A tale of two agendas
There is an old joke: “I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure”.
Some of the time, it seems to me as if everything has changed in the relationship between advertisers and consumers. At other times, these changes seem more superficial.
Can both things be true? (Probably, according to this excellent debate in Market Leader).
In commercial qualitative research we are paid by a company to talk to 'consumers' about things that matter, ultimately, to that company. We mediate between the two sets of interests: the client’s commercial interests and what interests consumers.
Normally, where there is overlap or mutuality of interests, there is business to be done. They launch a new shampoo; I see it as making me look better, shared interest, sold. But if they launch a new shampoo and I see it as just the same but more expensive, not sold.
What is changing, I think, is that:
- people are becoming more aware of their interests-as-consumers and of companies’ interests-as-companies.
- companies are starting to embrace this more open, more interactive relationship with consumers.
It’s as if the building that houses companies no longer has walls of bricks and mortar, so we can only access them via the front door and look in the showroom window. Now the metaphorical walls around a company are transparent, we can look into how they operate, their standards, sources of production, employment practices and so on.
It is now widely accepted that 21st century marketing is about a two-way, interactive engagement, rather than one-way selling. At the start of mass production, Henry T. Ford is said to have declared: “you can have any colour as long as it’s black.” (Except that nobody knows if he ever said this!) Nowadays, you can have all of the colours in all of the sizes and much more besides.
This ‘relationship’ is not a real or a personal relationship, of course, but a metaphorical one. I am not really related to Unilever or to any of their brands, although I may buy them. It’s a figure of speech we use to ascribe meaning and importance to brands.
There is no such thing as 'consumer loyalty'
As a side note, it is interesting that linguistically we both exaggerate meaning by personalising marketing (‘relationship’, ‘brand loyalty’, ‘brand preference’, etc) while simultaneously depersonalising it with the ‘consumer’ construct. Marketing traditionally has wanted to have it both ways.
But consumption is simply an economic transaction, a unit of economic currency. Consumption seems measurable and predictable, which fits with traditional models of production and makes it sound as if a person can 'be' a consumer.
But ‘consumer loyalty’ is an oxymoron; a consumer can no more be loyal than a robot can fall in love, even though both are easy to imagine, through our use of language.
The point is that qualitative research is in the middle of a subtle but noticeable shift in the power relations between companies and their agenda and people-as-consumers who have a different ‘agenda’ or interests.
Having just attended Most Contagious 2012, I have heard more and more evidence for this. We are at a crossroads. Everyone is saying it.
Procter & Gamble's Jim Stengel has challenged marketers the rethink the marketing function: "the age of telling and selling is over".
Not to be outdone, Keith Weed, Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever, this year described marketing as at a crossroads:
“We’ve got marketing too much as a sales machine, and we need to think more about how we get back to serving consumers.”
Capitalism itself is at a crossroads, according to economist Umair Haque in The New Capitalist Manifesto (2011, HBR).
“Business to date has produced ‘thin value’ - short-term economic gains that accrue to some people far more than others … (and needs to) learn to create authentic, lasting value for (people), ‘shared value’.”
It was this sense of a shift in the corporate and the consumer/citizen agendas that led me to research and give a presentation this year at the AQR/QRCA conference in Rome: “Qualitative research at a crossroads: where to now?” Together with seven other researchers around the world, we interviewed 26 clients in six countries: France, UK, China, Australia, Brazil and the US.
MORE TO FOLLOW - FIND OUT WHAT WE DISCOVERED!
(This article appears in full in the current issue of AQR's "indepth" - the hub of qualitative thinking, Autumn 2012)