Publicis Groupe’s Ali Rezgui says consumer relevance is not the same as consumer obsession and the latter may lead to issues like data overload, results that are similar to the competition, and constantly changing messaging that can hinder long-term growth.
Consumer obsession. Consumer centricity. Consumer first. No matter what you call it, this is the ‘new’ marketing mantra, a part of any strategic deck thrown around during every meeting.
There is nothing wrong with striving to better understand current or prospective consumers and, if anything, many brands are probably not doing enough of it.
However, consumer relevance is different from consumer obsession and this semantic nuance can lead to a different approach to marketing.
Consumer obsession implies that the main role of the marketer is to focus on getting the most granular and comprehensive understanding of consumers, with the underlying assumption that if interrogated long and deep enough, they will deliver the solutions to our marketing challenges.
While this is a seductive and seemingly reasonable thought (after all, they are the ones we are selling to, so why not ask them what they want), it carries numerous pitfalls.
If the more we know about consumers make our decisions better, we might engage in an endless data-mining endeavour, in the pursuit of quantity rather than quality to avoid missing anything and risking death by data.
Testing to destruction
Aiming at having consumers bless every step of the way can water down any original idea and favour the survival of the lowest common denominator, not to mention lengthen the whole process from conception to execution.
Sea of sameness
When everyone looks in the same place, everyone is likely to get the same results. Especially at a category level, the answers provided by consumers run the risk of being expected and similar to findings from the competition.
Understanding what consumers care about today is not always a great way to predict future opportunities and where you could take your brand tomorrow. As famously attributed to Henry Ford: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Constantly adapting your messaging to cater to various groups of consumers’ evolving needs and aspirations usually means producing a multitude of tactical, short-term assets without any foundational backbone to tie them together, which can hinder long-term brand growth.
On the other hand, consumer relevance seems like a more useful and liberating way of thinking about marketing.
Your starting point in this case doesn't always have to be the consumer but it could be a good understanding of the category codes and finding ways to break them, leveraging a cultural tension or tapping into a brand truth.
Obviously, the end result should resonate with your audience, but being able to get your inspiration from various sources is more likely to yield interesting and distinctive results. In a way, it's looking at consumers as one of the filters versus the sole engine of all your marketing outcomes.
It also allows marketers to get back into the driver’s seat and not abdicate all responsibility to the consumer.
After all, we are in the business of brand building, not consumer listening. And this is probably the most important point: being more single-minded and committed to what your brand stands for (it doesn't have to be a grandiose cause), and more consistent with how you look and feel, can be a tremendous competitive advantage.
If mental availability matters, and we know it does, then it is crucial to build those long-term associations and invest in reinforcing iconic elements of your brand, consistently and durably.
Nike doesn't change its Just Do It tagline every six months to adapt to the times. But it does know how to bring it to life to remain a relevant force in popular culture. It didn't get consumers’ permission before running the Kaepernick campaign, despite being fully aware it might alienate some of its most conservative customers. While some left the brand, many more were converted and Nike sales spiked as people tend to value authenticity over shallowness.
McDonald’s has built so much equity into its golden arches and made them so recognisable that it is able to leverage them, in incredibly versatile and creative ways, from communicating delivery offerings to using them as directional signs to its restaurants.
“Have a break, have a Kit Kat” is over 50 years old but is as relevant today (and arguably even more so in these increasingly stressful times) as it was then. Although there have been countless executions on all imaginable platforms, it will likely still be around for the next 50 years and keep being refreshed for new platforms and new contexts.
This is what strong, enduring brand ideas/assets have the power to do – carve a very distinctive space in people's minds and become an integral part of culture. It doesn't happen overnight and requires real commitment and continual investment to keep strengthening and consolidating what the brand is about and how it manifests itself.
It’s not an easy task but the results are very much worth the effort as suggested by the newly created WARC/Cannes Lions Creative Effectiveness Ladder, designed to better recognise the impact of long-term brand building and put work that helps create an “enduring icon” at the top of it.
So maybe it's time to be a bit less obsessed about consumers and be a bit more obsessed about brands.