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Consumers to Marketers: Get Real
eTail East '08: Consumers just want to buy from someone they can relate to.
Posted Aug 7, 2008
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WASHINGTON -- The customer wants transparency. The customer wants a conversation. The customer wants to hear it from another customer. Sound familiar? Well, here's the real truth: What everyone’s been parading as the latest customer insight is, ironically, just another marketing ploy. For as long as there’s been marketing, there’s been a skeptical customer, according to Rob Walker, New York Times Magazine columnist and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. In his presentation here at eTail East 2008 yesterday, Walker discussed an old problem and reinforced new strategies.

Consumers have entered the marketplace for more or less the same reasons, he noted:

  • price;
  • quality;
  • convenience;
  • pleasure; and
  • ethics.

Ethics, however, does not yet carry the full weight of the other factors, Walker said, given that, while consumers are expressing an interest in ethics, that interest has yet to be reflected in sales numbers.

Tens of thousands of new products are introduced each year -- and the problem is that each one is comparable to another. This inability to differentiate is what Walker refers to as “The Pretty Good Problem.” Not surprisingly, one surefire way to break out of the pack is through branding. But don’t think new logos, slogans, or advertisements, Walker said -- branding is about attaching an idea to a product or service. Starbucks, for example, has established itself as a consumer’s “third place” -- it’s their community between work and home -- while Dove has made itself an advocate of “real beauty.”

The only way branding can work, however, is through dialogue. “Whatever idea is attached to something, it’s a two-way process,” Walker told the audience. “It doesn’t attach as an idea until we’re willing to have watercooler conversations about it.”

While the influx of communication channels has unquestionably made it difficult to corner the customer into one location, the innovative technologies have given marketers access to new levels of creativity. Just as “the click” empowered online consumers, technology has given marketers new tools that will get them to explore the world beyond billboards and 30-second ads. In turn, word-of-mouth marketing will take off -- has already taken off -- blurring the lines between what’s marketing and what’s everyday life. Walker referred to this phenomenon as “murketing.”

As an example, Etsy.com emerged in 2005 as “your place to buy and sell all things handmade.” With more than 100,000 people selling their products through Etsy, and an estimated 2 million transactions a month, this online marketplace is powering toward a larger cultural trend. Customers are finding outlets to appease their skepticism toward mass brands. “They’re all about creating their own brands, selling their own products," Walker told the crowd. "It’s making a statement about material culture -- with more material culture.” In Etsy’s do-it-yourself world, consumers are connecting not with corporations but with other humans -- they can ask questions, get answers, and create an anti-brand subculture that, Walker noted, is “co-opting the idea of branding for their own ends.... It’s drawing people into having different conversations.”

“A woman once asked me, ‘The CEO of Zappos is on Twitter, but do people really care what he’s having for dinner? Does that matter?' ” Walker recalled. In reality, the point isn’t whether or not customers want to know what the CEO is noshing on. “But he’s real,” Walker responded. “He’s being real to them.”

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