No, Consumers Are Not In Control (Short Version)

This piece first appeared on February 17th in Pulse

Control Key A myth, the late British philosopher Alan Watts once wrote, “is an image in terms of which we try to make sense of the world.” To that end, marketers have imagined any number of illusions to explain the current state of their disrupted profession. The most fashionable of these traverse the Internet as memes. None more so than the fiction that “consumers are in control.”

The logic behind this lore goes something like this: digital systems have shifted the balance of power from sellers of goods and services to buyers, who now dictate what, when and how business gets done. And though this may make sense to marketers, it is news to many consumers.

According to last summer’s Corporate Perception Indicator survey by CNBC and public relations firm Burson Marsteller, nearly half of American respondents believe corporations have too much influence over their economic futures. This is particularly true among millennials, 40 percent of whom see big business as something to fear. The concern is even more acute with the issue of privacy. A study by the Pew Research Center found that 91 percent of participants agree that consumers have lost control over how companies collect and use their personal information.

Information Is Still Power

So why this disconnect between marketers and their intended audiences? One reason is that the former choose to characterize the relationship in terms of control; which suggests they see it as adversarial. The dictionary defines control as “having power over someone”; and in an age when information is power, those who have it are loath to give it up.

For instance, when consumers buy digital books from Amazon or download music from iTunes, they don’t actually own what they purchase. Rather, they acquire a license agreement, which is essentially a long-term lease allowing the seller to revoke the privilege and delete the content at its discretion. Companies like Adobe and Microsoft take a somewhat similar tack by replacing boxed-software with annual online subscriptions, so customers must re-up every year if they want to keep using their programs.

More traditional retailers, too, have tried to expand their jurisdiction. Last year, cereal giant General Mills issued a policy informing consumers they gave up the right to sue the brand if they engaged in activities like joining its online community or subscribing to its email newsletters. (The firm has since withdrawn the mandate.)

In The Service Of The Customer?

To the extent consumers are aware of them, they find these practices offensive; which is why many enterprises take a more benign approach, adopting the mantra of customer service in the hope that, in the words of the ParisTech Review, “a satisfied customer will naturally become, at virtually no cost, a commercial agent of unequaled efficiency.”

Albeit this may be true of the most passionate brand advocates, most consumers are unlikely to buy into this type of an arrangement. Indeed, a survey by WPP agency Geometry Global found that more than half of respondents in this country said they saw no point in even friending a brand online; while seven-in-ten consumers queried by the PR firm Edelman believe companies interact with them only out of “a desire to increase profits.”

Nonetheless, quality customer service does have value, particularly when patrons have the advantage of taking their business elsewhere. This is often the case in markets where digital technologies have dismantled barriers of entry and new competitors can come from just about anywhere. Yet having alternatives is not the same as having control; and when choices are fewer and far between, there may be little need to curry favor with consumers.

Consider some of the businesses that reside at the bottom of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). America’s airlines, for example, are the most profitable in the world despite subjecting fliers to more fees and less legroom. Comcast and Time Warner Cable are the nation’s largest cable and internet service providers, and the worst-rated. These companies operate in industries where size matters and the barriers remain fairly high.

Looking In The Wrong Direction

Granted marketers no longer exercise the leverage they once did, it is a delusion to assume it has largely been transferred to consumers. Despite conventional wisdom, only a minority of people online ever go public with their opinions, whether negative or positive. A mere fraction of those have the skills, means, or inclination to bend a company to their will as hackers did to Sony. The fact is, most consumers still don’t truly understand how those little people get inside their television sets, let alone how sophisticated algorithms track and exploit their personal data. Which may account for why the tool most often credited with empowering its users – social media – is the ACSI’s fourth lowest-scoring category.

Thus, marketers would be better served – as would their customers – if they abandoned the meme and turned their attention in other directions. They already relinquish considerable control to the likes of Facebook and Google, which continually alter the rules that determine what consumers do and don’t see. Moreover, brands must combat the seemingly endless onslaught of fraudsters – both human and robotic – which cost them as much as $6 billion last year alone.

These and comparable challenges pose far greater threats to marketers’ authority. Consumers, on the other hand, don’t exert such dominance. They never have and probably don’t want to. It would take too much of their time and effort. What they more likely desire are simple, transparent interactions. The kind where they get what they pay for without having to fight or shill for what is rightfully theirs. Brands that are willing to acknowledge this mindset will benefit by building relationships on the basis of something other than a myth.