The more I talk to people about consumer decision-making and the potential for buyer-centric services, the more I hear what appears to be a new conventional wisdom: that consumers don’t know what they want until marketers tell them.
This was one of the pushbacks I got from my talk at Nottingham Business School. Like so much else that’s said about the so-called ‘irrationality’ of consumer decision-making, it’s a) more complicated than the simplistic slogan and b) fuelled to a large degree by marketers’ own self-serving propaganda.
So let’s look a little closer.
First, there is the whole debate about the role of conscious and unconscious processes in decision-making. I’ve touched on that elsewhere so won’t return to it here. So what else is there?
Well, there is one important area where it is absolutely true that consumers don’t what they want until marketers tell them: the arena of innovation where the consumer doesn’t know what’s possible.
For example, he is ignorant of technological or other capabilities and doesn’t know that it’s possible to fly through the air in a steel tube, or talk to a person on the other side of the world in real time, so he thinks he has to go by boat or write a letter.
This is probably the most important area where the line ‘consumers don’t know what they want until marketers tell them’ is absolutely true. It’s the background to Henry Ford’s oft-quoted remark that if he had asked consumers what they wanted, they wouldn’t have said a motor car; they would have said a faster horse. It’s where innovators and inventors come along and say ‘you never knew this before, but now it’s possible to do X!’
But we also have to keep it in perspective. Time and time again, studies of new product launches show that the vast majority of so-called ‘new’ products are actually new versions of old products – an added tweak or feature, a variant of some sort. A tiny minority of supposedly new products – around 1-2% – are actually new to the world. So while it’s true that consumers don’t know that they want innovations till they see them, this truth actually only accounts for a tiny proportion of total marketing activity.
So, apart from this tiny proportion, where else does the adage hold true? Well, there are number of areas where it seems like it holds true, but probably doesn’t. Here are three examples:
- The consumer doesn’t know what’s available. In most markets, especially where consumers are relative novices, they only have a cursory knowledge of what’s available on the market. Because the costs of searching for information about these different choices is so high they often don’t bother. In these circumstances, they become at least partially reliant on marketers telling them what’s available – and when they come across what they want, they go out and buy.
Viewed from the point of view of the marketer, this looks like the consumers waiting for the marketer to tell them what they want, but actually it’s nothing of the sort. Consumers’ apparent passivity is a by-product of the high costs of searching, sifting, comparing what’s available. The job of buyer-centric services is to help consumers know what’s available, thereby reducing their dependency on this sort of spoon-feeding.
- The consumer doesn’t know what’s best In some cases, even where the consumer is aware of a wide range of alternatives, he still doesn’t know which option to go for: he needs advice. Again, this is especially true when the consumer is a relative novice and where the product or service is relatively unfamiliar or complex.
What the consumer really needs here is trustworthy advice. But usually that’s not available at an affordable price, so the consumer has to take a different approach. Historically, one of the lowest risk routes available was to opt for the most reputable, most famous supplier i.e. the one that did the most advertising.
Again, the ‘evidence’ seems to show that it is the marketer telling consumers want they want, but actually this evidence is just a manifestation of a deeper issue – the high costs of getting trustworthy advice.
The job of buyer-centric services is to provide the trustworthy advice (see Problem Solving Communities) thereby reducing dependentce on these short-cuts.
- Impulse purchasing, where the consumer is titillated by the marketer’s marketing I remember once, I went out and the weather turned nasty. I was on my way home feeling cold, wet, hungry and miserable when I saw an ad for Heinz Tomato Soup. I looked at the ad and thought ‘that’s just what I want to warm and comfort me’ – and bought a tin there and then. I didn’t know that I wanted a bowl of hot tomato soup until the ad ‘told’ me and triggered the desire.
Marketing activities such as these crystallise desires by stimulating consumers’ senses. This is the secret behind impulse purchases, and it will remain a feature of life as long as human beings have impulses.
But again, if you look at purchasing as a whole – especially in terms of amounts of money spent – most purchases aren’t impulse, they are considered to some degree or other. And on many occasions, the consumer defaults to an impulse approach because the cost or complexity of making a better, more informed decision is so high.
So if we look at the above four scenarios, we discover that only one of them really holds true: the case of ‘newness’ where much of the value that’s being provided comes from the very fact that nobody has thought of this before. The other three areas where it seems that consumers need to be told what they want are actually symptoms of the deeper problem: that in today’s commercial environment, the costs of decision-making are so high that most people opt for short-cuts, because otherwise they would go mad.
When we do know what we want
The other side of the coin is that there are also a number of cases where it’s palpably not true that consumers need to be told what they want. In every market you can think of, there is always a spectrum of consumers ranging from the complete novice who doesn’t even know what questions to ask, to the absolute connoisseur. In other words, market by market, category by category, product by product, situation by situation we are all of us on some sort of learning curve.
The more experienced and knowledgeable we become, the more we know what we want and the less helpful marketers trying to tell us otherwise becomes. In fact, at this end of the spectrum the boot moves to the other foot, where marketers need to engage with these consumers because they know what they want better than the marketers! This is the impetus behind the growing interest in ‘co-creation’.
A common half way house here is where people ‘sort of’ know what they want, but find it hard to articulate and express.
The really big area is in the middle: the many cases where consumers currently rely on marketers telling them what they want because, the way markets currently work, the sheer hassle of doing anything different is simply much too much.
The buyer-centric opportunity
Now, if we look through this list, we discover the potential for a whole range of different buyer-centric services. For example:
- Where the consumer doesn’t know what’s available, making it easier and quicker for the consumer to find out (by for example, using search, peer-to-peer, buyer’s guide and other mechanisms)
- Where the consumer defaults to heuristics for lack of good advice – here the buyer-centric service can make the consumer less reliant on the marketer by providing better advice via peer reviews, expert reviews, problem solving communities and the like.
- Where the consumer needs help in articulating exactly what they want/need. Looking forward, this is probably one of the richest areas of buyer-centric service, and it’s made possible by consumer-to-consumer information sharing: ‘I might not have been on this journey before, but many others have – and I can pick their brains to help me work out what’s right, and what’s not right, for me’.
- Where the consumer wants to specify what they want but can’t get. This is the arena of specialist ‘request for proposal’ services which reverse the flow and which help consumers to talk to marketers and say ‘actually, this what I want’.
So what’s our net conclusion?
- First, there is a role for the marketer ‘telling consumers what they want’. But in reality, it’s actually quite restricted – mostly to the arena of innovation.
- Second and much more important, there is a massive unmet need for services that help consumers work out and articulate what they want for themselves.
Most marketers’ claims about consumers needing to be told what they want do not relate to the passivity or lack of imagination of consumers – they relate to the costs consumers incur when they go to market; costs which are, for the most part, created by marketers themselves; costs which make navigation, choice etc expensive and difficult and which prompt consumers to opt, instead, for whatever marketers put in front of them.