In 2012, a brand of customer activism that is unprecedented and more aggressive than ever before has spread like wildfire across the globe. Household brands like McDonald's, Starbucks, KFC and many others have come under worldwide public scrutiny via Facebook, Twitter, blogs and now, petition sites. In this way, citizens acting as customer activists have, for example, forced companies to change manufacturing processes in a matter of days.
Moreover, if you're wondering how fundamental a change there has been in the behaviour of organisations as a result of these trends - just compare an annual report from 30 years ago to a current one. The change in emphasis on what is reported, as well as the extent of reporting has shifted dramatically as a result of demands for transparency and parallel stringent corporate governance standards.
So, we live in a world where customers and any other key stakeholder can see right through us and have the power to do something about what they don't like (see sites like Change.org as a perfect example of customer activism).
But there is another trend that has affected the way in which organisations are expected to behave - a trend that has resulted from a shift in authority from social structures to individuals. This is often referred to as a new spiritualism - a dedication to inner purpose, to being connected and to truth.
These trends have forced a re-think for marketers, who must respond urgently with strategies to make organisations more meaningful to customers. One new purpose is for marketers to make the organisation more 'human' in manner and delivery. This means shifting from a transactional relationship to a partner-based relationship. It means identifying how to integrate the hallmarks of human interaction into the business.
Let's take a simple example. In everyday life, is it likely that you would give every one of your friends the same gift for the festive season - with no regard for personal taste, style etc. Well no - it's highly unlikely. Therefore the same should apply in how you reward or recognise customers. Likewise, you know which friends would prefer a call and which ones are happy with email or for that matter a broadcast BBM . Yet, customers are sent random communication using platforms that they find inaccessible or inconvenient.
These are simplified examples but 'humanising' the business might extend as far as co-innovating new products with customers or spending much more time understanding customer behaviours rather than customer demographics.
A second 'new' purpose for marketers is to discard marketing principles that have become second-nature to organisations, but with a new social order, are harming them. And here, one must ask a question that is just short of heretical for most marketers. The question: 'Is positioning shifting?'
Let me tell you why I think it is shitfting. Positioning is about 'what you put into the mind of the customer.' But if there is a shift towards the authentic and transparent, then working to 'position' ourselves does exactly the opposite by forcing us to purport to be what we are not. So, if positioning is too 'fake' for a world demanding honesty - then what do marketers do to differentiate the organisation. What we need to do is go back to the organisation's core purpose - to the reasons for its creation.
Charles Revlon, founder of Revlon Cosmetics apparently said: 'In my factories, I make lipstick. In my stores, I sell hope.' Revlon understood the core purpose of the company, i.e. to help women feel desirable and profit was a by-product of purpose.
Some iconic organisations have maintained a fundamental connection to their core purpose, which has resulted in their success. This often comes from strong leadership who are connected to the founding principles of the organisation. Liberty, with Donald Gordon at its helm, was able to live its core purpose which was to find ways for people, who never before had access to the comfort of insurance, to be able to buy policies. Likewise, a return to this core purpose would re-invigorate the organisation, provide a natural course of action for how the company does business and ensure a more 'human' culture.
Likewise, an organisation like Disney had a simple core purpose: 'to make children happy and to help them dream.' As long as Disney understands and remains true to its core purpose, every point at which stakeholders interact with the organisation, will be a reflection of this purpose and a natural authenticity will flow through the veins of the organisation.
In short, how aware the organisation is of its core purpose, how well-connected employees are to that purpose and how emotionally healthy the organisation is - will get customers through the door and keep them there. It is the job of marketers in this era to re-discover the core purpose of the organisation and to live that purpose by designing interactions that are less mechanical, less driven by linear business models and more human - driven by personal and inter-personal social behaviours.
It is the only response to an all-powerful customer who is demanding transparency and making it happen.
As published in Advantage Magazine - June 2012