Beware the Customer King


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One day, while I was attending a college introductory marketing class, the professor asked me to define “the marketing concept” in front of the class. Not having been fully prepared, I slowly stood up and sheepishly replied with an interrogatory “Buy low, sell high?” Okay, admittedly I hadn’t been prepared at all.

Commensurate with an outburst of laughter from the class, a student, two rows in front of me was called upon after furiously waving both arms as if to shout “I know, I know, please pick me professor!” In that moment, the only person who could have felt worse was this guy had he answered wrong. Unfortunately he got it right. And after the professor showered him with high praise, my embarrassment morphed into humiliation.

I have never forgotten the marketing concept. More than thirty years later, I can still recite it verbatim:

Firms should analyze the needs of their customers first before making decisions about how to satisfy those needs better than their competitors.

Shame is an underrated memorization aid.

The marketing concept suggests a two-step sequential ordering of how marketing is planned: “Analyze the needs of customers and do this before making decisions on how to satisfy those needs.” Knowing this, our professor told us, was the key that unlocked the door to the Kingdom of success. And now, after seeing and being associated with companies who have operated by this maxim, my suggestion is to find a different door.

…the King doesn’t always know what’s best for your brand.

Okay, if you are thinking of embarking on a campaign to sell buggy whips, you might not want to put the plant into overtime until you first learn how many people are still in need of horse and carriage transportation. Additionally for new brands or those without an established identity, surveying consumer needs before betting the farm also makes sense. However, for the majority of brands that fall somewhere between the relatively new and the barely staying alive, I’d strongly recommend avoiding the marketing concept.

The marketing concept is a by-product of the notion that the customer is King. “Know and cherish thy King’s demands,” sayeth the marketing concept “or else suffer his wrath.” I say, “bewareth of this guy (or gal),” he double-talks and can lead you down some treacherous paths if you are not careful.

Consider the legendary New Coke blunder for instance. In taste tests conducted throughout the world, the customer King said, “Wow, this tastes better than the old stuff.” But when introduced, the King vociferously complained, “How could Coke abandon its very rich heritage?”

More recently, The Gap changed its logo to reflect more of what the King told The Gap about its identity: get more hip. After being ridiculed by the King over the Internet for changing its logo, The Gap’s spokesperson lamented that they didn’t realize how much energy there is around their brand, and after much thought, they decided to go back to their iconic blue box logo.

More importantly, the King doesn’t always know what’s best for your brand.

Oldsmobile had a long-standing position as the Cadillac for the middle-class. The King said, “Your car is for the older crowd. To sell more cars, you should make it more youthful. So Olds decided to go young with a campaign themed, “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile.” Clever line. But now Oldsmobile no longer discriminates between fathers, sons or even grandsons. It’s a memory.

Reebok saw an opportunity to provide the King with a cool/hip fashion statement. But this called for re-engineering its DNA as a company engaged in facilitating athletic performance. And the customer King ran forth with a loud Swooshing sound as he switched his loyalties to Nike.

Stephen King was once asked to comment on a story he had read. “No,” he moaned. “It’s not a very good story. Its author was too busy listening to other voices as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside.” Therein lies an important lesson for the ‘marketing conceptors.’ Instead of beginning the planning process with a laser focus on customer needs, knowing what your brand stands for first can inoculate the brand against any temptations the King can use to entice a brand towards treachery.

There is nothing wrong with listening to the voice of the consumer. In fact, it is encouraged. But blindly relinquishing to an overestimated assessment of the King’s power can be disastrous. What your brand stands for is your story, not the customer King’s. And your story can’t be created as a result of doing what the King wants done. Admittedly, this is a challenging prescription since what a brand stands for is not always readily apparent.

Finding your “X”

Finding your story is like looking at one of those directories at the shopping mall. To eliminate confusion about where you are standing relative to all the other stores, a big “X ” calls out You Are Here! Nobody knows where the brand’s “X” is better than management. That “X” equates to the brand’s reason for being. And unless the entire organization is reading the same map, the brand’s story becomes inconsistent. But leadership that throws up its hands surrendering to the voice of the consumer King isn’t leadership. It’s followership. Besides the fickle and sometimes unpredictable nature of the King’s demands, “let’s put the “X” where the King wants it to be,” can lead to disingenuous claims, transparent motives and consumer distrust. The brand’s “X” has to be found and passionately pursued, not obsequiously created.

What your brand stands for is your story, not the customer King’s.

Successful brands like Apple, Nike, Southwest Airlines have no trouble agreeing on where their “X” is. This has a lot to do with explaining their success. In his recent book entitled Grow, Jim Stengel found that 50 brands, with well-defined “ideals,” including those that I just mentioned, outperformed the S&P by 400% over the last 1o years. For many brands however, knowing what their ideal is requires a certain amount of excavation. It’s a process that must give the brand’s voice more significance than the consumer’s. Consequently, it’s a process that requires a great deal of courage. Because when undertaken, the brand commits to overthrowing the once almighty customer King in order to claim its rightful thrown.

One of the ways to plan this excavation is to think of the brand in human terms, as the hero of its own story. It’s important to know the hero’s capabilities, functions and skill set. But analysis has to go beyond your basic SWOT. It has to get at the brand’s motivation. Motives, however described, always reveal underlying beliefs and values. Heroes do what they do because of what they believe. Ultimately, and in the long run, enduring customer relationships are more a function of shared values then desired product functions. Furthermore, playing the USP game is ephemeral given competition’s ability to innovate or copy those same differences over time.

Admittedly, finding the brand’s “X” can be challenging given the impact the discovery can have on a brand’s culture. Something will change. But that change will bring about a better alignment of everyone associated with selling the brand. Furthermore, ultimately regarding purpose as the route to profits instead of a regarding profits as the ultimate purpose will strengthen relationships with the consumer.

Long live the brand King.

This article has been adapted from Jim Signorelli’s new book, StoryBranding: Creating Standout Brands Through The Power of Story(Greenleaf 2012). To download a free chapter, visit www.eswpartnerscom/storybranding.

Jim Signorelli
Jim Signorelli is founder and CEO of ESW Partners and author of the new book, StoryBranding: Creating Stand-Out Brands Through the Power of Story. He has worked for a number of national consumer and business brands including Citibank, Kraft Foods, Burger King, Toshiba, Emerson Electric, and The American Marketing Association. Signorelli's agency has been cited as one of the fastest growing independent companies in the U.S. by Inc. Magazine for three years running and, in 2010, he was the recipient of the "Smart Leader" award given by Smart Business Magazine and U.S. Bank.


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