grass roots

ConsumerLoop #5, December 1998

The Disenfranchised Consumer

A phenomenon that presents potentially major problems for the brand in developed markets is the fact that many consumers are becoming disenfranchised from the marketing effort. The consumer has become more marketing literate and, in not-so-extreme cases, cynical about marketing and advertising. They are frequently able to deconstruct brand strategy. Add to this the intense volume of marketing communications directed at some segments, especially time-poor business people, and you have a clear case of overload.

Through the Loop has been looking to understand how companies will have to change the way they market to consumers given this evolving scenario. The idea of the cynical or disenfranchised consumer is itself not new. However, what we are now seeing is an escalation of the issue as we move beyond a simple consumer society to a lifestyle where other factors are playing an increasing role. Downshifting has become popular. This is evidence of the fact that many consumers are looking for alternatives to the accelerating pace of a high-pressure life. "Excessive" marketing may act as one trigger for this as consumers look to avoid the overload symptoms of modern society.

Furthermore, consumers have been taught that they have a voice. Research by Ventura in 1998 showed that the British complained more than other Europeans, 25-34 year olds being the most vociferous. Consumer television programmes have helped to educate consumers and they have learnt not to accept poor service or shoddy products. Through the Loop believes that customer service will become the new marketing battleground for the next decade.

A 1998 survey commissioned by the UK trade magazine Campaign showed that 52% of consumers switch channels during the commercial break. One of the major issues facing marketers today is the increase in the number of communications channels and the fragmentation within individual channels. This means that an individual communications opportunity may be less effective than it was in the past. More choice means a smaller audience for each opportunity. Add to this the possibility of changing TV channels during advertisement breaks or fast-forwarding video cassettes during playback and it becomes increasingly difficult to reach the viewer.

Towards the end of 1998, the UK trade magazine SuperMarketing reported a degree of cynicism towards Christmas as retailers were seen to be bringing the buying season forward. However, a consumer reaction to this is already evident with January sales starting, in some cases, as early as mid-December. One result of this is that a proportion of shoppers leave their Christmas shopping until the last minute in order to secure better bargains. This was shown at Christmas 1998 where there were many reports of late shopping once the sales had started. For example, the Metro Centre in Gateshead reported that it attracted a record 18,000 shoppers an hour when discounts of up to 80% were offered. The Financial Times called this type of behaviour Guerrilla Shopping.

Could Less Be More?

Every day we are bombarded with a multitude of commercial messages. It appears that there is an advertisement wherever there is space. Even sports players have seemingly become walking posters. The volume of direct marketing has risen substantially. For the time-poor and cash-rich consumer this effectively means that less will be read. Ultimately, all direct mail could be filtered out, not just the unwanted items. This has reached the stage where envelopes containing valuable documents now have "This is not a circular" printed on them. Add to this the potential intrusion of evening sales calls at home, and you have a consumer who cannot escape this apparent barrage. Is this likely to lead to increased consumption or message overload? Are consumers taking in these messages or simply tuning out or switching off?

Traditional media have not escaped this potential overkill. A report in the Wall Street Journal noted that some US women's magazines "weigh more than a midsize-city phone book." Under this scenario, does the magazine lose the credibility of quality advertisers if there are so many? In addition, how do individual advertisers stand out? There has been a move towards multi-page advertisements or other vehicles such as more inserts. It can be argued that this will not solve the problem, just exaggerate it. It does not address the problem but simply reframes it in a marginally different context.

In terms of brands, there may also be a less is more issue. Brands simplify choice through cutting through the clutter for the consumer. However, some brands may be overextended, e.g. through additional products carrying the brand name, that, far from simplifying choice, they merely create additional clutter and dilute the core brand values.

Declining Trust

One of the indications of the consumer cynicism is the declining trust in institutions. Heavily reported scandals have meant that the government or the church no longer command the respect they once did. The bank manager is frequently seen as a businessman not a community stalwart. This reflects the importance of working with the local community to build better consumer relationships. These improved relationships, in turn, lead to greater trust in the company or brand.

Developing Trust in the Brand

One way to gain consumer confidence is to encourage them to trust the brand. Henley Centre research shows that many household names are highly trusted by consumers and score higher ratings for trust than institutions such as the church, the police or the local member of parliament. These brands will thus find it easier to develop their relationships, launch new products or extensions. Conversely, a lack of trust will indicate a brand in trouble. The long-term success of companies such as Marks & Spencer and the supermarkets in the UK financial services sector is an indication of the trust in these brands compared with traditional financial services companies.

Communications media should be used selectively. While Through the Loop advocates utilising a full range of communications options, this does not mean a scattergun approach. Instead, companies should evaluate different media channels so that the role of an individual channel can be defined and its effectiveness closely monitored. The style of the message should be appropriate for the media channel and the audience.

Consumers are increasingly able to see though "stick-on" values and can deconstruct brand messages. Marketers need to bear this in mind when developing new campaigns. For this reason, many companies are toning down claims such as environmental credentials. Many such claims have been viewed with cynicism as consumers felt that some claims were merely marketing talk rather than genuine credentials. One argument is that it is better not to make a claim and let the consumer discover the brand or company's credentials than to exaggerate and be found out.

Responsible Communications

As we move towards the Millennium, the application of marketing communications will have to change. Advertising and other promotional mechanisms do have an important informative and brand-building role to play. However, the marketing environment will be much tougher. Consumer pressure will necessitate a move towards more responsible communications.

Consumer groups are playing an increasing role and placing greater pressure on marketers. Canada's Media Foundation ( is notable. This anti-consumerism organisation is starting to make waves worldwide with initiatives such as its Adbusters magazine and its Buy Nothing Day. Marketers may view such organisations as extremists but they do represent an expanding group of disenfranchised consumers. This may be seen as the anarchic end of a trend, but a trend that nonetheless does exist. A significant group looks to avoid advertising or is critical of over-commercialisation. For this reason marketers should sit up and take notice.

At the same time there are a number of developing legal issues that may result indirectly from consumer pressure. The Europe-wide ban on advertising and promotion for tobacco is almost in place. This may be the thin end of the wedge and pressure may mount for greater control in other areas where there is debate such as advertising to children and alcoholic drinks.


The issue of how marketers talk to consumers is entering a new phase as consumers have become marketing literate and, in many cases, are tuning out. This does not mean that there will be no clear role for advertising and promotions. It does mean that marketers will have to look for new ways to formulate their messages and new media channels that will not merely reach consumers but also talk to them in the relevant language, e.g. avoiding hard sell messages. Consumers may have become cynical through ideological reasons or simply through overkill but the fact remains that advertising and other forms of communication may not work in the way they used to. This does not mean, however, that it is impossible to target these people. Rather it means that marketers may have to look for different ways to reach them. Soft sell will have to replace hard sell. Communications will have to look to avoid stereotypical targets in order to build maintain brand trust.

Advertising may be a soft target but advertisers should recognise that they do represent a target that could sometimes be justified. Even if a consumer group's attacks cannot be fully proven, it is still possible to cause considerable damage to a company's reputation. Witness the adverse for McDonald's caused by the "McLibel" case. Consumers are increasingly well-informed about issues and companies and are better equipped to communicate their views and ideas. There is no longer any hiding place. Consumers will shop more and more according to values. The age of the smart consumer is here.

In the case of advertising bans such as tobacco, it appears that the regulators may not be addressing the real issue. Banning advertising may make a product appear less glamorous but it can be argued whether advertising is the problem. Perhaps regulators should look at product availability. Advertising may often be made a scapegoat.

Through the Loop has undertaken a number of client projects which have looked at effective use of different communications channels. These typically include how individual channel types are best exploited so that their advantages are maximised and how they are best integrated with other channels. In some of our best practices studies, we have noted the importance of selective and tailored use of different communications and distribution channels.

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