You are here: Home » Opinion » Columns
Business Standard

Madhukar Sabnavis: Consumer versus citizen

Madhukar Sabnavis  |  New Delhi 

Besides a personality, brands need to have a conscience.
The statement for Toyota in North America says: "As an American company, contribute to the economic growth of the community and the United States. As an independent company, contribute to the stability and well-being of team members. As a Toyota group company, contribute to the overall growth of Toyota by adding value to our customers."
In contrast, the Ford Motor Company's mission is distinctly different. It reads:
"Ford is a worldwide leader in automotive and automotive-related services as well as in new industries such as aerospace, communications, and financial services. Our mission is to improve continually our products and services to meet our customer's needs, allowing us to prosper as a business and provide a reasonable return to our stockholders, the owners of our business."
Toyota and Ford look at life differently. The first includes the interests of community, country and employees in its purpose of existence; the second focuses on products, customers and shareholders as the mission for it and its brands. Deep down, Toyota looks at its marketing audience as both consumers and citizens, Ford looks at it as consumers and shareholders!
Historically marketers and marketing have focused on buyers and satisfying their consumption needs as the reason for their existence. From this the term often used in marketing emerged"""consumers". All efforts have gone in optimising the four Ps of marketing""Product, Price, Place and Promotion""the concept popularised by gurus like Philip Kotler. Interestingly these are all front-end consumer-interfacing dimensions of brands. And these work towards creating consumer perceptions and preference. The media has been, traditionally, used as a channel to communicate messages and mould consumer perceptions in the way marketers wished their brands to be seen.
It's perhaps worthwhile to pause and consider, with things changing today, whether marketers and brands need to re-consider this paradigm as we move into the future.
We are in the throes of two big environmental changes:
  • The role of the media: From reportage to espionage, the media's role in society is changing. At one level, the media is in danger of losing its credibility""with the merging of editorial and sales and the continuous sensationalisation of news. Yet, at another level, there is no doubt that the media is getting more pervasive in our lives. It is both a chronicler of events and catalyst of change. In its role as a crusader, the media today is working hard to bring forth to the public real stories""often uncovering behind-the-scenes happenings in political, social and business lives. This poses a threat to marketers and brands. A fifth P gets unconsciously added to the marketing mix""Process, meaning the way products and brands are made. Until the power of the media got unleashed, this remained a back-end part of a brand""something "buyers" never saw or knew much about. Whatever was known was what marketers decided to disclose to drive perceptions of superiority. But today, with the media playing the role of a watchdog and an ombudsman, this would start coming under public scrutiny. Water being drawn by a multi-national soft drinks company suddenly becomes news and takes a dimension of environment-destruction, thus hurting company and brand imagery.
  • The growth of NGOs and social groups: They can be irritants and trouble makers, but deep down social groups and NGOs work towards raising awareness of issues and "pushing" responsible bodies to do something about them. Just like the media, they are an integral part of a free, democratic society. The emergence of a strong media helps to further their cause and provides them a platform to reach their messages to a larger group of people""not just influencers""but also the affected, thus heightening their consciousness. Marketers and brands need to get more sensitive to these bodies, their views and their interests. While some of these may be publicity- hungry, it's important to recognise their effect on the public. The public does not take them as lightly as marketers and brands would like to believe. And as the media reach and literacy levels increase, the power of advocacy and influence of these groups is only likely to rise.
  • So, what does this mean to marketers and brands? Well, this would mean the death of back-end. This means that how products are made, what resources""human and natural""are being used, what practices are being followed will all come under the scanner of social groups and through the ever "news-hungry" readers and viewers. Clearly, factors influencing brand perceptions are likely to go beyond the familiar four Ps. Marketers need to ensure that the "processes" are as right as the other Ps to keep the brand relevant and appealing to "buyers".
    In his book The United States of Wal-Mart, John Dicker raises a number of issues about the actual good that the brand "Wal-Mart" is delivering to American consumers. He interestingly postulates that what Wal-Mart delivers via low prices to the price-sensitive, bargain-seeking consumers, it takes away by hurting the basic rights of citizens""through not-so-fair labour management practices like cheap immigrant and child labour and unhealthy supplier relationship practices, which makes fair business management difficult. Similarly, both Nike and Gap have in the past come under the scanner for using child labour to create their products by outsourcing to the underdeveloped world. The immediate impact on sales is perhaps still marginal but it's important to think a little more long-term in such circumstances.
    Marketers must remember they operate in markets and society. When markets commoditise, brand differentiation disappears and consumer awareness of "larger good" increases, factors beyond actual product attributes and benefits come into play. Brand personality often links with the "consumer mindset" of buyers. However, marketers must remember they are not selling to buyers but to people. And people have a "citizen" dimension to them too. The "citizen mindset" of the buyer has a conscience. It is this conscience that awakens him to community issues and makes him sensitive to any social harm a brand may be causing while delivering personal benefit to him. It could effect brand choice. Brands need to be aware of this and hence need to have a "conscience"""and listen to it!
    Japanese brands tend to have a head-start on this as they have it embedded in their philosophy. Marketers in India too may want to consider this.
    Something worth thinking about.

    The author is Country Head, Discovery and Planning, Ogilvy and Mather, India. The views expressed are his own.

    First Published: Fri, October 06 2006. 00:00 IST