Consumer Awareness: Changing the Conversation
Pretty pictures won’t cut it anymore. Over the past 35 years, design has had to evolve in response to changes in consumers - their awareness, attitudes and behaviours.
The business environment of the UK in the Seventies is hardly imaginable now. Customers were completely at the mercy of large corporations: If the bank closed its doors during lunch, it was simply closed. If the bank granted a mortgage, the prospective homeowner felt honoured. In this climate, where customers had fewer choices and fewer channels for information, the ad-man was king. Well-known brands were trusted. Consumers listened to the message presented and generally accepted it as true.
In fact, a survey by Ipsos MORI shows that in the late 1970s almost 60% of the British public believed that large companies’ profits helped make things better for everyone who used their products and services. They regarded the money spent with these organisations as an investment in their own future happiness and security. Today, of course, most of us would consider this sentiment naïve at best.
More transparency, Less Trust
Consumers now actually have more reasons to trust major organisations. Increased legislation and corporate governance mean that companies are held to a higher standard of transparency and have to conduct their business in a fair and open manner. Yet for all this openness, customers tend to be more cynical about and less loyal to brands they encounter.
This fickleness has been cultivated by a marketplace in which more companies are competing for our money and customers are exposed to a vast number of products and services to choose from. The Internet has been the single most important factor in completely transforming the way we research, compare, challenge and support our brand decisions.
Customers who feel they have been wronged no longer need to seethe in silence — now they can connect instantly with millions of like-minded customers, shout about their experience and even influence the organisation they have an issue with. While they’re at it, they can easily find an alternative who will offer them a better deal and switch their custom over with a few clicks.
It’s no longer sufficient to broadcast a positive message about a product and trust that the response will follow; businesses today have to manage how they’re perceived in sophisticated new ways. This is nirvana for the consumer but a challenge for businesses and marketing professionals.
The Other Way Around
To withstand this new level of scrutiny, companies have to think longer and harder about their communications message. Any rift between the public face of a brand and the actual experience of interacting with it is a deep grave, difficult to climb back out of.
More and more, marketers are being brought into the process not as an afterthought, not as ad-man shills, but earlier, as valued business advisors — shaping the product and the company’s practices before they see the light of day. Of course, most of this advice is outwith the usual role of the marketer and is given away for free. So another modern challenge for marketing professionals is convincing clients and senior colleagues that marketing needs to be taken seriously as a central part of any business strategy — and help them appreciate the added value they provide in this new capacity.
Marketers must help clients understand their customers inside and out before even attempting to market their product or service. From this understanding, the business can then offer some sort of reward for interaction with the brand that’s meaningful to the customer and leaves them with a positive impression and a warm feeling about the brand.
With such a proliferation of new ways to reach consumers — digital print, e-mail, RSS feeds, SMS, desktop alerts, websites with customisable preferences and so on — it’s easy for end customers to tailor the experience they want to have in interacting with their brands. These customers are also enthusiastic about talking back. The result is an open-ended dialogue in which organisations can gain valuable information about what their customers truly want and value — essentially a ‘strategic conversation’ that leads to a unique level of understanding and responsiveness and, ultimately, to long-lasting, rewarding relationships.
Today’s successful creative agencies are the ones who can guide their clients through a complete process for thinking about their brand, their business and their message, then translate the result of this investigation into an inspired design that frames the rest of the experience to follow.