The 21st Century Empowered Consumer

in Branding | by Peter Levine

Peter Levine is a brand strategist and creative who has taught at the Parsons School of Design and served as Chief Creative Officer of Mikasa.  He is currently a partner at Luxury Brand Forum, where he has immersed himself in 21st century consumerism in search of “Love in the Age of the Vigilante Consumer.”  Peter has given Sparxoo permission to share the below excerpt from the re-release of Emotional Branding by Marc Gobé.

I attended a “destination wedding” several years ago in Florence, Italy. A woman I knew who was also wedding guest had an emergency and had to return home to California a few days early. I overheard her on the phone with an American Airlines agent trying to rearrange her reservation. Her voice telegraphed tense frustration as she stated, “I have a full fare, first class ticket, I’m a Platinum American Airlines card holder—I belong to the Admirals Club, I have thousands of frequent flyer miles, I have an American Airlines credit card and you still can’t get me a seat on a plane out of Italy in the next day?! “ she demanded. “Where’s the Love?” It was her plea “Where’s the Love” that seized my attention. I’d worked for several decades in a profession that aimed to create “emotional connections” between brands and consumers. Now I was witnessing first hand a loyal customer begging a brand ambassador for “Love.” The response to her plight was a robotic—“that’s our policy” style solution.

Flash-forward a few years and my friend’s “Where is the Love?” plea has turned out to be a resonant consumer mantra. Of course many brands out there are so short sighted that they actually let consumers go away without even thinking about it. I would even venture to say many brands unknowingly usher loyal customers to the door—invisibly stating, “We are not especially interested in your business.“

If we look back to the dawn of manufacturing, consumers were in the mindset of, buying what was produced, shopping where that product was available and paying the price the store asked. The manufacturer, company and store were in charge. As products and consumers have evolved over the years, the concept of “brand loyalty” emerged. A more even exchange or “conversation,” between consumers and companies who had something to sell emerged. By the 1980’s there wasn’t a consumer product out there that did not have qualitative and /or quantitative research behind it. Internal Brand marketing teams had the ability to say, “This is what we learned from consumers and here is how we choose to incorporate some of their feedback.” It was the era of action based on “consumer insight.” As we progress into the 21st century the Internet has changed all of that. Today the consumer is not just providing insight. They are calling the shots. And they are also consumers who are out for a vengeance.

Today, there is considerable data to support the notion that consumers have begun to curtail their spending. I have learned that consumers are not necessarily unwilling to spend just because of the struggling economy. But rather they are also resistant to being “taken” in any way. Today’s consumers are calling the shots and not waiting for “The Love” any longer. The sentiment I hear most in consumer research is. ”Here is how I need to be loved if you want me to remain a customer.” I want rewards, discounts, VIP programs, samples, freebies, information, live contact, exclusivity, points, special treatment, personalization, customization and on and on. Today consumers are savvier than ever before because they are willing to go elsewhere. They are willing to do the work to find what they want how they want it and pay what they feel is right and fair. This is the era of the “Vigilante Consumer.” If brands are going out of business today because of a loss of consumer interest, connection, contact and flexible policy—those brands are completely out of touch and have officially blown it!

We worked with the European car manufacturer Peugeot in the mid 2000’s as they focused on bringing a new car selling experience to consumers. Their biggest insight was that women don’t feel fearful or intimidated by a car salesman, or are they merely seduced by a car’s style or pretty color. These days’ women come into a showroom fully prepared with a phonebook size stack of information. They tell the car salesman, “Here is what you paid for the car, here is the mark-up you are asking, here is the profit you stand to make and here is what my research has told me I should offer. It’s all there on the Internet. Today’s consumers are smart, informed and prepared to fight or even worse—disengage if you do not participate in a relationship with them. It is not so much an environment of brand switching as it is—I can get it elsewhere the way I want it. Internet Social networking sites have given consumers a collective power and a rapid force of information exchange. Blogs and chat rooms are loaded with real life consumer feedback. Who cares what you say about your brand anymore—today is about what consumers are saying to each other about you.

Someone once gave me an example I never forgot. I was flying back home on a business trip and they offered, “You know I would bet that no two people on this full fight paid the same amount for their seat.” When I thought about on-line deal brokers, frequent flyer miles, special promotional offers, people who bought long in advance, people who went through travel agents that knew how to get upgrades and discounts, people who were flying on package deals, people who bought a ticket from a secondary seller, on and on it was true. The consumer had a hand in the deal they settled for. I put this notion into practice myself when I was having a problem with two cats I inherited when my mother died. Merging her two cats with my own two cats was not working. I had a cat sitter that suggested I try a product called “Feliaway.” It was a plug-in device that released a synthetic replication of a “feel-good” hormone that seemed to make cats content and happy. I began looking for the product at my local pet store. With the square footage of my home I determined that I would need three of the Feliway plug-in devices. Each vial of “feel-good” juice lasted a month. Committing to this proposition could really add up, as the refills at my pet store were about $40. each.

Here is where my quest began. I jumped on the Internet to do some research. Lo and behold the spread for the Feliway package of plug-ins and refills was all over the map. I investigated eBay, Amazon, PetCo and many other sites. I decided to call 1-800 Pet Meds. A customer service representative quoted me a price somewhere in the middle of what my research had told me. I said “thanks I will mull it over further.” The gentleman on the phone said, “Well—what would you like to pay?” Surprised, I gave him all the information I had uncovered from eBay (the cheapest opening auction bid) to PetCo., the highest price. I gave him a fair number that was a great deal for me and he said “Okay—we will sell the product to you at that price.” I was amazed. I said, “If you will really stick to that price, I will also buy three more refills.” He said, “I will guarantee the same price whenever you call back for future refills.” Ok I was feeling my Vigilante power—the power to walk away if I wanted to. I asked “Can I also get free shipping?” He said, “Done.” Now I would never even consider going anywhere else but 1-800 Pet Meds. Because I felt “The Love.”

Today I walk around with empowered mindset of the Vigilante Consumer and I urge everyone to do the same. The Dunkin Doughnuts in my neighborhood still serves coffee in Styrofoam cups—I told the manager “Those cups are unacceptable landfill,” and I walked away. Staples gives you valuable Staples dollars for retuning any brand of used printer ink cartridges. I am loyal! I urge everyone to take serious note of who is “showing the love” and who is out of touch and could care less.

I had a broken humidifier that I paid over $150.00 dollars for. It was less that a year old. I called the manufacturer. They asked—“Do you have the original packaging?” “Sorry No.” I say. “Do you have the original receipt?” “No.” again. “Did you fill out and mail in a warrantee card?” “Huuuummm I don’t think so.” They suggested going back to Bed Bath and Beyond where I purchased the unit. I was instructed to ask them to look up my credit card record from a year ago. I thought that that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard but it was worth a try. If indeed they did have the record the proposed action plan was that I would get that receipt and write letter including the case number the manufacturer assigned to me– I would pack up the humidifier, go to a UPS store and return the unit to the company in Illinois for them to inspect, and potentially repair, which would incur costs based on the problem. I went to Bed Bath and Beyond and sheepishly started to explain what I needed with the credit card record. Their response blew my mind—The customer service representative said, ”Just bring it back and we will give you a new one.” I walked in the door with the broken device and walked out with a brand new humidifier in minutes—I did not fill out a form, give my drivers license, show any receipt. Now I am their customer for life. Bed Bath and Beyond actually went Beyond! They did not just help me out. They provided me with what I now call “Heroic Customer Service!”

That may seem simple but another incident demonstrates a brand that just didn’t get it. I bought a bed for my guest room at IKEA. I managed to blow the “find the merchandise yourself in our warehouse” aspect of the shopping experience as I misread the Swedish name of the mattress. I ended up grabbing the wrong mattress off of the shelf. When I got home and realized the error I also discovered that I had no receipt for the purchase. Luckily I was able to go online and download my credit card charge statement. I went back to IKEA with my statement and the wrong mattress in hand. They were firm. “No receipt no exchange!” “But it’s a mattress that cost over $100 bucks. I can’t use it–it’s the wrong one.” I begged—“here is my credit card statement from online –it’s from yesterday!!” “Sorry no receipt, no exchange. That’s our policy,” then can I speak to a manager?” I begged, “I am a manager,” was what I got back. Well I am the newly empowered Vigilante Consumer I thought–“See Ya IKE-A! Look for me on–if you even care.

Image by sanja gjenero from Stock.Xchng

  • Peter – the vigilante consumer rocks! We are empowered, and through word of mouth we finally have a voice to share our opinions. Brands need to be evermore on the lookout to make sure they deliver a brand experience that they would be proud of. I will say, that in my experience, the airlines are the worst. They treat you like a pack of animals.

  • Peter – the vigilante consumer rocks! We are empowered, and through word of mouth we finally have a voice to share our opinions. Brands need to be evermore on the lookout to make sure they deliver a brand experience that they would be proud of. I will say, that in my experience, the airlines are the worst. They treat you like a pack of animals.