UPFRONT 1997: The Wayward Consumer

By Debra Goldman

A warning to marketers: We’re not talking about human beings

There’s nothing like sitting down to read a whole sheaf of consumer research to make you appreciate the researcher’s art. It’s not just the information that they glean from all the surveys and focus groups. It’s their wonderful ingenuity and creativity in coming up with clever rubrics and quotable generalizations that almost convince the reader that one actually can make sense of the inchoate willfulness of the wayward consumer.

Indeed, reading consumer research is not for anyone who doesn’t have a strong stomach for contradictions. For example, Yankelovich tells us that the number of consumers who say a “known, trusted brand name” is important to their buying decisions has jumped from 51 percent in 1994 to 65 percent in 1996. But Grey Advertising informs us that the “promiscuous consumer” is a faithless creature who not only flits from brand to brand, but is often seen flirting with private-label floozies as well.

And then there are the contradictions within the same survey. From Yankelovich we learn that the most important factor in consumers’ purchases is price-unless they are asked about service, in which case a majority declares it would be willing to spend up to 10 percent more to get better service.

As for consumer debt, 52 percent of us “strongly feel the need to reduce my debt level.” Yet 54 percent are “willing to spend more to get ‘the best.'” Go figure.

The most striking contradiction I came across, however, is the subject of a recent Yankelovich report on stress. There’s a lot of it out there. And everyone is looking for relief. Yet no one has much faith in employers, government, financial advisors or anyone else who might take the load off their shoulders. With no one to rely on, a whopping 80 percent agree it’s important “to feel in charge of each and every part of their lives.” The result is a struggle between “two diametrically opposed objectives-simplification and control.”

It is no doubt futile to point out that human beings cannot satisfy two diametrically opposed objectives. But we’re not talking about human beings here, we’re talking about consumers. Consumers not only expect to reconcile the irreconcilable, they demand it-and it is the marketers’ job to satisfy them. “Making these elements work together is the biggest marketing opportunity of the decade,” according to Yankelovich.

Even with all the inconsistencies consumer research turns up, a few big “sea changes” do show up in and across many surveys. Call it the age of post-scarcity or post-materialism, but the message is that consumers are seeking not things but experiences, and achieving status not from flashy consumables but from quality-of-life achievements such as a happy, lasting marriage. So marketers had better get ready for the biggest challenge of all: selling consumers the things that money can’t buy.

Or maybe not. For even sea changes aren’t what they used to be. It used to be that you could count on a consumer “agenda,” as Yankelovich calls it, to last a couple of decades. Thus, the Economic Agenda took us from the end of World War II through the ’50s, while the Social Agenda occupied us in the 1960s and 1970s. But the Winning Agenda only hung around for the ’80s, when it gave way to the Denial Agenda of the early ’90s, which in turn yielded to the Possibility Agenda in 1995. With luck, the Possibility Agenda might last until year’s end.

But don’t despair. Here’s one generalization that will last into the next millennium: Consumers want everything from the marketplace: price, quality, service-even love. All in all, they’re a pretty demanding, needy, kvetching bunch. Sure, you want consumers to visit your store. But you probably wouldn’t want one as a neighbor. °

Copyright ASM Communications, Inc. (1997) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED