Last week Consumer Focus, the organisation that fights for consumer rights, fell victim to the spending review axe. It will be abolished in 2012, saving the taxpayer about £5m a year. Who will take up the slack to ensure a fair deal for consumers in powerful industries such as telecoms, energy and postal services?
One proposal is that Citizens Advice could handle the task - but, as a disjointed federation of 438 local charities, it is more suited to dealing with individual complaints than launching the industry-wide initiatives in which Consumer Focus has specialised (see 30 seconds on ...).
There is another group, however, that should be resolutely on the side of consumers and willing to step into the breach: marketers. Both the motives and the methods will differ sharply from those at work in a state-funded consumer watchdog, but the outcome could be the same: improvement at the category level and enhanced consumer satisfaction.
This won't be achieved by marketers working together to agree on category standards - that would be unwieldy and ineffective - but by challenging category norms at the level of their individual brands.
The goal is a selfish one: to gain a competitive edge. The outcome is the one that derives naturally from competition and initiative: universal improvement, as others hasten to catch up. Are you ready to go first?
You start by bringing your teams together to pose a simple question. How is our category currently letting people down? Don't rush this; you need time and tenacity to get to the real, dirty answers. This is not about exposing 'unmet consumer needs' or tinkering with minor imperfections. It is a frank admission that every category has self-serving norms, nod-and-a-wink deceits and illusions that conspire to put its own interests ahead of those of paying customers. These are usually so accepted and universal, that even consumers can fail to notice them; but you must. Then you must seize the opportunity to expose them, and change the way you do things on your brand.
Budget airlines force customers to 'uncheck' the insurance option twice if not needed, because they know it makes them more money. Mobile network providers - a big Consumer Focus gripe - deliberately build complexity into plans, as this keeps users on higher tariffs. Supermarkets put the milk and eggs at the back of the store, to force customers to walk past tempting goodies and encourage them to buy things they never came in for.
Challenging such category norms involves short-term sacrifice, but aims to achieve long-term brand loyalty. Staples, the office-supplies chain, is a great example: it moved its equivalents of milk and eggs - paper and printer ink - to the front of the store to make things easier for shoppers. This reduced average basket value at the outset, but grew the brand and its share in the longer term by gaining a reputation as a consumer champion. The Virgin businesses claim to enshrine the approach across the entire portfolio by seeking out the things customers find unfair about the category and changing them.
In the end, it is an indictment of marketing - which should always work backward from consumer needs and realities - that a consumer watchdog was deemed necessary in the first place. Chief executives might occasionally be tempted into rapacious short-termism, but chief marketers should know better and speak up. Consumer focus should be a mantra, not a quango.
Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers.
30 SECONDS ON ... CONSUMER FOCUS
Established in 2007 from the merger of the National Consumer Council, Energywatch and Postwatch, Consumer Focus seeks to persuade businesses, public services and policy-makers to put consumers at the heart of what they do. What has it achieved?
- Earlier this month, the body was integral to ensuring that Npower repaid £63m to its customers after failing to effectively communicate a new pricing structure. The average payout was £35.
- Last year, Consumer Focus published research showing that more than half of Royal Mail customers who received a 'Sorry you were out' card had, in fact, been at home. The survey was picked up in a Panorama programme highlighting dubious practices, resulting in new disciplinary procedures at Royal Mail.
- Two weeks after the launch of a Consumer Focus investigation into finger injuries due to the folding mechanism of pushchairs, manufacturer Britax offered free hinge covers for owners of their Viva and Nexus strollers.