Don't Give in to the Pressure to Manipulate Consumers

It's a Sometimes Blurry Line Between Choice and Control

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For all the declarations these days that "customers are in charge" or otherwise own our brands, there's a parallel process focused on turning them into zombie automatons, which we don't much like to talk about.

Narrowcasting. Geolocation. Hypertargeting. Secret algorithims. Ever-newer technologies to get them to obey us. We empower them while also trying to coddle them into squishy cocoons of programmed reality à la "The Matrix."

Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin is the author of "Branding Only Works on Cattle" and blogs at Dim Bulb.
Ads that pop up on their phones near stores. In-store signs that change based on facial expressions, and devices (or salespeople) that spit out coupons in real time, depending on where customers have just walked. Internet experiences that tee-up search results, web pages and pricing based on what consumers should want to know -- and what we believe is most advantageous for us to tell them.

Every step of the knowledge-gaining process is monitored and controlled, even when the appearances are the opposite (even now, do you think most people get the difference between "paid" and "organic" search results?). I'm not a conspiracy theorist, and I'm all for better, easier, more productive buying experiences. But these dual tracks set up an intriguing dichotomy within our marketing budgets, drawing a thin and sometimes blurry line between convenience and manipulation, or choice and control.

Our latest social-media and creative inventions presume that we care about what people say, and that they should have input on things such as service and product development. We develop detailed integrated-marketing plans that depend on consumers actually internalizing them.

Yet what are they supposed to be able to tell us, if all they know is what we decided to tell them, or let them find?

Further, what then, exactly, is the definition of a brand? Is it what consumers think or feel, or is it really the aggregation of those intermediated behaviors that lead them to purchase? It's a wild thought, and I spoke about it on a panel with Sony, Anheuser-Busch and Best Buy at the American Marketing Association's mPlanet event a few weeks ago. I think the jury is still out on an answer.

But you're going to have to find it. As 2009 continues to fall apart, the pressure will be on you to focus on the manipulation stuff. It's easier for operational execs to understand and measure. The challenge is to resist it, because I think it does consumers a disservice, just as the other extreme of simply entertaining them in the name of "engagement."

There's a middle ground that one of the CMOs at the AMA event summarized like this: "You don't have to trade off branding for behaviors. Do both, simultaneously." So, Neo, take the red and blue pills.

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