Are Consumerism And Populism Converging?


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Not to exclude other countries, but every U.S. citizen is a customer many times over, and a vast number of customers are citizens as well. But does this dual identity mean anything? Five years ago, I would have answered, “That’s an obtuse question.” But today, the question is anything but obtuse–and answering it will help us understand a very important and still evolving dual dynamic.

Anger is becoming the order of the day

Most Americans today are angry, somewhere on the spectrum from irritated to outraged, with ongoing movement towards the latter. What’s yanking their chains? Institutions–big banks, the rest of the business community, government, even religion–forces shaping lives with perceived indifference towards people – whether customers or citizens.

Customers show no mercy

In their customer lives, many people have developed a thoroughly bad attitude towards business. The airlines say they have to charge more to survive? “Cry us a river.” Branded package goods prices keep going up? “To hell with your brand. Generics are just fine by us.” The big three finally start making decent cars? “Hey, you stuck it to us for too long. We ain’t comin’ back.” Supermarkets try to pass on higher whole sales prices? “CostCo, here we come.” Pimply, adolescent salespeople who don’t know squat from shinola selling upscale electronics? “Where’s the door? And where’s the nearest Best Buy?”

Not much loyalty left. Even less empathy and consideration. It’s not a dog-eat-dog world. It’s becoming a dog-eat-seller world.

Citizens are up in arms, as well

When citizens live within customer bodies (or is it the other way around), bad attitudes bleed over from one side to the other. While our citizen sides haven’t advanced as fast along the anger curve, they’re catching up – fast. Get caught in a compromising situation? “Next election you’re toast.” Don’t share our every value? “Don’t want you representing us on anything.” Seems like there are more litmus tests than issues. Go back on key campaign pledges, as you’ve always done before? “This time, we’ll nail you to the wall.” Want to develop wind-powered electricity? “Keep those ugly towers out of my back yard…and out of my ocean.” Make a gaffe in public? “We’re dying to watch it on cable TV, so we can laugh at you…and diss you.”

It’s becoming a cruel world out there for politicians, too.

Customers and citizens are becoming two sides of the same coin

Now we’re seeing customer and citizen behavior blend together and reinforce each other. Manipulating gas prices on us? “Let’s pass an excess profits tax and take our money back. Need more money for roads and schools? “With prices so high, we can’t afford it.” Want to campaign against union representation? “We’ll pass a law so you can’t.” Leaving customers you finessed into bad mortgages twisting in the wind? “Let’s force you to take a haircut on them. And while we’re at it, let’s empower bankruptcy judges to ‘cram down’ new loan terms on you.” Lose our investments with irresponsible gambles? “We’ll outlaw your business model…and hopefully hang you from a yardarm.”

The days of government’s historical laissez faire and caveat emptor attitudes towards buyer-seller problems are over…at least here in the U.S. Remember, government is of the people, by the people and for the people. People are taking the “for” much more seriously. You do something untoward towards us? “We’ll have the government take you down.”

Our customer and citizen behavior are co-mingling.

Am I over-painting the picture? Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, customers and citizens are finding their voice. It’s the same voice. And it’s damned loud. Already we see emergence of both a customer bully-pulpit and a citizen bully pulpit. But it’s the same pulpit, one side facing forward, the other side facing back.

Meet the new boss, who’s not the same as the old boss.


  1. Hi Dick

    I hear your cry. And I feel for you to a large extent. As the old saying goes, “we get the politicians we deserve”. I guess that goes for businessmen too.

    Maybe it is time for normal, middle-ground citizens to take back government from the extremists and the special interests. And customers to take back companies from the greedy and Wall Street. Maybe they are related through the corrupting influence of money.

    Or maybe what we see is just the cyclical nature of man-made institutions, over-shooting as they tend to, amplified by the difficult recession we are all now in.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

  2. Graham – I definitely agree with your cyclical comment, especially the overextenion followed by pull-back notion. What may be different about today (at least here in the U.S.) is that consumerism and populism seem to be fueling each other. I’ve never sensed that before.


  3. Dick and Graham,

    Agreed, we are not happy campers. Your post and comments brought to mind two ideas that were independently presented. I think there is some relationship.

    First comes from an article called “The Economics of What Matters.”

    The gist is that a focus on GDP gets us in a heap of trouble and is untenable as a long-term concept. I will let the author make his case. Here is how I see it relates to our current situation. As customers we want companies to deliver things of value. Yet, as investors we want a return and a big one. If business leaders don’t deliver we sell the stock or put pressure on companies to fire them. We are unconsciously conflicted.

    The second thought relates to a recent blog on this site that talked about focusing on the outcomes for customers. The outcome we want better experiences and as the first articles describes, that is not always a one-to-one match with being wealthy.

    Some more food for thought.


    John I. Todor, Ph.D.

  4. Dick, John

    John Kay, the English economist who writes a column in the Financial Times, wrote a great article on this topic some years ago. His point, which refers to both happiness and success in other walks of life, is that don’t achieve what you want by focussing directly on that one thing, but by focussing indirectly on the things that enable it. So you don’t grow vaue for shareholders by focussing directly on shareholder value management, but by focussing indirectly on the things that enable shareholder value, such as delivering what customers need, at competitive prices, through motivated employees. Uncommon common sense.

    John Kay

    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.


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