One of the lessons I learned early in my career was from a legendary ad man called Peter.
Peter was the Mead in Abbott Mead Vickers, co founder of what for a long time was the largest agency in the UK and the one that gave us ‘Guiness Surfer’, Dunlop’s ‘Tested for the unexpected’, ‘Everyone’s favourite ingredient’ for Sainsbury’s and more recently the astonishing brilliant work for Bodyform.
Though many ad people of his generation were of the private school and Oxbridge variety, Peter was not. He began in the mail room at an agency called J.Walter Thompson and worked his way to the top of both the ad industry and at his beloved Millwall Football Club, where for a time he was the Chairman.
I didn’t spend a great deal of time with Peter – I was desperately junior at the time. But he was a fantastic counter balance to young planners who were often too clever by half. Or at least trying to pretend that they were too clever by half.
Peter said many wise things. To this day, I use his belief that “people say you need the courage of your convictions but if you have conviction you don’t need courage”. It’s a reminder that confidence is just an act and belief, specifically self belief, is far more powerful.
But there is something else he said that I think about almost every day. At the time there was a terrible habit in our industry of calling customers, punters. To be honest its something I still hear form time to time.
Punter is a term derived from gambling and implies a fundamental separation between the bookmaker and the gambler.
If you ever used that word, Peter would have a go at you. He believed labeling customers this way not only caused distance between you and the people that you were supposed to be serving but also implied they were lesser than you. It’s was disrespectful and that’s not a great look when you ought to be putting customers on a pedestal.
Any language or behaviour that creates distance and disrespect between you and the people you seek to serve is a problem. And the worlds of business and marketing are beset with these twin evils, even if they are wholly unintentional.
Often the issue is that as businesses grow, customer intimacy is lost. When I ran a small business with my wife we knew almost everyone that bought from us, even though we sold exclusively online. It was easy to treat people personally and to get to know them over time.
But as businesses scale you can’t possibly know everyone that buys from you, you can’t even get to know a fraction of the people that use your product or service, so you stop trying. I suppose that seems obvious but it is profoundly sad if you think about it, not to know the people that buy from you. Of course, front line staff do often get to know their customers well, even today. In the hey day of Pret a Manger there was a real sense of connection between staff and customers.
However, for most in an organisation and certainly many marketers, customers cease to be real people and become data points, statistics and percentages. When this happens intimacy is lost and respect is often close behind it.
Of course, big organisations have a series of techniques to help resolve this. Most notably customer segmentation and personas. They are attempts to rekindle closeness and understanding but create as many isssues as they resolve. Often pushing real customers further away from the minds of the marketer, creating a world in which marketing avatars stand in for people and wishful thinking about customers and who they really are abounds.
It often appears that I disagree with or dislike segmentation. I don’t, it’s a necessary tool to try and make sense of large groups of people and help businesses understand the sort of customers that they should be trying to serve or win over. But this type of approach comes with a health warning about the distance it creates between the brand and its customers, precisely because of the level of abstraction involved. If we are not careful we end up serving the segments not the real people they have been created to represent.
However, even if certain amount of distance is inevitable when your customer base runs into many thousands or millions, there is never an excuse for disrespect.
Obviously few brand owners or marketers actively disrespect their customers – though I do sometimes wonder about DtoC brands created purely to generate cash, dedicated as they are to highly abusive contact strategies. But tolerating your customers is one thing, actively loving them is quite another.
Another boss of mine was the creative director Steve Henry – the H in HHCL. He only ever asked planners to do two things. Firstly that our strategies revealed something about the brand or category that he had never heard before. And secondly that we describe the audience in ways that made him love and respect them.
In other words, he didn’t just want an explanation of the customers we were going to talk to, he wanted to understand how amazing they were, so he could create better work for them. I have always loved that.
Any attempt to characterise your audience or customers, however you chose to do it, should be infused with love. Your love for them. And every time you talk about that group, your love should be palpable.
When we were thinking about the audience for a new small business offering from HSBC, we described them as independent spirits. As the owners of small businesses they are people with a strong streak of independence running right through them. So much so that many describe themselves as unemployable and having a marked aversion to corporate life. So we built an entire proposition around serving independent spirts, creating a brand that loved, served and aimed to preserve their independence.
I recently worked on the brand strategy for a snack where it became clear that the audience were the sort of people that did proper jobs. The work coincided with the pandemic and its restrictions, a context that divided the population into those with jobs that could be done on zoom and those that had to be physically close to others to serve them. Building a snack brand for people with actual jobs that involved doing something more than shouting at a screen felt like a great way to think about an audience with respect and love.
At a slightly different end of affluence scale, one of the hardest groups for whom to develop love and respect are the very rich. While many in marketing lack a basic understanding of the lives and values of those that are less fortunate than ourselves, we also struggle to empathise with those that are far more wealthy. And yet, if this is your customer then developing a deep and genuine affection for this group is your job.
When I was working with a private banking brand, I found it helpful to think of people with wealth in the tens of millions of dollars and more, as creators. Not of wealth, no one creates wealth, but of ideas. To have self made wealth at that scale and legally means you have come up with and implemented an idea that is so brilliant and successful that others find it irresistible. If you have devised the ubiquitous online shopping platform for China, revolutionised European short haul air travel travel, built a social network or turned electric vehicles from dreary to sexy you have created an truly irresistible world changing idea, one so valuable to people that it results in staggering levels of financial reward. It’s that creativity and inventiveness that characterises the incredibly wealthy and provides a way to build respect and admiration for them.
No matter how you approach the thorny issue of identifying, segmenting and focusing on specific groups of people just make sure that the way that you describe them and think about them, is brimming over with love and respect. That you put them on a pedestal so much that you can’t help but admire them and want to serve them. And that you describe them in ways that make you smile and melts your heart.
The customers of your brand are wonderful people not punters. Treat them that way.