Will the ‘consumer is in charge’ baloney stop?

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I was watching a segment of a TV show on marketing & advertising and heard a global leader of a well-known digital specialist agency say something like ‘…because the consumers is in charge’ (implying brands aren’t). Sigh. Catch-all phrases such as this and the other all-time favourite ‘brands having conversations with consumers have not gone out of fashion six years on? I feel advertising & ‘digital’ industry insiders are doing great disservice to themselves by continuing to speak this vague language for years now.

When marketers & ad agency folk say that a ‘consumer is in charge’ what do they mean exactly? Over the years I have heard interpretations about how it is no longer about marketers creating a singular messaging and thrusting it down people’s throat in a one-way communication world (read mass media). Fair enough. Today, what is true is that a consumer’s ability to reject, overlook or react (positively or negatively) to a brand’s communication has gone up. Some consumers are also able to get customer service issues (a few, not all) addressed through new media channels. That’s it. This also means that somehow in a distant past, consumers were not in charge and they have been suddenly made so. As far as services or products are concerned, a consumer always had the right to accept or reject it – be it a street-side food joint or a 5-star hotel. What has changed is the ability to react to a brand’s communication or offering in today’s world. And very often it does not change much on the ground as far as a brand’s service offering is concerned. Has your telecom brand’s network coverage improved despite all your rants about their slow speeds on Twitter? You are likely to have got the standard ‘please DM us your number so that we can address your concerns’ tweet. Sure, some brands have redressed consumer complaints by listening to what people are saying about their brand but that hardly means the ‘consumer is in charge’.

Even the business about the consumer interacting with a brand through digital advertising is proved to be a myth. A majority of online ads are hardly clicked. Worse still, a lot of the online ads are served to bots, not humans. Yet we see online publishers taking over screen real estate with ugly, annoying banner ads. No wonder use of ad blockers is on the rise. Despite all this, ad agencies still peddle page takeovers, autoplay video ads and micro-sites which are nothing more than digital brochures.

As far as ‘conversations’ go, I’ve had it up to here. When was the last time you saw a stimulating conversation between a consumer and a chewing gum brand? In my view, nobody likes to have a conversation with brands. One may have an opinion about a brand or a brand experience and express that in a public forum. And brands may respond to such expressions – be it a complaint or compliment of a service or product or an opinion about brand communication. That is hardly conversation. Consumers may find communication or other content from a brand useful and share opinions about -say fashion tips from from a beauty brand or recipes from a cooking oil brand. But such high involvement categories are few and far between. The average communication in this ‘two-way’ world is just like how it was in the one way world – most of it is run-of-the-mill, inward looking and hardly noticed. That is in fact the case with most mass media – be it journalism, publishing, music or movies – more than 90% of what’s put out is hardly noticed. Only a small fraction rises above the mundane, gets noticed, appreciated and spoken about. The last part, ‘spoken about‘ is made easy thanks to new media and technology. To be spoken about brands need to do something remarkable with their products, services, apps (if needed) and communication. Brands have to let their actions speak for them rather than their ads. That is all there is to it, IMHO as they say on Twitter.

So when will the ‘consumer is in charge’, ‘brand conversations’ and other baloney stop?

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