Take the red pill and face up to reality

Do you want to continue the fantasy of customer bases, target audiences and loyalty schemes? Or see consumers for who they really are and deal with the messy consequences?

In ad agency world, we have people called "account handlers". We take this terminology for granted, but when you look afresh you realise it’s a pretty odd name for a job. It brings to mind lion tamers in the circus of old, with clients as potentially fierce and unruly beasts that need to be brought into line with whips and strong words.

Attractive though that may sound, a client of mine once pointed out that it may be more accurate for her job to be described as "agency handler". We’re the ones more likely to be wandering off in odd directions and growling at one another. 

Agencies are complacent and arrogant in thinking that we have the right to handle anyone, and perhaps our time would be better spent in working out how we can help clients manage us, rather than working out how we can manouvre them.

But of course this syndrome isn’t restricted to agencies. Businesses are constantly talking about having customers, or "a customer base", as though there is some tangible connection between the people who sometimes wander into their shops, visit their websites or pick their product off the shelf. Even though Byron Sharp has spent some years now giving us all his data to prove that everyone buys from everyone every so often, the message refuses to land.

They talk about "our customers" as though they are somehow possessed by the business. This reaches new levels of fantasy when companies merge or are acquired by one another. Otherwise highly intelligent, analytical business people indulge in an orgy of double counting and magical thinking, telling financial markets that they will be able to merge their "customer bases" as well as the businesses and brands. 

I have yet to meet anyone who cares about the ownership structures of the businesses behind the brands they buy. Or anyone who sees any kind of benefit in buying a range of differently branded products or services from the same company – unless they’re being bribed to do so with a "loyalty" scheme, the name of which is almost precision designed to make you feel complacent about your relationship with the people who sign up.

They’re not your loyal customers, they’re your incentivised customers. The ones who like you so little that you have to keep paying them to come back.

The concept of a "target audience" is a similar fantasy. Aside from the vaguely sinister military etymology (as though we were attempting to assassinate potential buyers one by one), if you look at who actually buys the things you make, your "target audience" is almost certain to be a small minority of the people who actually purchase.

Spend a little time watching who wanders into your premises or picks you off the shelf and you will see a vast range of humanity, far beyond that dreamed of in your PowerPoint decks.

These are all the stories we tell ourselves to help us feel less confused. We have customers, they look like this, we want some more customers, this is what they look like. It’s something you can hold in your head to help make decisions. 

But are these decisions really any good or have you taken the blue pill? How much of your business life are you living in a comfortable fantasy?

You can see the damage of this elsewhere in life. We all have lazy assumptions about men and women and what they might be good at. Occasionally you get a bit of reinforcement from some garbage research or pop culture that helps cement your lazy shortcuts.

And years later all our tacit decision-making results in vast amounts of potential going to waste because of stories we tell ourselves about what men or women are good at. The science says that there’s really no difference in their capabilities and much more variability within gender than between them.

So let’s change the language. Stop telling ourselves fantasy stories about our marketing and marketing objectives. How different would your business and your marketing be if you decided to take the red pill and deal with the messy business of reality? 

Your "customers" are not your customers, they’re everyone’s customers and the moment after they buy you, they cease to be your customers any more. What should you do about that? 

Your "loyalty" scheme isn’t about building loyalty, it’s about paying for frequency. How do you feel about that?

If you succeeded in making all your customers look like your "target audience" then you would soon go out of business, with fewer giving you their money and attention than do so now. Should you even bother with a target at all?

It’s messier and more complex to work out what’s really going on. To switch the focus from fantasy descriptions of the people you would like to hang out with, to designing products and services that have inherent worth whoever decides to use them.  But your business will be better for it.

Craig Mawdsley is joint chief strategy officer at AMV BBDO



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