Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Marketing Wisdom from the 18th Century

The accelerating trend to consumer control won’t be a big surprise to most of you now. Sisomo and technology are radically changing the balance between producers and consumers, so the surprising thing is that we were ever surprised by it at all. I’ve always loved to sell, and I’m constantly reminding Saatchi & Saatchi people that advertising is about selling stuff. Once you understand that simple fact a whole lot else falls into place. Anyone who has ever sold anything successfully over a period of years has got to know in their gut from day one that the consumer is boss. You can’t make it work any other way. Try to flog shabby products or half-hearted brands and you get nowhere. Treat the people you are selling to with no respect and you get punished. Act as though you have more important things on your mind and they’ll walk. David Ogilvy once famously said, “The consumer isn’t a moron, she’s your wife”. Today we’d add your colleague, your boss, your friend, your analyst, your judge, your governor, etc. The idea is important. Never, ever believe that you know better. I was reminded recently that this is not an idea born in the 20th century. It’s been with us for a long time. The reminder came in Tim Blanning’s great history of Europe, The Pursuit of Glory, and this statement:

“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interests of the producer ought to be attended to, only in so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.”

We only matter as producers in so far as we promote the interests of consumers. When was that consumer-is-boss-like statement made? 1776, in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Smart people have always believed the consumer-is-boss. Our challenge is to act on it, and transform belief into action.


Susan Plunkett said...

A couple of immediate thoughts. Firstly how interesting it is to have notions of contemporary society being the definitive knowledge bearer -(a position held by some) - challenged by 2 or 3 hundred year old commentaries. I enjoy the juxtaposition here very much. :)

Also, and now moving into the 21stC, a comment I observed from Christian Courtin-Clarins suggesting that when you love someone you listen to what they have to say; stop loving and you no longer hear.

An adoption of position that businesses could well take note of.

Steve said...

I agree - the consumer is boss. But, I think increasingly those consumers who buy our products are drawing more and more of their self esteem from those products, in perhaps dangerous ways.

Which leads me to my main point - sometimes the consumer doesn't know what it needs...but knows what it wants. It needs self-esteem, loving, respect and admiration (internal and external). It is a shame that many people now seek this respect from the goods that they buy.

I think sometimes, it falls to us to show consumers what they may need, which is not always the same as what they want.

Susan Plunkett said...


Needs and wants are not always mutually exclusive although I absolutely take your point. An example, I need a chair at the moment to be able to get out of easily. I have a knee problem and so the chair needs to be at a particular height level and have foam that is quite dense and not too soft and not too hard (a 3 bears throw back :) Leaving a 4th store today I mused while driving at how nice it would be to have a chair adviser who knows their chair genre! But this is an example of where a want and a need are in sync.

Shop assistants key into the issue at times by asking you "what do you want to do on or with this item?". I have found that a useful approach and a good customer thinks ahead on this. However, a sales person can sway your initial thoughts by showing you features that may enhance one of your needs/wants.

The discourse between needs and wants can of course be unpacked into base elements; the definition (see UNESCO et al) that needs are primal - warmth, food shelter, safety and that anything above this e.g. perfume, is a want.

If you're in the game of selling feather boas you might find it tough to sell if you adopt the viewpoint :)

This topic is a complex one of course and I think the issues you raise important. I was also musing today about sensory experience and how some adults at times really receive minimal touch - and what this can mean both personally and commercially. I would put touch in the need category.

Stefano said...

Consumer is BOSS. OK. But we also have to look at all these niches where there is no market yet. Look at Danone's ACTIMEL, for example! Danone invented from scratch a NEW BRAND and it also built up a new need fot perople: Liquid yogurt to start you day in a better way. Consumer was not boss since consumer had no need for this product. Consumer is boos now that Actimer leads the market within other similar products. The WELLINGON - your famous humprella - could be a similar thing! Let's start the production...

Susan Plunkett said...

stefano..I was actually doing a drawing the other day of my idea for the Wellington :) We need a test lab area and a metal framing tech. (a structural engineer type) to critique the design, address it's short falls and set about blowing a gale on it! All hands to the bellows! :)

Warren Whitlock said...

Thank you for the historical references.

I'm fond of saying that the univesal truth does not change.. we just discover, rediscover and reframe the way we look at it.

Kids today think they have discovered something new.. and that's just what they said about our grandparents

Warren Whitlock
Book Marketing Strategist

Susan Plunkett said...

warren.. Although my philosophical inclination is prodding me to debate "truth".. :).. I basically agree and appreciate your phrasing here. It's been said for quite some time that there are no more themes to be drawn out in literature or in music, just different perspectives or, "reframing", to borrow your word.

I am also reminded of the generational scripts:

"When I was young we had to walk 4 miles to get to school".

"When I was young we had to saddle up the horse to get to school"

"When I was young I had to ride my bike to the mailbox from the farmhouse and then catch a bus to school".

"When I was young my parents carpooled and took 4 of us to school at once".

"When I was young my jetpack on my hoverpack broke down once and I had to catch the zipbus to school!"

All with messages of faint martyrdom and look what *I* had to put up with compared to you!

Piotr Jakubowski said...

“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interests of the producer ought to be attended to, only in so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.”

Stefano, the consumer is still the boss because the product was generated with the consumer in mind. If there was no purpose to the product (and there wouldn't be any unless there was interest in it), then there wouldn't be a point to making it. It is then the marketer/advertiser's job to inform the consumer about this new product.

Susan Plunkett said...

Piotr expressed the following:

"Stefano, the consumer is still the boss because the product was generated with the consumer in mind. If there was no purpose to the product (and there wouldn't be any unless there was interest in it), then there wouldn't be a point to making it."

As a bald statement Piotr I'm not sure I can entirely agree. I don't think because a product is made with me in mind that I am the 'boss'. There is a difference between active and passive consumerism and active and passive client engagement in product development (in my view).

And re purpose. Perhaps steve was alluding to consumers being persuaded re purpose. I've long joked about those catalogues you receive with a myriad of products you can buy e.g. a shoe tree with musical notes that doubles as a tie rack and that has a mood detector.

I mean, how did I live life before this product hit the market!! :)

To m, in this case, a consumer is boss of the purchase choice but perhaps not of the product development and so on. But then why did they develop the product? Perhaps for no other reason than realising there is a market for twee kitch by way of all the people sitting at home dying to spend money on some THING. I actually heard a woman walk into a homewares section the other day and say to a shop assistant - 'I feel like spending money, show me what you have that's new'.


We've come back to this topic a few times and it's always very interesting to do so.