Empowered Consumers and Marketing That Doesn't Get It

It’s the age of empowered consumers, be they B2B or B2C, at least in Europe and the United States and  (so figure, soon to come to a country near you, if it’s not already there).

As obvious as this may sound, experience tells me that most companies don’t get it. And that indictment applies to large and small companies alike. You’d think larger, multi-billion dollar corporations with hundreds of marketing experts and social scientists on staff would see the pattern, but they don’t. Why? The Greeks had a word for it… hubris.

It’s really the same principle you see in play with some politicians. They choose high-risk behaviour – nights with prostitutes, illicit sex in men’s rooms, etc. – because they feel they are powerful enough to be above the law. Of course, they never are, particularly when that ‘law’ is in the court of public opinion.

Companies are the same – and the bigger they are, the more ignorant are their actions.

Three cases in point:

  1. Bank of America announced that it would be charging a monthly fee for users of debit cards. Consumers hit the roof, then hit the Internet. One month before implementation (after swearing they would not go back on the policy) BofA scrapped the plan. Consumer power wins.
  2. Netflix decides to raise its monthly charge several dollars and the public are outraged. OK, says the CEO, then we’ll change the service plan from a combination of online and DVDs by mail, to just online. Another public outcry. Netflix loses 250,000 customers overnight. They relent but too late. The damage has been done to the brand and its bottom line. Consumers win again.
  3. Now the fastest back down ever: A large US cellular phone company (Verizon) announces (just a few weeks ago) that it will charge customers $2 if they pay their bill online (and not through direct debit). Less than a day later, the outrage was so great the idea was dropped. Seeing a pattern yet?

Never in my lifetime have such large companies been forced to give in to consumers. Up until now it’s been all their way and consumers could like it or take a walk.

No more. Yet companies continue to act as if they are in control. And no matter how many lessons you can point to or how many times the newly empowered consumer wins, you can’t get 50-something executives to see it. Nor do they ever think of the long-term consequences of this new consumer empowerment, how marketing and messaging need to change, for example, so they keep on with the old, tired message in the old, tired ways… they keep alienating consumers… and scratch their balding heads as to why ‘nothing in marketing works anymore.’

Hubris… the downfall Icarus and Oedipus and Agamemnon and even Arthur.  The Greeks might not know how to run their economy, but when it comes to human nature, they’ve been spot on for centuries.