Magazine article Marketing

Consumer Power Takes a Grip

Magazine article Marketing

Consumer Power Takes a Grip

Article excerpt

Harriet Marsh examines the brands that are succeeding and failing in 'Planning for Consumer Change'

Do marketers have power over consumers? A few years ago, the majority of people would probably have answered in the positive. After all, the central tenet of marketing has long been that it can persuade consumers to act in a certain way.

But now the answer from many senior marketing people might be less certain. In a new report, 'Planning for Consumer Change 2000', consumer consultancy The Henley Centre suggests that "companies now ignore consumer empowerment at their peril."

The research throws up some interesting statistics: 65% of consumers are prepared to take action, in the form of a boycott, protest or lawsuit, against a company they perceive has wronged them; 84% expect companies they use regularly to listen to their opinions about the quality of service; over three-quarters (79%) expect not to be treated like a stranger by companies they use regularly; and 71% now expect companies to reward their regular use.

"As we get better off and better at consuming, we are becoming more demanding," says Martin Hayward, director of consumer consultancy at The Henley Centre. "The consumer is now king."

One marketer who has been ahead of the pack in understanding this is Richard Branson. By pitching himself as a consumer champion, Branson captured the public's imagination and his fan base continues to prove loyal.

Which is all the more impressive considering that the Henley Centre research reveals that the new, all-powerful consumer is also less trusting. The study shows that trust levels of the UK's biggest brands are continuing to decline -- a trend first noticed in 1999.

Rising cynicism

Fuelled by perceptions of rip-off Britain and encouraged by consumer champions from Watchdog to the Consumers' Association, the public is becoming more sceptical. Among those suffering most are institutional and financial brands, while retailers and food manufacturers seem to fare best.

"People have worked out that being a consumer is fun," says Hayward. "It used to be that people valued their role as a citizen, but we've become disenchanted with that and you only need look at recent elections to see the growing antipathy toward voting. Yet as a consumer, everyone wants to hear what you say and you possess the ultimate power of veto."

Consumers now have more spending power than ever and the changing nature of communication and easier access to information means that every person can have a voice. The concept of the silent minority no longer exists. In today's world, an individual can broadcast to the world from their bedroom via the internet.

One consequence has been that the business world has been forced to rethink its motivation. "Businesses are now starting to ask themselves how they can make the consumer's life easier, rather than how they can make their own lives easier," says Hayward.

But some sectors remain slow to respond. The Henley Centre research shows that consumer confidence in banks has dropped from 31% to 26% in the past year. Hayward suggests part of the problem is that they fail to listen to their customers, who complain about having to communicate with their bank through a call centre, or the closure of their local branch, in vain.

For example, Barclays Bank's launch of a campaign stressing how 'Big' it was and how its offering could service global businesses came at the same time as the bank announced record profits of [pound]2. …

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