Do marketers have power over consumers? A few years ago, the majority of people would probably have answered in the positive. After all, the central tenet of marketing has long been that it can persuade consumers to act in a certain way.
But now the answer from many senior marketing people might be less certain.
In a new report, 'Planning for Consumer Change 2000', consumer consultancy The Henley Centre suggests that 'companies now ignore consumer empowerment at their peril'.
The research throws up some interesting statistics: 65% of consumers are prepared to take action, in the form of a boycott, protest or lawsuit, against a company they perceive has wronged them; 84% expect companies they use regularly to listen to their opinions about the quality of service; over three-quarters (79%) expect not to be treated like a stranger by companies they use regularly; and 71% now expect companies to reward their regular use.
'As we get better off and better at consuming, we are becoming more demanding,' says Martin Hayward, director of consumer consultancy at The Henley Centre. 'The consumer is now king.'
One marketer who has been ahead of the pack in understanding this is Richard Branson. By pitching himself as a consumer champion, Branson captured the public's imagination and his fan base continues to prove loyal.
Which is all the more impressive considering that the Henley Centre research reveals that the new, all-powerful consumer is also less trusting. The study shows that trust levels of the UK's biggest brands are continuing to decline - a trend first noticed in 1999.
Fuelled by perceptions of rip-off Britain and encouraged by consumer champions from Watchdog to the Consumers' Association, the public is becoming more sceptical. Among those suffering most are institutional and financial brands, while retailers and food manufacturers seem to fare best.
'People have worked out that being a consumer is fun,' says Hayward.
'It used to be that people valued their role as a citizen, but we've become disenchanted with that and you only need look at recent elections to see the growing antipathy toward voting. Yet as a consumer, everyone wants to hear what you say and you possess the ultimate power of veto.'
Consumers now have more spending power than ever and the changing nature of communication and easier access to information means that every person can have a voice. The concept of the silent minority no longer exists.
In today's world, an individual can broadcast to the world from their bedroom via the internet.
One consequence has been that the business world has been forced to rethink its motivation. 'Businesses are now starting to ask themselves how they can make the consumer's life easier, rather than how they can make their own lives easier,' says Hayward.
But some sectors remain slow to respond. The Henley Centre research shows that consumer confidence in banks has dropped from 31% to 26% in the past year. Hayward suggests part of the problem is that they fail to listen to their customers, who complain about having to communicate with their bank through a call centre, or the closure of their local branch, in vain.
For example, Barclays Bank's launch of a campaign stressing how 'Big' it was and how its offering could service global businesses came at the same time as the bank announced record profits of pounds 2.4bn and that it was set for a programme of 171 closures of local banks. 'A big world needs a big bank' ran the slogan, but protests from consumers, community groups, MPs and ministers suggested that the big bank needed to remember the smaller customers who had helped build its business.
Other companies are adapting to the new 'consumer power' environment.
A recent radio ad for Kit Kat, for example, showed how the brand fits into consumers' lives by playing on the fact that call centres are proving particularly unpopular.
The ad, read out in the tone of an automated call centre recording, ran: 'Please choose one of the following options. If you would like to leave a message, press one. If you would like to hold and be plunged into a silent telephonic abyss, press two. If you would like to listen to a hideous version of Greensleeves, press three. If you would like to speak to someone at our understaffed call centre who is too busy to help, press four. If you would to speak to an operator who is very nice but no help at all, press five. If you would like to be cut off, press,' before reverting to a normal voice for the strapine: 'Have a break, have a Kit Kat'.
So satisfying emotional needs is now part of the marketing remit. 'The majority of households can afford basic necessities, so consumers are starting to purchase more on emotional- or experience-led issues, or to to attempt to manage unstructured, stressful lives,' explains Hayward.
A flick through Boots' Christmas catalogue, for example, reveals a new product category - 'Thrill and Adventure' - providing experiences from the 'Boots Tiger Moth Gift Experience' to the 'Boots Drive a Ferrari Gift Experience'.
Other brands have realised that what consumers really need is time. In August, Alton Towers trialled a 'VIP ticket'. Instead of paying pounds 21 and queuing at the turnstile and at rides, visitors could pay pounds 65 and receive priority parking, go straight through the turnstiles and move straight to the front of the queue on major rides.
VIP tickets will be a permanent option next year, along with a new customer offer, Virtual Queuing, via a timed ticket slot. Marketing executive Zabir Uella says: 'Our research shows there is demand for this type of thing. We try to accommodate our customers' requests. Guest satisfaction is one of our key objectives.'
A similar realisation was behind Unilever's decision to launch its home cleaning and laundry service Myhome. The service, which operates in south-west London, had 700 customers last week.
'We are selling solutions rather than products,' says Kate Adams, head of marketing at Myhome. 'Consumers are cash-rich and time-poor and they may not want to spend what time they have cleaning the toilet.'
Marketers now face a challenging period. While new technology, such as CRM packages that promise a short cut to a greater understanding of the consumer, continue to flourish, the complexity of the consumer is rising and people continue to demand more from life.
The Henley Centre predicts that human skills are going to become more in demand. 'The skills associated with marketing are going to have to become more sensitive and interrogative to understand the complexities of consumer needs,' says Hayward. 'It is going to make marketing more challenging.'
For a copy of the full report, 'Planning for Consumer Change', call The Henley Centre on 020 7955 1800, or e-mail email@example.com.