The top 5 misconceptions clients have about consumers

Jonathan Lewis is account director at McKee Wallwork + Company, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, agency; Maya Abi-Khalil is an account services intern.

Sometimes clients are their own worst enemies — but don’t take our word for it.

To understand the biggest consumer pitfalls facing clients today, we went to the folks working on the frontline of communications for an outside perspective: the top execs at some of the nation’s leading agencies. Here’s what they described as the five most-common client misconceptions about consumers.

Consumers are rational beings.
Unfortunately for companies who believe a better argument is the key to success, America’s top agencies disagree. “Too many marketers make the mistake of expecting consumers to behave rationally, evaluating every purchase as if it’s an equation,” said Thomas Denari, president of Young & Laramore.

The argument goes that if consumers were purely rational beings, the fashion industry would cease to exist, every food purchase would be determined by nutrition labels, and smoking rates would be zero.

“Consumers are not Xs and Os,” said Louie Moses, president of Moses Anshell. “Analyzing data gets you up to the point where you still need to make an emotional connection. … Creative storytelling will always make that connection.”

And therein lies an inherent danger of a data-driven society. The inclination of marketers is to reduce consumers down to numbers and to dehumanize very human situations. The irony is that data can actually erect walls between marketers and consumers where they didn’t exist before.

“At the end of the day, all people are looking for is an honest human connection,” said Thomas Dooley, CEO of TDA Boulder. “Yet, this seems to be the most fundamental element that’s lost in translation when clients stop talking to people and start advertising to consumers.”

Consumers care about your company.
Sorry corporate America, it’s not all about you. In fact, you have to work very hard to make it even a little bit about you.

“You’d be amazed at the number of clients who think consumers know who they are and what they offer,” said John Hawkins, president and CEO of AB+C Creative Intelligence. “Clients are astounded when we present research that proves the opposite. Consumers live their lives in a noisy marketplace — we have to give them a reason to care about what our clients offer.”

What to do about it? According to Tom Flynn, president of Lessing Flynn, adapting to customer expectations is do or die. “Consumers have such good radars for advertising and such short attention spans that if you don’t get your message across to them quickly and in a creative way, they won’t even see it,” he said.

All consumers in the same cohort behave the same.
“There’s a constant temptation to believe that big groups of people share far more attitudes and perceptions than they actually do,” said Peter Krivkovich, CEO of Cramer Krasselt, in a sharp indictment of cookie-cutter solutions. “But you have to keep reminding yourself that consumers don’t fit into their segments as squarely as they do on your PowerPoint slide.”

John Adams, CEO of the Martin Agency, echoed the idea that people are far more complex and warns of the temptation to take indicators as a guarantee. “Individual human behavior is usually influenced by many factors woven into complex relationships. Even within a tightly defined cohort, the most we can count on is a high likelihood of a particular behavior. That’s quite valuable, but it’s often misunderstood to be virtual certainty.”

Consumers think about marketing in the same way marketers do.
You may spend eight hours a day thinking about marketing, but America’s agencies want to remind you that consumers don’t. “Consumers and marketers think exactly the same way about marketing: ‘What’s in it for me?’ Which, of course, puts them completely at odds,” explained Steve McKee, president of McKee Wallwork + Company.

McKee reminds us that while clients spend countless hours fretting over minute details, consumers just aren’t that into you. “Marketers pay rapt attention to every detail of their ads,” he said. “Consumers give them a glance and move on if nothing grabs them.”

Consumers know why they act the way they do.
With America’s ferocious appetite for consumer research, you’d think consumers could easily reveal their deepest sources of motivation and purpose. Not so, says Travis York, president of GY&K, who questions whether “consumers can actually tell marketers exactly what to say or do to get them to buy a product.” Instead, York said, “They don’t know. They are consumers, not marketers.”

But consumers’ lack of introspection is no fault of their own. According to Tom Denari, “It’s not that consumers are lying or hiding anything. It’s just that they may not have conscious access to the real underlying motivation.”

Keeping perspective is difficult enough for most of us. But for marketers, correct perspective can mean life or death for a brand and product.

The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. Consumer skepticism and ambivalence is the norm, along with a lot of tone-deaf marketing.

According to some of the best marketing firms in the nation, if you can avoid these common misconceptions about consumers you’ll be on your way to more effective marketing (and you’ll probably save your agency partners a headache or two). If you work at an advertising agency, well, plan on running into these misplaced notions a lot.

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