There's no longer such thing as consumer behavior
Creativity Marketing Transformation

Marketing to Real People Starts with Losing the Consumer Label

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What’s in a name?

Turns out, a lot more than we think. Although it may be easy to regard a person’s name as nothing other than an identifying label, names are the first way we have of describing ourselves to the world. Names represent a greater sense of individual identity and serve to distinguish us in a crowd.

Often, a person’s name carries personal or cultural significance that connects them to their family or community. The same holds true for group identities. Whether you’re a Southerner, an Eagle Scout, or a Red Sox fan, the communities that we align ourselves with both provide us with a sense of belonging and make a statement to the public about the things we value most.

With so much individual nuance and significance placed on these labels, why then are so many marketers still referring to their audiences as “consumers”?

Marketers are more concerned than ever with developing a personalization strategy and creating authentic, trustworthy content. We regularly try to achieve a better understanding of audience behavior by investing resources in areas like social listening and sentiment analysis. Yet often we neglect the simplest path to recognizing the humanity in the people we market to: the language we use to refer to them.

In an interview with Ian Fitzpatrick, the head of global content and digital marketing at New Balance, he cautioned brands not to fall-back on terms like “consumer” when outlining a strategy to reach audiences, advising, “The language of marketing gets in the way of making connections with real people.”

Here’s how your marketing team can work to re-define the terms of your audience in order to establish that real, human connection.

Shedding the Consumer Label Starts With Recognizing the Human Experience

view audiences as people

Image attribution: Kevin Grieve

When asked why he felt such a strong objection to using the word “consumer” within his own marketing strategy, Fitzpatrick explained, “The first thing it does is reduce people to one dimension, by which it assumes that somebody exists to buy your product. Most of us don’t. Most of us exist to love, and feel, and experience things—not to buy stuff. To me, that’s dehumanizing. I don’t know how you make things for people if you only see them as people who buy stuff.”

A report published by Fitzpatrick’s previous agency, Almighty, found that most brand’s today have a limited scope of the customer journey, failing to account for behaviors that occur outside of direct interactions with their organization.

In reality, customer behavior is rarely that simple. Every person’s journey is multi-faceted and compounded by things entirely unrelated to your business goals.

“Using the language of buying rather than the language of exciting, or interesting, or reaching people misses an awful lot of the customer journey. It’s not pragmatic. It’s just not a practical way to talk about people. Most people don’t spend very much of their time buying,” says Fitzpatrick.

The first step in reframing how you approach your content strategy is to set expectations for how you speak and think about your customers within your internal organization and day-to-day planning. He recommends that marketers who find themselves slipping back into that consumer mindset hold themselves accountable for finding new, more accurate words for their perceived base.

“I ask that my teams not use it as a proxy for people. There are certainly plenty of times when the word is relevant. I just choose that we find a different word like person rather than consumer just to get us in the right mind frame. I encourage my team, as I have at other organizations, to love and respect the people you’re making things for,” he says.

The names we give people directly influence the way we treat them. A study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that knowing just a subject’s first name, led people to perceive individuals differently in terms of intelligence, popularity, and overall competence. By thinking of our entire audience as nondescript consumers, we immediately set low expectations for what they have to offer, limiting our own marketing efforts to mere transactional relationships.

Good Brand Personas Are In the Details

The greatest resources for any brand looking to expand the view of their audience members into more dynamic individuals are well-rounded customer personas. A person’s journey should always be at the center of your content strategy before you begin deciding what content you are going to produce. Major marketing disconnects occur when we start with the story we want to sell people without first accounting for where they’re coming from and how they’re going to react to it.

“Don’t cherry pick the piece that justifies the content you want to create. Get inside that persona, and understand the motivations and the real challenges that that person has. Often you see organizations that tap into personas, find one or two points that satisfy an easy to fill box, and then go ahead and check that off,” says Fitzpatrick.

When crafting your brand’s own personas, choose descriptions that reflect the needs of real people instead of generalized stereotypes. Conduct research, social media polls, and customer interviews to understand the priorities of your audience. While these insights will obviously include how people interact with your brand, fully fleshed-out personas will also account for interactions with adjacent brands and the challenges they face in both their work and personal lives.

Learning the Language of People

marketers should see consumers as participants

Image attribution: Omar Lopez

“Segmentation,” “lead,” “targeting”—all of these terms have become so commonplace in marketing meetings that many of us don’t realize how disconnected they are from real-life customer behavior.

“I’ve never ‘acquired’ a close friendship or a significant other. The idea that they belong to you, or that you’re going to like pick them off is—it’s the language of marketing, not the language of connection, not the language of people,” says Fitzpatrick.

Terms like “targeting” give marketers the (incorrect) impression that they can control the way customers experience the content they provide. Fitzpatrick suggests that content marketers get past this generalized vocabulary by stepping outside the industry for inspiration and defining the specific emotional response they want a piece of content to elicit from their audience.

“You don’t hear great storytellers and great content creators like Spike Lee or Steven Spielberg or Walt Disney talking about targeting an 18-to-24-year-old, you know? [. . .] They talk about the actual nature of the people they want to reach.”

Great creators don’t want people to just passively consume their content; they want them to experience and respond to it. In the case of Disney, for example, brand leaders may be seeking to delight and indulge those 18-to-24-year-old theme park visitors in the atmosphere of childhood fantasy. By shifting your marketing team’s vocabulary towards more active, more specific verbs, you shape a clearer vision of what you want your content to accomplish.

More so, the role of the customer today is much more productive and lively than a term like consumer gives them credit for. As Neil Parker writes for Forbes, “This in an era when people are empowered to produce in more ways than ever before, engaging as active critics, advocates, organizers, curators, or co-creators with the products or services they care about.”

People aren’t content to simply accept what a brand gives them; they’re seeking opportunities to contribute. Many brands benefit from promoting user-generated content, such as encouraging fans to upload their personal photos and videos to their social media accounts. Furthermore, tools like VR technology and shoppable content platforms have made digital marketing a fully immersive experience.

The clear barrier between provider and purchaser has broken down and been replaced by a collective ecosystem. When the term consumer first entered into the English lexicon back in the twelfth century, it referred to any draining of resources and came to mean “using up, wasting away, and finishing.”

Yet the relationships formed by your brand are never really finished, and the content marketing funnel never really ends. The aim of your content is not to momentarily attract fleeting eyes who will take what you have to offer and click over to the next window. You want your brand to create an inviting environment that turns consumers into participants and hopefully into returning subscribers.

If your marketing is only concerned with servicing a consumer at that single touchpoint, you are essentially positioning success as a dead end. Now’s the time to erase the term “consumer” from our marketing dictionary, so we can start having real, complex conversations around our content.

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Featured image attribution: Tom Pottiger


Paige Breaux is a lifelong bookworm, musical theatre fan, and coffee addict with a BA in English and Journalism from Boston University. Before joining the Skyword team, she worked in trade publishing and wrote articles for lifestyle publications like The Odyssey and Her Campus. Paige currently lives in Brighton, MA.

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