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The dirtiest word in business? Consumers

We all say it, but it’s wrecking marketing–and maybe the economy, too.

The dirtiest word in business? Consumers
[Photo: Charles Deluvio/Unsplash]

We are all guilty of using jargon. We do it out of insecurity, hoping that a certain term will make us appear more knowledgeable; out of ignorance, because we don’t know enough about the subject to speak more plainly; and, of course, out of habit or laziness.

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It’s easy not to care. As long as we understand each other, the argument goes, why complain if every change is now a pivot, facts are lauded as insights, and basic computing functions are hyped as machine learning? Who wants to censure someone for some light obfuscation when there are more pressing issues to attend to?

But it’s time we called each other out on one of the most pernicious words in the annals of argot: consumers.

Because our use of the word is so pervasive, consumer may not even seem like hackneyed business shorthand any longer. But I’d venture it’s used more often in a business context than the words it stands in for: people, individuals, humans.

If you work in marketing or a related field (and let’s face it, they’re pretty much all related now), you probably say consumers several times a day without thinking about it, never noticing that it’s a characterization of those with whom you share the planet as bipedal purses whose only value is as buyers of stuff.

I am hardly the first to come to this conclusion. The oft-repeated adage from legendary adman David Ogilvy–“The customer is not a moron, she’s your wife”–was driving at the danger of ignoring the humanity of the people you are thinking about or communicating with.

Many others have built on Ogilvy’s thought. Flipping the emphasis to show the marketing world the benefit of seeing your fellow human as more than a walking wallet, Wieden & Kennedy’s Martin Weigel said in his 2010 Planner’s Manifesto: “Seeing people rather than consumers encourages us to see their broader lives beyond fleeting interactions with our brand. In many ways the ‘consumer’ is a figment of the marketing imagination.”

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Yet, on we press. Scientists have even shown that using the term can make us behave anti-socially. In 2012, a research team at Northwestern published a study in Psychological Science, which showed that when we think of each other as consumers we are more depressed and act more anxiously and selfishly than if we think of each other as individuals. (Here’s Newsweek’s report on the study.)

Using a term like consumers to reduce people to having a single function in society also seems to be having an odd, maybe dangerous, effect on the analysis of important economic events such as corporate mergers and acquisitions. Consider when Amazon acquired Whole Foods in the summer of 2017. “Heated competition among retailers could be a win for consumers who will be able to pick up their organic sugar beets from Canada, fresh turbot from the North Atlantic and papayas from Guatemala at ever-cheaper prices,” wrote the New York Times in its analysis.

[Photo: Peter Bond/Unsplash]
They’re right: Turbot prices can really get you down. So this deal was a winner? Well, yes, for some consumers . . . at least until we consider that the promise of price cuts is usually based on the idea that a merger creates duplication of functions so that some people can be laid off. For any consumers who also happen to be any of those Whole Foods workers losing their jobs or facing deteriorating working conditions as a result of Whole Foods’ new owners, not so much.

Our obsession with this artificial construct then translates into the larger way in which all mergers are evaluated. “They’re good for consumers,” because they “drive operating efficiencies and reduce redundancies in staffing,” Professor Michael Noel of Texas Tech told U.S. News and World Report. A paragraph later another expert, Joshua Stager, said mergers hurt people in the labor market, due to job cuts and how reduced long-term competition between employers depresses pay and benefits.

When you see these two ideas juxtaposed—and once you look for it, you’ll see it often—you’ll notice that no one makes the point that these are not mutually exclusive groups of people. The labor market and consumers are made up of the same group of humans, yet we decide whether to allow these mergers on the basis of how they might affect consumers with no regard as to how they affect those same people’s ability to earn.

Mergers don’t just affect people in the merged entities either: Job cuts and downward wage pressure often follow at a merged company’s rivals, as they try to match the new entity’s buoyed revenue or reduced prices. There may also be job cuts and wage pressure throughout the supply chain, as vendors are selling to fewer, bigger entities, with increased leverage to drive down suppliers’ prices.

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What if we recognized that the people in the company selling the stuff and the people outside the company buying the stuff are all just people with the same wants and needs? We then wouldn’t be focused on what’s happening to those employees over there who lose jobs or have their wages suppressed for the greater good of our lower fish prices. It’d be happening to us.

This same instinct to treat everyone as a human would make us better marketers, too. The marketing dreck that surrounds us is often the result of a group of people in a company creating an abstraction of a group of people outside the company, namely the ‘consumers,’ often based on selectively culled data. They convince themselves based on their abstraction that this group of people is going to appreciate a certain piece of marketing they want to target at them. Yet the truth is that if the in-company group asked themselves if they’d want to experience that same marketing, they’d frequently admit they would not. I’ve witnessed this happen on several occasions, and my peers have has the same experience.

Thinking of your buyer as a person rather than as a consumer changes your perspective and helps you see people in a broader way. You identify behaviors and emotions that might enable you to make a better connection with that person. Perhaps even more fundamentally, seeing a person as, well, a person rather than a purse might be a handy reminder that we have humanity in common. If what we’re doing isn’t good for them, it isn’t good for us either.

Jonah Bloom is a partner at startup accelerator Truth & Systems, where he helps entrepreneurs with strategy, product development and financing.

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