Like most fellow zealots, my original love affair with search was all about the glories of being served up “consumer demand” — and being able to market and optimize to that demand.
Expressed demand right at your fingertips was a beautiful thing. Following the ghostly spending period of 2001-2002, it made it much more palatable to jump back into digital — and, of course, to guide other marketers to do the same.
As the past decade has roared on and our media marketplace has been practically propelled by consumer demand, influence, path and usage — we have built our house around this consumer.
How holy is this consumer? Recently, perhaps echoing the doctrine of Steve Jobs himself, it’s become almost socially respectable to bring the consumer down a few notches — and ask ourselves the somewhat scary question: is a consumer’s demand real? The same question would of course extend to the supposedly tell-tale search query.
One of my favorite reads from 2011 was the piece that Guy Kawasaki did on the top 12 lessons he learned from working with Steve Jobs on the launch of Macintosh — quite clearly the darling of all modern consumer brands. For most of us, honing our efforts to heed and follow the consumer, #2 on this list side-swipes our prevailing trajectory and throws us off track. It kicks us in the guts of the main marketing sensibility we thought we had nailed.
“Customers cannot tell you what they need. ‘Apple market research’ is an oxymoron. The Apple focus group was the right hemisphere of Steve’s brain talking to the left one. If you ask customers what they want, they will tell you, ‘Better, faster, and cheaper’ — that is, better sameness, not revolutionary change. They can describe their desires only in terms of what they are already using — around the time of the introduction of Macintosh, all that people said they wanted was a better, faster, and cheaper MS-DOS machine. The richest vein for tech startups is creating the product that you want to use — that’s what Steve and Woz did.”
We’ve been on this consumer-led journey for a long time. Not that the Jobs ethos is gospel, but, there are important questions to ask, given our often total orientation around the consumer. Even if these are not immediately answerable, they must be posed.
- Are consumer demand and preference based on authentic best interest? How can we know?
- Or, is it too hard to separate demand creation from demand, to get a clear picture of where things start and stop?
- Does the consumer know what she wants before we tell her?
- Is this a yes/no, black/white question?
- Is there some middle ground between the consumer-led marketplace and a contrary world where we dump this demand we have treasured for so long now? What’s happening?
- What can we learn from what may be a market transition — if we consider the clear success of consumer brands like Apple that supposedly did not?
Where Consumer Demand Starts And Stops
It is doubtless that our current media environment — its rich channels, varied platforms, levels of utility, media mechanics, content variations — has been propelled forward by consumer impulse. So, who’s to say where consumer impulse actually originates? I think what Jobs describes is fairly specific to taste. And there certainly is such a thing as a taste maker, which Apple has been.
Impulse might be more complicated. How many marketing, media and peer exposures precede a single impulse? Regardless of whether that impulse is a click, registration, sale, share, collect, like, post, pin — or a thirsty search query — a lot goes on before the impulse is enacted and a consumer seeks or even demands something.
Our media environment has become too intricate to sort it out. We cannot possibly isolate all the factors of consumer impulse. It’s possible that it is no longer important to do so.
Relax, There’s Middle Ground
It’s really kind of a freeing time. If we acknowledge the intricacy of today’s environment, we also see how much we have to work with. If we start out with solid consumer insights, an operating strategy and monitor all of our paid and earned execution, there will be no shortage of indicators and live feedback. Within this, we will be free to test, innovate, unveil, engage — and gauge both taste and the path of impulse. It’s still a consumer-led time, but we’ve ample room to exercise our brands.
Keeping Your Head About You
No matter how I much I buy into the tenets of consumer demand and influence, I am occasionally struck by one of today’s popular ideas and wonder if we’ve taken the consumer mantra too far. Think about how many articles and posts you’ve read on the art and science of building army’s of brand ambassadors? Not just advocates — but outright ambassadors.
Some great work has been done by major brands — P&G, Nike, numerous adult beverage brands — to make their brand even more major by harnessing the passion, advocacy and social tendencies of consumers. But, just as we can’t force a video to go viral, nor can we always elevate brand “like” to catapulting, obsessive, infinite brand love.
The goal, that extreme marketing model, is too grand. And, we would never want to lose sight of other business goals on our quest for consumer brand love. We must keep our brand wits about us, with regard to the consumer, as we build our businesses, deploying the right mix and methods.
When it comes to consumer intelligence, there’s a certain wisdom to keeping calm and carrying on — organizing and springing from solid insight and into strategy and execution that can be modified. You modify based on what you learn from the consumer journey. So, we let the consumer lead but are supportive and daring co-pilots. We watch the query and the path; gauge the influence; and journey on, trying new things along the way.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.