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Marketing needs EMPATHY

Customer-centricity is the kind of word that gives marketing a bad name.

Firstly, it’s seven syllables long. Not many of those in daily use. Irreversibility. Unconventionality. And this is harder to say. You almost have to take a run-up.

Secondly, it’s a horrible, horrible bit of jargon, designed to repel ‘normal’ people from any useful meaning.

Thirdly, it doesn’t always mean what you think it should mean. According to Dr. Peter Fader, author of Customer Centricity (his spelling), it’s about focusing marketing efforts solely on your highest value customer segment in order to drive profit. Kind of customer-data-centricity.

Fourthly (look at me go), people use the word like it’s this profound piece of modern-day wisdom. Those in and around the technology world are particularly inclined to do this. Mind you, the road to business glory is littered with the wreckage of burnt-out technological innovations where no one had given even the slightest thought to the potential customer.

And fifthly, it’s a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. Think about the customer. Do they want what you are offering? What’s the benefit?

Of course, many, many, many marketing courses, textbooks, articles and commentators bang on about this. It’s the default setting for anyone writing a marketing blog.

Beyond the simple point of remembering that without customers you don’t actually have a business, the recurring theme is what’s often called ‘market orientation’.

Market orientation is a business approach or philosophy that focuses on identifying and meeting the stated or hidden needs and wants of customers. It’s the opposite of product orientation, which puts the focus on a business’s product and the skills, knowledge and systems that support it.

Mark Ritson, as he is inclined to do, takes it further. He says market orientation can be summed up as: “You are not the consumer”. He reckons that if you make a product, you cannot see it from the customer’s perspective. Likewise, if you work in an agency, your views on campaigns and brands are (expletive deleted).

He has a point. But his kind of customer-centricity (I do hate typing it) can be just as dangerous. It’s saying it’s all about the customer and that customer is nothing whatsoever like you. There is no common ground, so don’t even go looking for it. Presumably, sit and wait for the researchers to turn up with the map.

But the best marketing and advertising people do have a connection with their customers. They know their lives may be different in many ways. But they get them.

Of course, your customers’ needs may be held in a different balance to your own. Some of us need a whole load of Control to keep the ship afloat, others need the Freedom to throw it all over the side. But deeper needs are universal. We have more in common than we think.

That’s why one of the best places to start any brand project is with what we call ‘Consumer Closeness’.

It’s when you send the team off on their own to spend time with a typical consumer of their brand, either in-home or in a shop or both. You arm them with a simple discussion guide and some basic interview training. Then you give them a reassuring wave goodbye and tell them to treat it like visiting a friend. They tend to be a little pale by this point.

But if you’re lucky, this amazing thing then happens. They realize their consumers aren’t consumers at all. They are people, actual people. With things going on in their lives that you can actually understand, if you try.

My favourite example was when running a Consumer Closeness programme for Heinz on Babyfood. To be fair, that is a category where it can be hard to put yourself in your target’s shoes, particularly if you are no longer in the eye of Hurricane Baby or haven’t had children yet.

One of the people who took part was a ‘pre-family’ brand manager aged 24 and we sent her to spend three hours with a single mother of three, also aged 24, who’d had her first child at 16. The Heinz person had never done Consumer Closeness before, so she was nervous. I think she went in expecting to find a creature from another world.

But by the end you could tell they had really bonded and her feedback was full of insight. Deep down, she knew the two of them were quite similar and as she said: “I had this image of how my life could have gone.”

That’s what you need in marketing. Empatheticity.

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