactics to gain a competitive advantage. Today, marketers have an abundance of ready-made solutions at their fingertips. Instead of doing the legwork that real marketing involves, brands are turning towards their consumers for solutions. And the sad part is: people and brands are buying into this.
Myth #1: Putting innovation in the hands of consumers
Many brands are jumping on the bandwagon and have begun to put the consumer at the heart of their innovation strategy. Whilst this kind of approach can produce great opportunities, brands need to be cautious when employing this strategy as the value of a consumer-centred innovation may not be as high as it first appears, and may not deliver the kind of innovation and competitive advantage that is being sought. Worse, consumer involvement in the product and service development process may produce potentially less innovative products and consequently make it difficult for a brand to harness its full innovation capability.
Innovation is about doing what no consumer expects the brand to do. To gain a competitive edge, a brand must be able to avoid the “sameness trap.” When brands rely on consumer input, it is inevitable that consumers will tell you to do what others are doing because people are by and large following each other, which is why most advertising looks identical.
Such involvement of the masses is merely a type of seeming democratic participation condemning everything to become homogenised. The consumers least likely to help a brand move on to the next innovation are often the biggest consumers a brand has. Ask consumers what they want and it is likely to be the usual thing – better, faster, but mostly cheaper. Ask them again and what they want from your brand is probably exactly the same thing they tell the competitors too. So, across categories and competitor set, there is likely to be more commonality than what sets your brand apart.
In a creative process, the truly creative brands and people give you the shock and awe. Dave Trott puts it best – “Creativity is out-thinking the competitor, not copying the competitor’s style”. It is about looking for the unspoken needs, not just what existing consumers are already asking for, or what existing competitors are doing. The main issue with consumer-centred innovation is that people are unable to articulate their needs if limited by their prior experience. When confronted with an innovation they are unfamiliar with, consumers often struggle to understand what need the innovation satisfies and are therefore unable to imagine using it. Many will also have difficulty identifying a new product or service opportunity, as consumers simply have too few reference points. As Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Myth #2: Listening to consumers
Brands are increasingly turning to everyday folk on social media and other online channels – everywhere we look, consumers are being invited to participate with brands. Brands are giving consumers the power to drive creativity forward – whether to shape an outcome of a campaign, to customise a product/service, or to facilitate feedback to enhance a particular brand experience. These practices are so rampant that we have created new-age marketing jargon specially for what we do: UGC, co-creation, curation, crowd source, crowd fund, hacks, etc. And the list is growing.
I challenge any brand that claims to be consumer-centric to admit it does not struggle with how much it listens to its consumers. Consumers naturally gravitate towards brands that are consumer-centric because self-interest drives every individual. But each consumer has a different set of needs and satisfying these needs would consume tremendous resources. In his book, Customer Centricity, Wharton Professor of Marketing Peter Fader makes the consumer-centric distinction bluntly, disavowing any notion of (marketing) political correctness: “. . . not all (customers) are created equal. Not all customers deserve your company’s best efforts. And despite what that tired old adage says, the customer is most definitely not always right. Because in the world of consumer centricity, there are good customers …and then there is everybody else.”
Sure, consumers can offer valuable insights for a brand, but the reality is, no brand can truly satisfy various and differing needs. Brands still need to keep an eye on the ball and focus on what they do well. It is important for brands to ensure resources and attention do not get diluted, that they do not end up with a ‘gray’ product or service because too many elements had been incorporated, losing its appeal.
Myth #3: Empowering consumers
With the rise of co-creation as a more and more mainstream proposition, consumers are better positioned than ever before to design, customise, influence the products and services they buy. Consumers are demanding greater levels of personalisation in their consumption experience and brands are involving the customer in the creation of meaning and value. With such good intentions, the benefits of this collaboration should cut both ways – consumers benefit from greater personalisation and brands capitalise on consumer appetite to gain market advantage.
However, co-created value also produces new challenges because it changes consumer expectations. Marketers assume that the more choices they offer, the more likely consumers will be able to find just the right thing but choice just seduces the modern consumer at every turn. As options multiply, there may be a point at which the effort required to obtain enough information to be able to distinguish sensibly between alternatives outweighs the benefit to the consumer of the extra choice.
Personalisation and customisation are merely add-on services to build relevance but it should not be the defining overall experience. And that’s where many marketers fail because they become too fixated to personalise, for personalisation sake. It is always important to remember why consumers come to the brand in the first place, and stay true to that brand proposition promise. The future of brands big and small is only as good as the continuation of a relevant and compelling proposition, and an honest and open dialogue with their consumers.
Keeping it simple.
As I wrap up this blog post, I know brands out there are ramping up their messaging, finding new ways to lure consumer particpation and involvement in order to connect and engage increasingly distracted and disloyal consumers. But let’s not over-complicate – the key to any brand’s success is simplicity and helping consumers confidently complete the purchase journey will already be a profound change. Trust is built when brands offer consumers authenticity, unwavering quality and an element of predictability. When a brand has a strong foundation of consumer trust, is it with this relationship that will help deliver sustainable business growth.