Why Jarvis Cocker should be your marketing guide


Common people’. Jarvis Cocker’s sound of 1995, but also insight into a blindspot of many a marketer.


What’s the problem?

We live in a conversation age. Every customer is king. Plus other such platitudes reflecting the shifting power toward individual consumers, driven by the democratising power of the internet.

Yet marketers, keen to continue drilling long-effective techniques have found it difficult to adjust. Early on, the internet was great, as one simply transferred traditional mass media buying patterns, but at lower cost, with a nicely cost-optimised distribution model (who needs those dusty old stores anymore!).

The same assumptions are being made. That consumers act within a handful of pre-defined segments. That they are predictable based on factors such as age, income or gender. That if they are exposed to optimised messaging for their segment, in the optimised media channel, they’ll eventually take the action you wish.

But, confusingly, those segments aren’t as neat as they were. They increasingly base around emotional points of reference. Attitudes, assumptions and identities. Some are still valid, of course — practical, life-stage based-segments, such as new mothers — but others such as ‘adult full-time working men’ are now hugely fragmented.

Why does it matter?

It’s a marketing basic that your approach has to fit your customer. But is it feasible to have a strategy across a volume of segments fragmented as much as your customer base now has?

The deconstruction of traditional tri-partite British class-identity has played a part within this. We no longer share assumptions based on membership of a simple social ladder ranging from working class to upper class.

How does one navigate that fragmentation as a marketer, and equally how does that alter one’s marketing approach, to retain a relevance to your audiences, in this much more complex world?

After all, it is only through relevance that one can benefit from the synergies of a mass media model which the concept of ‘the common man’ first introduced.

On a less empirical basis, I fear that brands are losing the respect for the customer which should sit at the heart of any approach. A focus on numbers, automation and globalisation misses the essence of what drives brand engagement and loyalty. Just because we’ve moved beyond the artisan age, and there are thousands of others with exactly the same product as I have, doesn’t mean I have any less a desire for my purchase to be commoditised and aggregated. To be, well, less unique.

How do we address it?

1. More diversity.

Diversity of everything: gender, age, race, religion, sexuality… Whilst being of any specific social group does not confer understanding or insight of said group, homogeneity of workforce is going to guarantee it’s lacking. Even if it’s solely down to silent and sometimes even unrealised innate bias of approach, let alone analysis.

2. More misfits.

Marketing emphasises people skills. High EQ/emotional intelligence. Empathy. All of which are great. But throughout popular history, it’s been the misfits and the outliers who’ve been most able to understand the common man: from Steinbeck to Orwell, Morrissey to Cocker. Because standing slightly removed from the crowd can often help one analyse and understand the crowd.

3. More emphasis

Efficient marketing promotion and distribution has, since the early twentieth century, been premised on efficiencies. One of the key ones has been efficiency of reach: using fewer channels to reach more customers, thus allowing for greater investment in ‘the message’ (paid or earned). The explosion of social media as the default consumer engagement channel for many segments, challenges that. Increased automation of targeting has allowed greater iterations of paid messages to be delivered, which goes some way to meeting the challenge of understanding the ‘common’ customer, but the reconciliation to a fundamentally altered owned media model has failed to land yet. Automation is not the answer (although it may be a boost) to conversation, even if it is to commercial creative. More time, effort, and (inevitably) budget is.

Why we need to rehabilitate, but adjust, the centrality of the ‘common’ man or woman

In an individualistic and aspirational age, few want to be regarded as ‘common’. For to be part of the mass is to have failed. And we’re all special, right? if we weren’t told it, we tell ourselves, with the aid of inspirational text.

Pride in being a member of the common people, or the ‘working class’ has shifted, and therefore marketers are frightened to approach it.

But the concept retains a relevance to consumers, even as the term has lost a coherence or appeal of identity. It’s simply that we now have a greater diversity of identities, fuelled by a post-babyboom social liberalism, and the proliferation of media allowing us to connect and express our points of identity more broadly.

From that fear and ambiguity around the identity of the common man, comes the erosion of respect for the customer. Because if we cannot know it, we cannot understand it. And what we don’t understand we at best ignore, and at worst marginalise.

Where once ‘the common man’ could have a degree of marketing validity, due to mass media agenda-setting, it must now evolve into multiple more values-based groupings which are common to many, but are no longer singular (if they ever truly were).

Identity remains something formed collectively, and therefore understanding and appreciating points of genuinely held belief, based on these identities (and navigating their tensions and contradictions), remains key to effective marketing respecting, reaching, and engaging, the customer.

No brand should live like the heroine (!) in ‘Common People’ , unable to do more than imitate those they seek to embrace, who Cocker reminded:

You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do what common people do
You’ll never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw
Because there’s nothing else to do.
Sing along with the common people, sing along and it might just get you thru’
Laugh along with the common people
Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you and the stupid things that you do.
Because you think that poor is cool.
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