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"Buyer Beware" - Are you a knowledgeable customer or one who can be manipulated?

"Buyer Beware" - Are you a knowledgeable customer or one who can be manipulated?

You can be sure that the brands you buy to position yourself externally are not the ones you will want everyone around you to be buying as well, so would be the last ones you'd promote.

There are many brands amidst us that see the task of marketing more as listening to customers rather than talking to them.  There are many brands amidst us that see the task of marketing more as listening to customers rather than talking to them.

People think of me as a "consumer person", a marketer by heart. I would agree with that, but I believe no marketing is the best marketing. At least "marketing" is commonly understood.

I'd begin with an encounter from a few years ago that taught me an unforgettable lesson. I was at the most enchanting studio of Brigitte Singh nestling in the shadows of Amber Fort, Jaipur. 

Brigitte is a highly exacting, extremely reticent artist and probably the finest block printer in India who makes the Mughal gardens come alive on textiles. 

We were surprised how agitated such a soft-spoken lady could become at the moment the words "brand" and "consumer" was uttered in the conversation.

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"I hate the idea of marketing", she said, "do you know what the word consume even mean?".

Indeed, Merriam-Webster describes it first as, "destroy" or "squander".

A great moment of learning for me it was.

I understood her disgust for heavily pushed marketing that gets people to destroy or squander. But even more fundamental in her argument lies the big difference between products we consume and those that we cherish, value. 

Brigitte's creations are not for consumers but for patrons, for those who understand deeply the value of her work and respect her creations.

Such knowledgeable customers just need an awareness of a brand, no more. 

They will do the rest and smell out the finest gems. Any kind of further push would turn such customers away.

What kind of a customer are you?

It might get easier to answer this question if you know which of the following major drivers deliver most value to you as a customer - how others will view you (projection value of a brand), the experience a brand gives you, the basic functionality it delivers, or the inherent exceptionalness of the beauty and performance of a brand.

You would need to be extremely knowledgeable, a connoisseur, about a product category to discern and value its exceptionalness and the chances are that you would be with at least a few.

You would, in such cases, rely on your knowledge and that of other connoisseurs to make your choices, not be influenced by any form of marketing. Even a new brand in the category worth your attention would reach you, probably via word-of-mouth.

Traditionally marketing has been thought of as nudging customers through a funnel of Awareness or Attention - Interest - Desire - Action.

While the first one is obvious, generating interest and then pushing a customer further to desire and action are the ones that have "consumed" marketers the most.

While a connoisseur would not need or like such nudges, there are only a handful of such customers. The largest number of us are the ones who either have little engagement with a category or anyway have little interest in knowing beyond being told it is good for us.

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Being told a brand is good for us by whom? The most obvious tools are celebrity endorsements and more recently influencers pushing products they themselves have little idea or interest in.

At the last count, on Instagram alone, there were about 221 million beauty influencers and 189 million fashion influencers, and counting. Each one pushing different brands or products. Whom and what do you believe?

It is easy to be suspicious of illogical celebrity endorsements or influencer promotion without any authenticity, nudging you to either fit into a mould or project yourself in a particular way to the world. 

Even the desire to be a sustainability supporter can make customers blind to vacant claims about the practices and values of a brand.

How do you create an ability to filter out unauthentic claims? As customers, we are not expected to be an expert at everything, but around us, there would be people that are either knowledgeable or very curious about something. Observe them, listen to them.

There are many brands amidst us that see the task of marketing more as listening to customers rather than talking to them. 

These are the brands that have earned their growth on the wings of their customer satisfaction and paying attention to their end-to-end experience journey. 

These are the brands that have not had to spend money on advertising or paid influencer/celebrity endorsements. These are the brands that use customer listening to refine their product offering, experience design and operations more suited at bringing higher satisfaction.

One brand worth mentioning is actually a single outlet business that has earned itself an iconic status by crafting a very thoughtful customer experience and listening. 

It is Mysore Saree Udyog in Bangalore. The brand has never needed to spend a Rupee on advertisement and instead turns its customers into proud ambassadors. 

Everything that transpires from merchandising to the shop floor is an act of marketing and needs no other external support.

There are other examples amongst the billion-dollar-plus global brands like Zara or Anthropologie that have simply relied on their product, experience and value proposition to do the job. 

Once the discovery is triggered, hopefully through word of mouth, then the brand experience takes over. Back in India, Mama Earth prides itself in market listening rather than talking and has been dutifully rewarded for becoming one of the fastest-growing D2C brands in the country. 

Look around and you will find your most favourite brands to be the ones you have discovered, not the ones funnelled down your mind.

In the end, opening yourself up to being manipulated is entirely up to you. Ask yourself this very simple question - which brands in any category, do you as a customer, talk to your friends and family about most confidently and why? 

These are the brands that take their marketing very responsibly. You can be sure that the brands you buy to position yourself externally are not the ones you will want everyone around you to be buying as well, so would be the last ones you'd promote.

(The author is Founding Partner, Val-More Action Advisor.)