Louis Coutts

SmartCompany /

Consumers today can find out all the information they want. Now they want something more from business, and this time it’s personal.

A matter of trust

Louis Coutts

The web has changed most things. You can find out just about anything on the web – if a multinational employs slave labour one day, we’d know about the next day on the web. Our demand for news is so intense that we seem to hear about things even before they happen. In all of this the consumer is better informed than ever.

Once upon a time, a year or two ago, if someone had a “you beaut” product that was different to any competing product, one could be confident that it would sell. Today, if you have a “you beaut” product but it is discovered that your environmental practices are questionable, it is going to be dammed hard to sell your product against that of a competitor which has a clean environmental record.

The entire thrust of marketing has altered as a response to this better-informed community. Jim Stengel, chief marketing officer of the big advertiser Procter & Gamble, told Fortune magazine recently that the thrust of marketing today is a response to consumers’ need to trust someone. They want to feel that businesses are listening to them rather than telling them and that the businesses with which they deal have values they respect. Consumers resent arrogance, indifference to the way they see and feel things, and they want to deal with organisations that display empathy.

This is beyond product integrity or customer service. This involves getting to know the customer as a person rather than as a consumer that displays consumer patterns. This involves recognising the consumer as a social rather than an economic being. It is no longer the case that disposable income and special needs determine the ability of businesses to grow. Businesses have to provide evidence that they know how the customer feels, not just about the product but about values.

Like other members of the marketing team, Jim Stengel spends time visiting consumers – rich and poor – in their homes. This personal resonance finds its way into corporate behaviour and values as well as into the products that are relevant to those people.

In all of this, what marketing people are discovering is that it is misleading to talk about “mature products” or “commodities”. The use of these terms became part of the managerial vocabulary and dictated a fashion in the business schools. We are now discovering that products become “mature” or “commodities” and therefore exposed to diminution of margins, because they have been looked upon as products independently of the business.

The new thrust in marketing is to bring them to life as benefits that meet needs and delivered in a way that the consumer trusts the organisation selling that product. As a result, new markets open up for products that might have been around for decades.

In the US and Canada a company called Whole Foods has established an entirely new market for foods and is challenging the conventional supermarket. The food it sells is fresh, organically and environmentally friendly and sold by people in the store who have empathy for the values of the company and for those of the consumer.

People love shopping there (who on earth loves shopping in a supermarket?); the food is more expensive but the consumer finds it is a great experience and they would not shop anywhere else (I have a testament to that in an email I received today from a guy in Canada).

Growing in this environment is going to be tougher. You might have to knock on the door of customers, introduce yourself and ASK them if they can TALK TO YOU about how they feel and then translate that into an offering that makes them feel comfortable that you understand them, not as an economic unit but as a social being.



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