The hype-fueled, DRTV days of yore are rapidly being driven to extinction by a new era in which truth in advertising is no longer an oxymoron, and a subtler, more nuanced approach to marketing is winning the day. By virtue of the almost unlimited amount of information available on the internet, the power has shifted from marketer to consumer. Welcome to the age of the anti-sale, where hyperbole has been replaced by information, and gimmicks give way to authenticity.
Why? Because in the simplest terms, claims that can’t live up to the tribunal of public opinion will wither, and companies that meet or exceed expectations will see their fortunes accelerate to newfound heights. A series of shifts driven by consumer behavior is challenging advertisers to rethink how they conduct the public discourse to interact with prospects and buyers alike.
The first shift is that most consumers now watch television with a handheld computer that gives them instantaneous information about any advertised product or service. The commercial spot itself, as a result, has really shifted from a complete, end-to-end pitch capable of closing a sale to more of a catalyst that drives interest and launches the consumer down a path that may culminate in a sale. According to a report from eMarketer, online reviews are the second-most-trusted source of information regarding purchase decisions for North Americans after the recommendations of friends and family, with 76 percent indicating that reviews are their "go-to” for product research.
The question of whom to trust leads us to the second big, albeit obvious, shift: Marketers are no longer in control of their brand voice. While they can certainly advertise based upon a product’s or service’s differentiation, benefits, and features, and provide their own social proof in the form of authority figures and user testimonials, it is ultimately the critical mass of public opinion that carries the most weight. On the surface, that may seem scary, but if a marketer lives up to its claims, organic social proof can provide powerful reinforcement. That’s why measured, thoughtful claims that stand up to scrutiny are now much more powerful than carnival-barker hyperbole.
"But wait, there’s more!” What a bore! The concept that quantity equals value is a hackneyed device that betrays the marketer’s intent. It suggests the product is so crappy that it must be supported by a cluster of ancillary goods in order to convince buyers that the offer is a sound bargain. Contrast that with products offered by the likes of Apple or Dyson, which have built superpremium positioning by virtue of elegant design, performance, and ease-of-use. Today’s harried consumer, awash in information, wants simplicity, not complexity.
In the end, it’s really about respect—respect for the consumer and respect for the new marketing game.
That leads us to the next shift. The word "transparency” suggests disclosure—when corporations no longer have secrets, and consumers know what’s what. But what I believe users of the word are really getting at is clarity—that is, the quality of being easily understood. When you open up the box of an iPhone, a 30-page instruction manual doesn’t spill out; instead, it’s plug-and-play. But clarity isn’t just about a quick-start guide; it extends to everything from payment schedules to return policies.
Too often, poor online reviews are not the result of the product being a letdown. Instead, they are the direct result of consumers who are confused or feel outright deceived by onerous business practices that are a breach of trust. Bait-and-switch gambits are a result of fear—fear on the part of the marketer that if they don’t lull the consumer into a purchase, they will never get them past the starting line. Those days are over—and that leads us to a final observation.
People don’t want to be treated like a statistic; they want to be treated as individuals. That means marketers must come up with solutions as diverse as the communities they hope to build. Take a company like Zappos, for example. Its product videos impart information, not hype. Their generous return policies—with free shipping in both directions—ensure that each individual’s shoe passes muster, eliminating any and all consumer risk. The company’s entire culture is built around customer service. Contrast its policies with a marketer that uses an endless interactive voice response (IVR) system to discourage returns. Who do you think will win the hearts and minds of the consumer in the long run?
In the end, it’s really about respect—respect for the consumer and respect for the new marketing game. It may seem radical to suggest that the marketer is no longer the sole architect of its brand, but there it is—we are no longer engaged in a monologue, but a dialogue.
Instead of fretting about the situation, which is a bit like the little boy trying to plug the proverbial dike, marketers that focus on the quality of their products as well as the entirety of their consumer’s experience will prevail. After all, those are the only things left that a marketer can genuinely control.