Before you’re a user, you have to be a purchaser and before that, we’re all people

Do you think about your customers as consumers, users or purchasers? According to a recent article in Harvard Business Review, the underlying mindset marks you as either a “legacy” or a “newcomer” brand. With apologies for the quotation marks, let’s just say older or newer organisations.

In the article is a sentence tying itself in knots trying to create a distinction between the way older and newer organisations operate and think about customers. It says: 

“The simple view would be that traditional brands are purchase brands and digital brands are usage brands.”

There is nothing simple about that confusing pile of jargon. I love “brand” and understand it gets used in elastic ways. However, four times in one sentence stretches beyond understanding.

I think the authors are trying to say older organisations (aka traditional) are more focused on getting people to buy a product, while newer ones (aka digital) want people to use their products — presumably more than once.

Yes, apparently those musty old companies spend millions on developing products with the sole purpose of people buying them once, sticking them in a cupboard and never looking at them again. Something new companies never do. Who has ever signed up to a digital product, used it once, then left it to gather dust in your applications folder? That never happens.

On the flip side, newer organisations are blissfully absent of constraints of purchase, collecting people who religiously use but never buy — so long as you don’t count the money people pay for renting rooms, hailing rides, subscriptions to platforms and attention they trade for ads.

The idea older organisations don’t have engaged relationships with their customers is patently false. One of the examples the authors use is BMW vs Tesla. Musk worship aside, once Tesla sells 2,003,359 cars in a year, then we can have a discussion about their success with customers. I’ve owned five BMWs over the years – I’m not sure what that makes me, but by the authors reckoning, it doesn’t make me a user.

While digital business models and customer experience may have become today’s business mantra, older organisations have invested in relationships with their customers for generations. You don’t get to be around for 102 years (BMW), 126 years (Coca Cola), 117 years (Gillette) or 99 years (Hilton) without understanding a thing or two about turning a purchase into use.

So what is an old or new organisation to do?

Stop buying into the idea that somehow there is an old and a new demarcation line with tradition on one side and digital on the other. What is your business? Focus on that. Then start thinking about the people who buy things from you as, well, people. I saw a relevant LinkedIn post last week quoting the Cluetrain Manifesto. It said: “We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings…”

I go further. We are people. People who dream things, make things, sell things, buy things, use things, break things, fix things and love things.

A brand is the result of all those things. Old or new, the most successful organisations of any vintage know their things and pursue them with a relentless will. Anything else is a distraction.

See you next week.

NOW READ: Don’t just say you’re customer-centric. Define it.


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