The Agile Consumer

This post is based on ideas from my latest book, The Agile Consumer. To learn more or purchase the book, you can read more on my website.

We’re living in an era in which consumers have agency and control that they never had before. We’ll explore several facets of this, but this evolution of the brand-consumer relationship is built on the idea that people want to play an active part in the solutions they choose to solve their own challenges. And technology is allowing brands to individualize solutions to consumers’ problems.

I call this the “empowered economy” and will refer to it throughout the book. Consumers have never had so much choice over what, where, when, and how they buy products and services, and thus they’ve never had so much power over the brands that are offering these things. While a century ago advertising media such as radio and television gave brands great power and access to customers, today’s consumers are now the ones who are empowered.

In my recent book, The Agile Brand, I explored how the “owner” of a brand has ceded some control to consumers in order gain a more loyal and dedicated customer base. With this shift comes consequences—and opportunities.

Consumers aren’t looking for brands to engage with

We’re way past the days of mass-produced assembly line manufacturing when it was believable that Henry Ford purportedly said that with the Model T, customers could have the car in any color “as long as it’s black.” It turns out, that Model T’s were only available in black for about 12 years because that paint color dried fastest. In the last seven years of production, several color choices were added. For those first dozen years, however, there wasn’t a lot of room for making a Model T your own.

These days, however, customization and personalization aren’t just desired, they’re expected, and consumers aren’t going to wait 12 months let alone 12 years for you to provide options. But brands often want something in return: consumers’ mindshare, as well as access to their wallets.

As marketers, we read about the need to “engage” consumers, but this is a gross oversimplification of what successful brands do.

Much to advertisers’ chagrin, consumers aren’t (for the most part, at least) sitting around their homes wishing to engage with a brand. They don’t wake up in the morning wondering what their favorite brand of coffee would say to them if they were caught drinking the other brand. They don’t look at products on the shelf at Target, thinking about which company they’d like to tweet at later that evening. Instead, “engagement” or a brand “relationship” with consumers is much more practical:

  • Consumers have challenges that they want to solve

  • They want to feel good about the choices they make

  • They want their choices to be genuine and tailored to their needs

Knowing this, and being realistic about what relationship means, helps marketers do a better job, and truly solve the challenges their customers have. 

What are consumers looking for then?

If consumers aren’t trying to be friends with your brand, what is that they want, and why would they follow you, friend you, sign up for your emails, or actually want to connect with you?

The answer is actually quite simple. Consumers have problems and challenges they want to solve. They can become friends with their Aunt Nancy if they want someone to congratulate them on their latest achievement or give a glowing review of the food photo food they just posted. Instead, they are looking for answers, a solution in the form of a product, or something else that is going to help them move forward with something. 

They follow your brand because they believe in you. They believe you are an expert in whatever it is that they’re looking for at the moment. They believe that when they have a problem, you’ll be responsive to them, or that because your product or service satisfied their needs last time, they have a reasonable expectation it will do so the next time they need help. That’s quite a compliment, and quite a responsibility at the same time. 

In fairness, some of these challenges are quite simple, or let’s just say the gravity of every situation is not as intense as, say, looking for information about a life-threatening illness. People turn to HBO to be entertained. They go to Starbucks when they need caffeine to make it through the day. On Twitter people follow Wendy’s because the account is funny. 

Find a niche and a voice to keep your brand top of mind with your audience in the “down time”. Just make sure that when they actually need something, you’re ready to help. 

How to overcome the confusion

Having worked with many marketers in my career on both the client side and agency side, it can be easy to forget some of this. We can get caught up in our own ideas and campaigns and assume that everyone in the world is just dying to share a photo of themselves on a family vacation to get whatever prize we believe is enough incentive for them to take action.

While this still works (if you have any doubts, do a search for “photo contest app” on Google and look at the sheer number of companies vying to be brands’ and agencies’ app of record for these types of competitions), the effectiveness of techniques like this for staying connected with customers has decreased as the volume incentives of this type has increased.

Enter the modern customer experience

Customer Journey Graphic-hires.jpg

Where this brings us is that it’s not enough to have single touch points with your customers. There’s simply too much clutter and too much noise out there to expect that one or two communications with someone can keep you top of mind when they have a real challenge to solve.

Instead, you need to look at things in terms of a customer journey that doesn’t end with a sale. In fact, in some cases, it can almost begin at a sale. Think of a company like Apple whose products become more meaningful once you open the box and start using them. And more so after you buy the Apple Watch to go with your iPhone, and get your MacBook Pro to sync with your phone. It’s an ecosystem and once you make your first purchase you are part of it.

This is becoming more and more common, and in my book, The Agile Consumer, I explore how everyone from automakers (Tesla) to toy manufacturers (Lego) to consumer products (FirstBuild) are turning what were previously hardware or manufactured goods into software-supported products and services.

This post is based on ideas from my latest book, The Agile Consumer. To learn more or purchase the book, you can read more on my website.

Greg Kihlstrom