Why I Stopped Using the Word “Consumer”

This will probably be the only time, outside of quoting research, that you will see me use the word “consumer.” I hate the word. There are few words I hate more. I won’t get angry if you use it, but if we’re friends, I’ll help you eliminate it from your vocabulary, hopefully without resorting to electric shocks. There’s a couple reasons that I hate it badly enough to feign threatening bodily harm to you if you abuse it.

Consumer is an unclear, BS, filler word for the people (yes, people) you hope buy whatever it is you’re selling. How is this? We only need go as far as the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry for “Consumer” to find out.

A consumer is a person or group of people, such as a household, who are the final users of products or services.

This entry is correct in practice, even if the dictionary isn’t so vague. Consumer is an easy way to avoid characterizing customers, segmenting them, or even seeking to understand them. When you say “the average consumer believes…” you are lying. You are lumping real people into a fake bucket and avoiding the actual problem of knowing who you are selling to and why.

The second sentence of the Wikipedia entry gets to the next thing that gets under my skin: The very idea of a “consumer” rails against the two-way communication marketing pretends to want.

The consumer’s use is final in the sense that the product is usually not improved by the use.

I get it. Technically, this isn’t wrong in many cases, you say. An apple is not improved by being eaten. Au contraire, my friend. Even in the hypothetical example I ascribed to your internal objection, an apple IS improved by being eaten. It is enjoyed, it fills a need, it is transformed from a fruit into harnessable and usable energy inside the human body. If that’s not improving it, I don’t know what is. But let’s look at this more broadly. A toy is improved by the child who uses it by assigning memories to it that outlast the toy itself. A computer is improved when it is used to write the next Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Paint is improved when it is turned into art, whether the art ever becomes a product or not. Examples go on.

Our modern marketing system attempts to create two-way stories around our products that connect the product to its use and the way it improves the life of those who use it. Calling the users of our products consumers cheapens them and disrespects them. Stop calling customers or potential customers “consumers” and stop discussing large groups of people in generalizations that are supported by words like this. Start, instead, talking about the different customers you have, the types of things they do with and like about your product or service. Stop giving fake names to the people you want to sell to and find out the real names of the people you already sell to.

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