Dealing With Consumers Who Question Everything

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I remember growing up and going to the grocery store with my mother where at the end of the check-out line the manager had posted a sign with big red scripted letters that said. "Rule #1: the customer is always right. Rule #2: see rule #1."
Noelle Weaver Noelle Weaver

While this adage has always held true, the other day I couldn't help but think to myself that in this time of consumer control and demand, that little saying has never been more accurate for those of us in this industry.

For the past few years we've been hearing about transparency in the media and transparency in financial reporting. But with our clients' entire corporate and brand histories on display through the web, transparency has now leaked into every realm of their [and our] business.

The corporate scandals that surfaced several years ago, along with the current heated political environment, has led today's bloggers to bring a new level of scrutiny and doubt to corporations, their products and services and their corporate business plans.

For example, as part of Bono's (Product) Red campaign, anti-sweatshop activists have brought the long revered brand The Gap under fire claiming that it has historically employed factories to make clothes in a manner that violates labor laws. And whether The Gap is or isn't [a May story in Fortune reported that the company is working to improve conditions], conscious consumers are having a hard time asking for forgiveness and wondering why Bono would work with a company whose history seems so contrary to his organization's mission.

These days a higher level of brand politics has emerged. Consumers are now interrogating brands by researching them online before they buy to understand their ethical policy and past track record. One only has to look at the plethora of web sites such as thinkbeforeyoupink.org and buyblue.org to see that consumers are a lot more interested in things beyond how that new flavor of yogurt is going to taste.

It seems that everything these days, comes under question.

I read and watched the evolving story of Edelman's Wal-Mart blog fiasco with great interest. I sat back and wondered why the firm had been held up as a 'martyr' for the entire industry because it had been found out. This certainly wasn't the first time we had created 'news' for a brand or product.

It was also a very vivid example within our own industry of how consumers are putting our business under the microscope. More than ever, we need to be conscious of the conversations consumers are having about the clients we work for. What are their beliefs? And how are they contrary [or complimentary] to the brand? We also need to strive to create marketing programs that are aligned with the brand's personality and corporate attributes [or risk having consumers quickly reject them]. And perhaps, the most important thing of all that we can learn is the recognition and dire need for agencies big or small to mandate the creation of ethical communication and marketing programs. The word's 'world's best', 'new and improved', 'America's favorite' and 'our customer's always come first' no longer apply.

Today, as marketers, we all live in glass houses. And thanks to the web, the consumers can see right through the walls.
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