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Thinking Around Corners: ‘Consumer’ is a Dirty Word

November 28, 2018

Never in twenty years of abstinence have I been graced with the company of others who also refrain from using the ‘C word’.

No, not that ‘C word’. I talk of a different profanity — the word ‘consumer’. Throughout my career I’ve made the case, often met with empty stares, for a total, unequivocal, incontrovertible ban on ‘the consumer’.

Imagine my joy, then to talk alongside like-minded peers at our APG event series, Thinking Around Corners, answering the question: ‘Is Consumer a dirty word?’

Short answer, yes. Long answer? Keep reading.

The thing with the word ‘consumer’ is that consumers don’t actually exist. Most of us grudgingly acknowledge that we are one, but don’t feel it defines us, nor like to be defined as one. “How many of you are consumers?” I asked a room of planners. A few raised hands, but it was hardly Spartacus.

The word misleads us, it obscures the most interesting stuff – our humanity. And yet this is where most marketing comms starts. From a point where people aren’t people, but avatars who’s only purpose is to consume your brand.

We are all humans. Brands should use that as the starting point in any exploration of their audience, in any communication: people. You are talking to people — not stereotypes nor numbers on a screen — but living, breathing bags of bones with values and beliefs, hopes and dreams. We are much better at talking to and understanding one another when we treat each other like people. So apart from the fact that they don’t exist, what else is wrong with ‘the consumer? Well it serves to ensure that marketers and communicators see the people they are selling to as ‘the other’. Which is dangerous.

Many of you will be aware of the Stanford Prison Experiments. To recap, 24 men were randomly assigned as hypothetical inmates or guards in a mock prison. Within no time, the guards stopped seeing the prisoners as peers, taunting and beating them. All because of being labelled one thing or another. Labels dehumanise us. Studies show that they turn off the areas of the brain associated with empathy. Millennia of evolution ensure we distrust those different to us. And distrust, it’s fair to say, is not a good place to start communications. Empathy is much better.

Speaking before me at the APG event was Andrew Tenzer, Head of Group Insight at Reach, formerly Trinity Mirror. He talked not of distrust and lack of empathy, but of a media and advertising bubble that achieves much the same ends.

Tenzer talked of British society being split into distinct tribes: the ‘anywheres,’ and the ‘somewheres’. The former, a small ruling elite with a global agenda. The latter, more rooted to tradition and their local vicinity. Make no mistake, if you’re reading this, you are almost definitely the former.

The people who design communications have almost nothing in common with the people to whom they are communicating. The ‘somewheres’ are the ‘other’. Wider society — the real world — is spoken about as an alien concept, something to be defeated or tricked into purchase. “We don’t know what makes people not like us tick,” said Tenzer.

When you think of someone as a consumer you trust them less. Tenzer talked of ‘provincial bashing.’ Of execs asking ‘how to dumb down advertising for people outside of London?’ I would argue this is a direct result of using the C word. Life outside our bubble is full of people we don’t understand, so we box them up as consumers. But said Tenzer: “the 50m people out there aren’t weird — it’s us that are weird”

We weirdos should step outside of London once in a while. There’s a whole world out there, full of the people we are looking to engage. Not consumers. A consumer is totally typecast, focusing on tiny, insignificant tenets of personality. A ‘margarine consumer’, for example. Who identifies as that? Do you define yourself by the relationship you have with your margarine? Of course you fucking don’t.

Andrew presenting to the crowd at APG McCann Health offices

Just before I took to the stage, we heard from Vicki Holgate, Head of Strategy at FCB Inferno. FCB has just released the third iteration of its excellent This Girl Can campaign for Sport England.  The first campaign was rightly lauded as a seminal, realistic representation of women exercising. Holgate disagrees – posing a caveat: not all women.

The last campaigns focused on women, she said. But FCB “left a few people behind in the first two phases,” especially lower socioeconomic groups. “We picked low hanging fruit,” added Holgate. The campaigns, she now says, were good for some women, but how to engage the others?

FCB talked to real people, in lounges and living rooms, on council estates up and down the country. Some of the original campaign — the jewel in FCB’s crown — represented a world alien to many sections of society…How could these women afford a gym membership? Where did they find the time and energy to balance a life of work, perhaps children, and exercise?

I hope Vicki won’t mind me repeating that she found it a ‘sobering moment’ to discover how off the mark some executions were. It is clear the sports industry has ingrained in society’s mind certain expectations about what it means to be active. Stripy activewear, a Virgin gym membership, modish diet and abs one could grind cheese on.

It’s all bollocks, of course. Seeing a mother pick up her son from judo on roller skates crystalised for Holgate the direction This Girl Can had to take. “I thought, ‘I bet she’ll feel a bit silly’ said Holgate. “I caught myself. That is exactly the problem. She is really smart. The smartest of all the women. At that moment, I realised the sports industry has expected women to change lives to fit sport in. Sport and exercise need to flex to fit into lives of those with no time, money or energy.

By really observing real life, having conversations with their target audience, the latest campaign is a reflection of real people, real lives, real troubles. By reflecting the mundanity of life you are showing that you understand people. The ‘other’ applies both ways. By treating people as consumers, a concept, it will make them associate that brand as something for other people.  David Ogilvy once said that ‘the consumer isn’t a moron, she’s your wife.’ I’d go one further: The consumer isn’t a moron, she’s a human being. So treat her like one.

A full room at Thinking around Corners , McCann Health offices

Which brings me onto my bit. It’s all very well talking about treating people like people, but most seem stumped as to how. So here’s an anecdote. A client once called all agencies to a face-to-face meeting to tell us he wanted to stop doing face-to-face research. He insisted we did it all online. The irony was lost on him.

A year or two later, the same client who called a face-to-face meeting to tell us we shouldn’t do any face-to-face research called another one.

“Since we stopped meeting people in research, our ad performance seems to be getting worse, and the CEO thinks it’s because of a weaker emotional connection.

“Do you have a machine to measure emotion?”

Now I have to say, what I’m going to say now is what I wanted to say at the time. But I didn’t, of course. I wanted to say “yes, I’ve got a fucking machine that can measure emotion. It’s the best machine that’s ever been invented or ever will be. It can read people’s minds. It can also actually feel how they’re feeling. Not only can it measure emotion, it can “process the consumer response in real time” and adapt its questioning to the responses it gets, driven by a hypothesis its constantly formulating and reformulating in real-time in its powerful processor. Amazingly, it can output topline findings in a clear, easy to understand format immediately after a session, and produce more detailed findings after a couple of days.

It’s amazingly accurate and it works best when you put it in a room with people. Would you like to see it?

The reveal is – the machine is me.  And the other talented people at Firefish.  And just about every other human being with functioning mirror neurons and a decent emotional intelligence.

There are many ways to understand people but meeting them and talking to them gives you a level of understanding and empathy you can’t get elsewhere. Some 93% of communication is nonverbal. It’s not what people say, it’s what they don’t say; their expressions, their gestures, and postures. Without face-to-face conversation you miss the nuance, the tone, the emotion. Understanding is good, but it isn’t enough. Empathy is the goal. Empathy is what we need. And empathy is based on feeling, which is what we experience when we meet people, talk to them, really listen to them

A consumer doesn’t feel. A consumer is a concept. Get out and meet people.  Put yourself in their shoes. Walk their walk. See your brand through their eyes. Speak to them, their friends and colleagues. The security guard, the care worker, the real people with real lives and real worries. Listen to them. Feel their daily lives. Their concerns, their opinions, their faults and successes.

The consumer is dead. Long live people.

Watch the film of the event below…and just get in touch if you want some Unconventional Thinking for your business. 

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