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Keep up. Customer needs have changed.

The internet has changed everything. Human lift is not the same now as it was in the pre-internet era. We are in a different age. A cultural and behavioural revolution has occurred.

Where do we now place value

With the increase in availability of similar (or the exact same) products through the explosion of capabilities in communication, technology and globalisation, over time the value we attach to products and services has shifted from the tangible to the non-tangible.

One hundred years ago the ‘market places’ of the world were uncluttered. The way products were marketed was on the basis of what a product was and what features it had. When consumers became used to being told what a product was and other, more refined products came to market with the same features the focus shifted to product benefits. The slight advantages of a product became the key driver of the advertising in order to get noticed. The more things that the product had the better the product and the more things there were to advertise. As time went on and competing products developed the same refined features the saturated marketplaces shifted to focus on the experience of the product. How did the product make a customer feel as they used it and engaged with the business that sold it? All of these things were based on marketeers attempting to find things to interrupt a consumers life to tell them about their product - but now, with the technology available to us things are very different.

Recent evidence

In this last week, in the UK, we have seen two major retail giants declare bankruptcy (Toys R Us and Maplin). Fiona Cincotta, senior market analyst at City Index was quoted by the Guardian to of said: "Firstly, the squeeze on the consumer thanks to elevated levels of inflation, combined with wage declines in real term, which is causing consumers to rein in their spending on damaging level. And secondly, this reining back in spending couldn’t have come at a worst time in the high street’s history, as consumer habits change towards online shopping, favouring the likes of Amazon for their fast delivery and wider selection and more competitive pricing."

Earlier in the year Next reported that their physical retail stores had suffered a loss whilst their online store was booming. See here.

It must be recognised that things are changing. Fast.

The two main challenges of modern marketing

I believe there are two main challenges marketeers face.

1. Standing out

A consumer is now only two voice commands away from being able to obtain a product at any moment of the day. In this sense the resources available to them are more powerful now than ever before in the history of the world. However when that consumer hits their smartphone or makes their voice command there are so many products that do exactly the same thing that its difficult for them to make a decision as to which product they should choose. From a marketing perspective the biggest challenge therefore is to stand out in the crowded marketplace.

2. Being magnetic

Technology has also allowed consumers to screen out unwanted advertising. They do not want to be interrupted. They have important things to do with their time. So the next biggest challenge is to become known to an audience so that they seek you out rather than you go and interrupt them.

Identity is the currency of success

Don't get me wrong. Features, benefits and experience are all still important, but how you overcome the two main challenges is to focus on is what the product says about the customer. The brands which succeed in saturated market places are the ones which stand for something because they help customers identify. They help customers reinforce the story they have created about themselves in their own mind. They help customers express themselves and explain to the world who they are.

In an August 2012 article entitled "What Motivates People to Buy Compulsively?" Psychology Today, Ryan T. Howell, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University has something interesting to say. Referencing a study being conducted by BeyondThePurchase.Org, states: “By definition, materialists place a greater emphasis on tangible items as indicators of identity and success, often believing that acquiring goods leads to happiness. More specifically, materialists buy products that signal their identity (such as clothes)...Thus, they are more likely to respond emotionally to the items and marketing messages they encounter.”

Branding then needs to consider not only the 'brand identity' but also the 'customer identity'.

Maplin and Toys R Us both struggled with this. They did not get that they needed to shift from being business orientated to being customer orientated. They needed to invest in their stores and the experience they gave to shoppers. They needed better branding - that is they needed to manage the meaning that customers attached to them.

Unlock Meaning

All of these things; features, benefits, experience and identification are now important to the modern consumer of a brand. These must become the focus. You need to know and understand all of these things to effectively position a brand. However the hardest but most powerful is the final aspect of identity. This is what makes you stand out for the crowd.

Ask yourself, what does it mean to a consumer to buy my product or service? What does it say about that person? When the customer uses your product or service what does this say about them? Are they looking to overcome fear? Are they seeking empowerment? How do they define success? How could you enhance that meaning? How could you better help them overcome their goals and challenges and highlight and celebrate the meaning that that would give the person.

This is the key to unlocking the power of brand meaning and once you understand this you can then design the whole experience of a customer to enhance this meaning and give the consumer identity. You can reward them for that identity and celebrate it. You can connect groups of customers - not based around your marketing but based around the real meaning your brand exists to bring to the customer. Your brand becomes a symbol of a club they belong to - not simply a product they buy.

The flip side of this is that then customers will tell other people in similar circumstances to them about your brand. You will magnetically attract them.

To do this effectively a brand has to stand for a set of beliefs and live by them - thus attracting an audience who also believe what the brand believes. It really starts from the inside out.

In future posts we will explore ways that this can begin to be done by brands. In the meantime, keep up, customer needs have changed.

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