(A Consumer’s perspective!)
It took some emphatic and painful lecturing on the part of my two year old to educate his dumb father on differentiating ‘Spider Man’ from ‘Spider Monkey’. And when no amount of coaxing could finally convince him to swig from the bottle of Coca Cola, I was shocked at the gravity of the problem and how worse could it possibly get!? Until we had to innocently transfer the contents of the reasonably high margin product, bitterly sweetened carbonated drink, a froth of gas and acidic liquid in the empty bottle of competing Pepsi to succumb helplessly to the dictates of the bawling child_ To quench not his thirst, but his rousing desire to associate with and be loyal to the brand.
It was only then that I realized that how far these everyday consumer brands have intruded into my lifestyle, household, lounge, bedroom and even my thoughts and perceptions. To the unbelievable extent, where I have resigned to being a captive of that subliminal and imperceptible hand maneuvering all my behaviours, attitudes, thought processes and even decisions.
Being a student of marketing, I have always respected the fundamental rule and premise that it is the customer who rules and dictates the market and trends. One who is apt at identifying and interpreting consumer ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ and best ‘satisfies’ and ‘fulfills’ that particular desire by means of a product or a service, that minimizes the perceptual gap, is the winner. Simply put, it is the matter of religiously following an outside in perspective whereby the key lies in recognizing the principal and latent market demands based on customers value and then plugging the gap by virtue of seamless supply at an acceptable price.
But then who can deny the mantra that ‘Customer buys perception and NOT product’!?
A cursory glance at the things and atmosphere that surround me, leave me simply dazed at the thought that how much and deeply my perceptions are being ‘shaped’ or ‘tainted’ instead of being ‘reflected’.
Demand cannot be created they argue. It can only be identified and met. But then what the heck is going on when we find all our five basic senses tormented by all sorts of dazzling and subliminal influences and messages round the clock? It would be quite unjust to attribute all the blame to desire, hunger, fear, greed and lust. There is someone behind the scenes who is perpetually tantalizing and fanning the emotions to raise this sentiment beyond the functional limits. Precisely why the brand loyalty or resonance takes place at the highest tiers of the pyramid, far above the functional levels. To the point where it can develop into a cult following such as Harley Davidson or Altaf Hussain for that matter.
Does marketing not invite its fair share of criticism today when it is regarded as being manipulative at its very core? Whereby it amplifies a desire, if not creates it, then devises ways and means to hook or addict the users, pursue the consumers with promotions and nagging communication, incentives and discounts, hook and bait strategies, launching loyalty and frequency programs, and then exploit the customers by riding a tide of competition, exclusivity, premium, differentiation and even deprivation. Last but not the least, by enhancing the price and exit barriers, once the product or service turns into a near indispensable solution. More of an art and propaganda to package the ordinary as extra ordinary at the expense of huge resources, highlighting selective or half truth, and then push massively through the value (supply) chain to yield multiple returns and continue the vicious cycle.
Then comes the subsidiary question of marketing and ethics. Can they practically go together? Not a long way, as the contradictions rise to the surface. Returning to the very basics of the marketing, it is about identifying the customer need and fulfilling it. The ultimate objective is to ‘sell’, earn a ‘price’ and add to the bottom line and profitability. Morality and ethics take a back seat when they tend to collide with the commercial interests. Marketing gets deaf and blind quite unwilling to judge the quality of a need or mode of a product or a service when business interest lies at the centre. That in all probability explains the thriving boom of media and telecommunication industry in Pakistan. The simple argument innocently put forth in its defence is ‘ We give the public what they ask for.’ Taking it further, right or wrong is no one’s concern as long as they fall within the regulatory framework. The particular segment or niche that is targeted or the hype or sensation that is created to influence or captivate the consumers know no norms or values. What is the intent behind producing violence ridden cartoons, video games and toy guns for toddlers and then flooding the market by plastering the gimmicky characters and displaying allied products all over the place?
Looking at the broader spectrum, the more I watch news, follow papers, debates and conspiracy theories, eavesdrop on selected leaks and planted rumours, read John Grisham and blockbusters, the more skeptical and apprehensive I get of the influences and intrigues invisibly and silently moulding my behaviours and actions. With all those vested interests, game plans and chessboards firmly in place, how do I get to believe that it is the freedom of expression and speech and independence of thought that is shaping and running all those democracies and institutions? Next time I raise slogan in support of a political party, a leader, a global issue, a human rights cause or an environmental concern, I just wonder who would be putting words in my mouth or whose interests would I be serving by apparently casting ‘my’ vote in a poll!