Honey, we forgot the consumer
What happens to marketing when it gets too close to the problem
A couple of years ago an article in the New Yorker described the life work of a statistician called Dr. John Komlos who’d spent the best part of 50 years collecting data on people’s height. He’d been around the world harvesting numbers, often manually, from such diverse databases as the recruitment forms of 17th Century Dutch soldiers to 18th Century newspapers articles that included the height of run-away slaves. What was striking from this article was that, were it not for the efforts of Dr. Komlos and a few other academics within his field, (called anthropometric history), the link between height and a country’s GNP would remain undiscovered. We wouldn’t now understand the direct link between economics and physical well-being or that the Dutch have grown from being some of the smallest people in Europe to the tallest people on earth, ( 6’ 1” in case you’re interested). More worryingly we wouldn’t know Americans are shrinking, which says a lot about our diets and fast food.
But why is this important to Brand Management? Well quite a lot actually. In much the same way that crucial insights into living standards would have remained undiscovered were it not for the efforts of the good doctor, so critical insights relating to consumers, brands and marketing lie undiscovered in the avalanche of data collected by market research companies each year.
It’s not as though we aren’t asking the questions. It’s estimated that more than $6 billion was spent on market research in the last year alone. That’s up by 15% from the year before. There can hardly be six people in Uzbekistan who haven’t been to a focus group and probably few more remaining denizens of Lima, Peru who haven’t yet been asked about their internet banking habits.
The issue is obviously not about asking questions, or even asking the right questions. The question is: what are we doing with all this data? What does it all amount to?
It’s telling us that consumers are growing indifferent to what marketing has to offer. While the marketers search for ever-more cunning ways to reach their customers, consumers find increasingly fiendish ways to avoid them. Brand managers, advertisers and all the other parties charged with getting a brand to market are drowning in a sea of data whilst watching their customers walking away from them in search of something new.
It’s frustrating and not a little embarrassing, yet the answer to this dilemma lies all around us if we only knew where to look. Like Dr. Komlos’ data, there are stunning insights to be had when we find the time to collate it and analyze it in the right way. But rather like those 3-d pictures of dolphins that were all the rage a few years ago, we have to stop focussing so hard in order to see the pattern. We’re standing too close to the problem to see the big picture.
Not seeing the forest for the trees is an occupational hazard for any brand manager who spends every waking hour of every working day thinking about his or her brand, but it’s a problem that we have to consciously have to break out of if we are to get to new insights. This is probably an apocryphal story but it illustrates the point very well. A few years back when Allen Brady & Marsh pitched for the prestigious and lucrative British Rail account they arranged it so that, when the Client came to the agency, they were greeted by a slovenly receptionist who kept them waiting for an inappropriately long time in a dirty, noisy uncomfortable seating area. The time of the scheduled meeting came and went and whenever the Client asked what was happening the receptionist would say ‘they’ll be out in a minute’ before returning to filing her nails. Then, just at the point when the Client was about to storm out in disgust agency Chairman Peter Marsh appeared and said “Now that you know what your customers think about British Rail?” Allen Brady & Marsh won the account by shifting the focus of British Rail away from the operational issues and towards the consumers’ real world experience. And they also didn't kiss the client’s arse, but that’s the subject of a different blog.
It’s a nice story because it demonstrates how customers are so often relegated to the sidelines whenever marketing people get together. In fact it reflects the first and most fundamental law of marketing. With power comes hubris: As management self-regard increases so there’s an equal and opposite distain for customers.
A lack of consumer understanding is apparent across the whole of marketing . The energy has gone out of brands. Like jaded lovers, the thrill has gone. Potential customers feel less involved, more distant and more disenchanted. Yes, the couple might look happy enough in the snapshots taken at the focus groups but those smiles are increasingly forced and no-matter what the advertising is trying to tell them, the fact remains, there’s something missing in this relationship.