Opinion: Marketing Society - Bridge the consumer gulf

Amid the sophistication of modern marketing techniques, it may seem surprising that the prognosis for the industry is one of great challenge and upheaval. Beneath this upheaval lies the same issue that has always been at the heart of marketing: how to build deep and long-lasting consumer relationships.

There is so much available to help achieve this that a marketer from the past would be bewildered by our seeming inability to get as close to our customers as they managed decades ago. Tracking studies, customer relationship management programmes, carelines, instant online research, integrated communication plans and ethnographic studies are all fabulous tools, yet anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that consumer trust, loyalty and retention are in steady decline.

The more sophisticated and detailed our tools become, the further away from customers we seem to be moving. With a few exceptions, notably Tesco, it seems that marketing departments are simply overwhelmed and unable to cope with the volume of data with which they are confronted.

However, it is not the tools or the data that are at fault; frequently it is our basic assumptions about consumers, which in turn drive how we use the tools. Consumers have changed in fundamental ways that challenge the basic premises behind marketing theory.

Marketing is about matching what you produce to what the customer needs, but many consumers no longer know what they need, as they already have everything. They are, therefore, much harder to satisfy, unless we are able to understand their behaviour and aspirations in more detail.

Marketing theory also supposes that the transaction between consumer and company is based wholly on money. But for many people, money is not their scarcest resource. Issues such as time, enjoyment and effort are having a greater influence on purchasing decisions.

Consumers are also more cynical and distrustful. Having been let down by broken promises from many companies, it is harder to influence their decisions, unless it can be proved that you have their best interests at heart. Even if the consumer hears the message, they may not believe it.

Loyalty is fast becoming a thing of the past. Consumers are learning that the best deals go to new customers and short-termism prevails in most companies' attitudes. These and other changes add up to a growing gulf between what most companies offer and what consumers are looking for.

Consumers are increasingly aware that the customer is not at the heart of most businesses and there is growing resentment of their short-termism and anonymity.

The Marketing Society Summit, which takes place on 17 November, aims to help generate a new agenda for marketing to reflect these changes and I urge you to join the debate. The marketing rulebook must be updated to reflect change, and companies must respond to this gulf with consumers if they are to survive beyond the short term.

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