Marketing is a Human Activity


This article originally appeared in WPP’s Sparksheet.

As bots become more and more prevalent, as brands take an aggressive approach to social media, and as everyone drowns in data, it’s worth remembering that successful marketing has always been about one thing only: a personal connection.

Every marketer is bombarded with overwhelming and conflicting information. Most companies (and marketers) can barely digest the data they produce let alone turn it into actionable insights and strategy. Add the utopian promise of Big Data and we have a real issue because the most sophisticated systems will never spit out a marketing roadmap. More importantly, we must never forget that marketing is an intensely human activity.

There are an ever-increasing raft of studies, rankings and surveys that pelt the marketing community every day. In branding alone there are now 294 studies tracked on the website, Ranking the Brands. Most of these are celebratory lists pitting brands against each other on one dimension or another. And the tech industry is an expert at producing reports that skew towards ‘technology-as-savior’ conclusions. Add on consumer and market research studies and marketers are now buried in elephant-size data dumps.

Marketers have forgotten how to segment and to clearly understand the wants and needs of consumers. Marketers know this but get distracted by shiny new toys and theories promising better performance.

The practice and profession of marketing has never changed. It has always been predicated on human behavior. It exists to understand consumer’s motives and give them justification for making a purchase. Everything else either supports or erodes this fact.

The relationship between brand and consumer was pretty much a fair relationship until the Mad Men, mass communication era. That marked a point when brands took the appearance of control through the ubiquity of advertising. This went on for a few decades then the balance of power shifted back towards consumers…but was then interrupted by the advent of social media.

Social media promised dialogue but has regressed to a broadcast tool populated by intrusive and disingenuous advertisements. None of this has truly benefited the consumer yet brands believe they are doing better for their customers. In examining a significant sample of branding, marketing, advertising and consumer reports, it is fair to conclude that brands and marketers are not listening to consumers and struggle on the most important dimension: a personal and human one.

Trust Us Please

A Cohn & Wolfe report shows brands face an “authenticity deficit”. The company surveyed 12,000 consumers in 14 markets on more than 1,600 brands to determine consumer perception of authenticity. It found that just 22% of consumers agreed that brands and companies today are open and honest.

The study also discovered that fewer than 1 in 4 consumers agree that brands can be trusted. As well, only 1 in 4 feel that brands make the world a better place, and slightly fewer, 23% agree that they uphold high values. What makes this interesting is the uniformity of sentiment across the 14 markets.

Several other agencies and consultancies have uncovered similar findings. Havas Worldwide found that honesty and transparency was in the top three most important values consumers feel brands should embody. Harris Poll showed that dishonesty about products and services is the most damaging scenario for corporate reputations. Research from Initiative demonstrates that trustworthiness and authenticity are 2 of the top 5 brand attributes for consumers.

The Cohn & Wolfe study found 88% of consumers worldwide would reward a brand for authenticity. Most commonly, consumers would recommend the brand to others (52%), remain loyal to the brand (49%) and value the brand (48%), and a brand’s authenticity would also attract 1 in 5 to want to work for the company or to invest in it.

Too Beaten Down To Complain

The findings from an Accenture study seem to contradict a commonly held belief in marketing that unhappy consumers are more vocal than happy ones. The consultancy found that companies are performing so poorly that consumers have given up complaining because they feel nothing changes.

After receiving poor service from retailers, banks and cable providers, only 28% of consumers posted negative comments online; bad service goes unreported and unrecognized, so companies don’t react or improve. In short, everyone is settling for less.

Berkeley Warburton, Managing Director of Advanced Customer Strategy at Accenture, believes most consumers now suffer in silence before switching brands, “While the squeaky wheel gets the grease and those vocal detractors are noisy, they don’t represent the bulk of customer sentiment. The bulk of your unhappy customers are not complaining to you, they are just silently switching.”

Know Thy Customer

Marketing has only one key tenet and it is ‘know thy customer’. Every brand should focus on enhancing their knowledge of their customers’ needs, attitudes and motivations. This is one of the crucial challenges faced by marketers regardless of industry or company size. No tactics or tech will help if you don’t make the customer a priority.

The voice of the customer is the most powerful force for making decisions and making things happen. Research shows that knowing the customer makes messages contextually relevant, analytics more actionable, and overcomes internal company silos that are often a barrier to customer service.

There is evidence that deep customer knowledge drives companies to integrate their marketing efforts rather than organize by channel or discipline. It means they are focused on holistically pleasing the customer not satisfying their own internal machinations.


You Earn Trust, You Do Not Create It

Every relationship is based on trust. It requires that the parties involved are real. The word, “authenticity”, is used liberally in branding and marketing but woefully under-applied. If we circle back to the Cohn & Wolfe report, authenticity depends on how much consumers perceive a brand to be:

  • Reliable: delivering on promises and being of high quality
  • Respectful: treating customers well while protecting privacy
  • Real: communicating honestly, being genuine, and acting with integrity

Being authentic gives a consumer something to believe in beyond a simple monetary transaction. Trust is earned when a brand backs up that belief consistently. Brands must give consumers something to believe in because marketing is predicated on a human behavior.

All that consumers want, what they will pay more for, and what will keep them coming back is the idea that a company will treat them the way that they themselves would want to be treated.

Know thy customers and do unto them what you want done to yourselves. Thus endeth the lesson.

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