I perused a number of reports and management summaries concerning research recently and observed that they all had one thing in common. They pointed out various "shortcomings" of the consumer and suggested ways to correct these problems. The reports made statements such as, "The consumer doesn't value this attribute so we must change her mind set," or, "The consumer doesn't understand the product so we must educate her."
On the surface this isn't so bad. But if you think about it, these companies are trying to change the consumer to the company's way of thinking. If we define marketing as "not making people buy what we want to make, but making what people want to buy," then it is the company that should be changing rather than the consumer. As businesses, we might be spending too much on changing consumers and not enough on changing the company. I'm reminded of a statement a colleague of mine made about universities. He said, "Universities want to change the world, just not their world." This is probably true for many businesses as well. I am sure any brand manager could give you the politically correct answer about what marketing is, but when push comes to shove they want to change the consumer.
It's interesting that many companies that have focused on serving consumers rather than changing them have met with reasonable levels of success. You would think that others would follow suit, but this isn't always the case. One example is Dean Foods' Chugs. Consumers weren't drinking much milk, so some industry members thought that telling people to drink more might actually persuade them to do so. Maybe the logic was, "They will drink more if they know how nutritious it is." However, Dean discovered that consumers had some problems with milk, namely that it wasn't convenient to open, keep, or tote around. So Dean put milk in easy-to-open, resealable, round containers that fit into car cup holders, a big success.
Peter Drucker said, "The aim of marketing is to know your customers so well that when your prospects are presented with your product, it fits them so exactly it sells itself." Consumers are under no obligation to know or understand anything about your product. It is all your responsibility.
Still, it appears that many food industry members aspire to be "the first at being second." Once Chugs was on the market and selling like hotcakes, plenty of companies followed suit. I have no objection to the "follower strategy," but it seems to be our industry's dominant plan of action. No doubt its popularity is related to risk aversion among industry members. As one executive once told me, "Most pioneers got killed." Understandable, but some that made it got rich!
Incrementalism is at work here. It seems that most people look to do just a little better, and, in most cases, that doesn't require big change. Most looking to do a little better actually do very little better and continue down the path of mediocrity. As William Lloyd George said, "Don't be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated; you can't cross a chasm in two small jumps."
Planning to change the consumer is the easy way out; making changes to your product, merchandising, or packaging. to satisfy the consumer is the difficult way. I think all of us give lip service to "serving the consumer" but in reality think the consumer serves us. Try and get through to a brand manager if you are a consumer. If they really believed they served the consumer they would be thrilled to take the call.
I am also aware that we have to promote and sell the products that we have. I think no one is more important than members of the food company's the sales force. They are the infantry that goes out and does the real work. But we have to give the sales force the proper products to succeed.
Delighting the customer is about more profit, as well as more work
John L. Stanton is a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He can be contacted at (610) 660-1607; fax (610) 660-1604; e-mail at email@example.com; or www.johnLstanton.com.