Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Fresh Look at Consumers

The title of this book is deceptively boring – reams have been written in marketing literature on looking at consumer as an amorphous mass to be segmented according to wealth, place of stay and age group. However this book is a refreshing change and looks at the marketing function from what the consumer is – a unique being, defying easy classifications. It questions the widely held myth that marketing is all about creating choices for the king that is the consumer. The book is written in a highly readable style with appropriate illustrations, drawing insights both from the marketing literature and much more from the social sciences.

The underlying tone of the book is constantly to measure the distance between the promise made by the producers of goods and the reality of what it actually delivers. She starts the book by trying to understand what “consumer oriented” approach to marketing is. Is for instance putting up a call centre to respond to the complaints of consumers is good enough mechanism of exhibiting consumer orientation? Has data mining and use of databases become indiscriminate to the extent of irritating a potential consumer. Has the smile of a salesman/salesgirl or the voice of a telemarketer become too artificial? In the process have we forgotten the purpose of creating the database in the first place? All this brings up the question of what one would like to define as a consumer.

The author then moves on to look at the paradoxes of meaning; about differentiation and positioning. She shows instances where the positioning of a product by the marketer is not always the way the consumer takes it in. For instance in the Indian agricultural context given the fragmentation of land, we should all be producing small power tillers rather than huge tractors. However the tiller market has never taken off – the principal reason being that the tractor has been put to uses that the producer had intended for. The meaning therefore is more a matter of perception and application. Most often the marketers close their eyes to the diversity of the consuming class. Most often the parameters of segmentation are set by the consumer, and there are always hidden meanings involved in the consumption pattern.

The next few chapters talk about the market place. The constant argument of the author is that while the marketers say that they treat their consumers as gods, most of the time the way they deal with them has an underlying assumption of moronic behaviour. The author illustrates how in the new era of information access on the internet consumers could put this to more creative uses. They could exercise choice without fatigue of having to visit several stores, can have advance information about products and can even create havoc if they are dissatisfied with the product/service. The time and geographic boundaries are thinning and therefore no markets can be considered insular by any marketer. This opens up a whole new opportunity for the vigilant consumer. She argues that this should be seen by intelligent marketers as an opportunity “within every problem the consumer has, there is potentially a solution, a better, more efficient, effective way of doing things and they should see this as a missed opportunity and not potentially a threat.”

In the next few chapters, the author devotes considerable amount of space in discussing innovations and how ideas could be converted into products. At the outset there is innovation – innovation could be finding a new idea that could be converted into a product, or an idea that finds a new use for an existing product. While the former usually comes from the producers of the product, the producers should constantly be vigilant to find out from the users if there are ways in which the use of the product could be stretched. She talks about how plastic containers have found a new meaning in water starved Africa – a purpose a producer of the container would never have imagined; or nearer home the famous story of a washing machine tub being used to churn Lassi in Punjab! These are great opportunities for the producers of such products to look at how the core product could be stretched and opportunities could be milked.

How does one communicate innovations? Are the people who do not consume the products as soon as they are launched to be termed as laggards? Is there an opportune time for somebody to try out a so called “new” product? These and other issues of diffusion of innovation are dealt with in the next part of the book. She argues that innovation and resistance are two parts of a continuum and several times this important fact is ignored. While arguing for rationality amongst marketers, she also points out how consumers could often be irrational. Think of the new age consumers consuming organically grown agricultural products moved from far distances. While such products consume five times their weight in fuel to move long distances to honour the consumer’s fad, the same consumer could also be entering into a restaurant and consuming something else that has absolutely no relation to the fad. While she is arguing vehemently on the irrationality of the consumer, she comes very close to the arguments of Schumacher and his appropriate technology argument that was so well known in management circles a few decades ago. Surprisingly the book makes seamless movement between drawing from Jean Paul Sartre’s books – Being and Nothingness and Existentialism and from Jagadish Sheth’s articles on customer centric marketing, the bibliography does not contain any of the usual suspects in the marketing field – Kotler included.

In a sense, this is really a book on social science. An analysis set in understanding the sociology of the consumer and marketers in the post-modern setting. The book only masquerades as a marketing book. It therefore raises more questions to the marketing fraternity than it answers. Unlike most marketing books which have a quickfix solution on reaching the consumers heart and pocket, this book questions the validity of several of these solutions. If the best way of learning about any phenomenon is through asking a series of intelligent and well informed questions, this book does precisely that. In doing so, it lives up to what it argues – it does not treat its reader as a moron, instead engages the reader intellectually. It is indeed a very useful book and possibly should be read by people who keep segmenting and positioning consumers into vague categorizations as if they were watermelons to be classified according to size, shape and colour.

Understanding the Consumer

By Isabelle Szmigin
Response Books (A division of Sage Publications), New Delhi 2003
Price: Rs.280 (Paper)

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