No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

There is a term that conjures up abhorrent visuals featuring the droves of mini-malls that pepper our communities, parking lots packed with minivans, and endless aisles of cheese puffs, canned beans and toilet paper. The star of this nightmare is the zombie consumer, mindlessly shuffling through an onslaught of advertising. The phrase behind this horror show? Mass marketing.

It’s time to wake up from this bad dream. Brands shouldn’t waste their time, energy and money trying to resuscitate these vapid consumers when there are “real” consumers breathing, thinking and living out there. They exist in subcultures, below the cloud of mass-media white noise. Find ways to engage them, and you will influence.

So why not just focus the marketing laser on these consumers at the outset? For starters, many brands can’t find them. And even when they do, they screw it up by using the same techniques that they used on the zombie masses. There’s no “selling” in the traditional sense that’s going to slip past this type of consumer. To get entry into their hypercritical world, brands must understand how they think and engage them in a truly authentic and supportive way.

The influencer is an evolved consumer, an always-on, heavily connected, multi-tasking, sometimes-excessive-hyphen-using individual. In this case, brands need to resist going directly for the jugular, and adopt an ambient and symbiotic strategy that places them in a prime location for consumer discovery. Brands don’t always need to have top billing. (Gasp!) Sometimes it’s nice to see a brand take a backseat and let the consumer drive for a while. Being a nurturing supporter of the existing influencer’s lifestyle speaks much louder to the brand’s ambitions while maintaining some reverence for the target’s valuable autonomy.

To this end, it is also worth noting the role consumer vernacular plays in this sort of strategy. It’s not enough for brands to speak to consumers “in their terms” because, let’s face it, that rarely comes off as genuine. What most brands need to do is to be their honest, somewhat out-of-touch selves. Let consumers know that you may not “get” all of it. Admit and accept that they are cooler than you. But make it clear that you are willing to learn and support them at the same time. Authenticity, transparency and honesty are paramount attributes in garnering influencers’ support.

So what does this all mean for the state of advertising? Should we just pack our bags and hit the road in search of the next crop of cool kids, snarky bloggers, trendy social networking sites or influential YouTubers to piggyback brands onto? That’s a good start.

Strategies that break large consumer groups apart by their defining attributes and develop smaller bespoke campaigns are certainly more effective than the one-size-fits-all plans of the past. Like these consumers, our strategies need to be nimble; able to adjust, transmogrify, stop or start at any given moment. A good campaign for a consumer segment of this ilk should culminate in a form much different than it began. It is an organic process that grows and modifies itself. It is evolutionary.

Brands looking to reach consumers in this manner can look to an analogous experience shared by most of us from our past — the lunchroom. As brands scan the market, they are ultimately trying to determine what table(s) they want to sit at and who they want to associate themselves with. The best approach in this scenario has always been the same: Befriend someone from the group that you most closely identify with and the gates will open to the rest of the community. These key individuals will not only provide entr