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November 6, 2010

The customer isn’t always right. 
The customer is always victorious.

by Howard Fox Chartered Marketer

“The customer is always right”. Wrong. Frankly the customer isn’t always right. But thanks to social media, now the customer certainly is always victorious. Fundamentally, the balance of power has shifted.

Earlier this month GAP introduced a new logo. A week later it announced it would revert to its original logo, after widespread, harsh criticism of the design on Facebook and Twitter. Closer to home, a large, respected retailer was forced to reverse its decision to stop stocking (apparently poor selling) religious magazines after a social media uproar.

I am not debating the elegance of the logo or the wisdom of alienating a vocal religious community. Rather the fundamental question is: how do marketers operate in an environment where the control of their brands has been explicitly usurped in the social space?

Our consumers deserve the utmost respect, not least because they pay our salaries, however, a consumer committee has never to my knowledge created a successful brand or managed a company to the satisfaction of shareholders. The average consumer has difficulty expressing new or novel concepts for as yet ‘unexperienced’ needs. It’s just not their strength. We all remember the often-quoted case of the Sony Walkman. In an interview in the authoritative journal Playboy (yes, that one), Akio Morita Sony’s Chairman and Founder stated, “The market research is all in my head! You see we create markets.” What would have happened to the concept of the personal-earphone-based-music-device in today’s social media dominated market, one wonders? If early non-adopters had scoffed at the prospect of using earphones when the state-of-the-art was woofers and tweeters – would we enjoy the benefits of the iPod today?

Howard and Ike Phaahla – SAFM Media Show, discussing Acumen Magazine

A fundamental question is just who should we as marketers be listening to? It used to be easy. We listened to selected consumers by conducting research on folk who matched our target market, all carefully stratified and representative of the intended market and of course in secret – both from other consumers and our competitors. Before, it didn’t matter if non-target consumers didn’t like our product or brand. It was called market segmentation. Now we have to listen to the most vocal, the most connected, even if frankly we preferred they didn’t buy our products

We live in a world of ubiquitous data freedom. The seminal “Wikileaks” site that serially releases highly classified military and political documents is a case in point. The world is now incredibly transparent. Individuals have almost unlimited access to information and powerful channels in which to disseminate it. Their opinions, backed by such data are given far more credence than any commercial organisation. So how do we fundamentally change the way we market under these new rules?

1) Ensure all the company’s consumer intentions are not only honourable, but will be perceived as such. Spend greater time and effort playing devil’s advocate, testing for unintended consequences of any action or communication.
2) ALL brand communication should be considered visible to everyone – from emails to individuals to narrowly targeted advertising campaigns. We’ve all experience the office email faux pas, where an inappropriate comment in a forwarded email has offended a colleague you never intended to see it. Hold this thought as you review all your communication – could it possibly offend an unintended audience? Will the brand still look good if it makes it onto You Tube?
3) Work with your community on social platforms. Their expectation is involvement in return for their commitment to your brand. Just like a friendship. Seems reasonable.
4) If you experience that “oops” moment, tend towards full disclosure and rapid apology rather than obfuscation. In my view the social media world is forgiving and has a short attention span for crimes against the collective sensibility – providing you ‘fess up’, make right and are perceived to be acting honourably. Never act illicitly by responding to corporate criticism on social networks disguised as a “member of the public”. The community will find you out and forgiveness will be a long time coming.

So fundamentally while I contend that the consumer may not always be right, to quote the lesser-referenced Cesar Ritz (of hotel fame): “The customer is never wrong.”


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