Why did so many Americans go bananas over John McCain? Why would antiwar, prochoice, tree-hugging Democrats use the Net to throw money at a self-described "Reagan Republican" and root for him with such fervor? David Lewis and Darren Bridger know why. It's because, while most candidates strike voters as blow-dried holograms, there was something real about McCain. He didn't depend on a phalanx of spinmeisters and hadn't lived the despicably careful life demanded of politicians nowadays. On the contrary, he practically radiated authenticity.
And authenticity, Lewis and Bridger tell us in The Soul of the New Consumer,their brief new marketing manual, is what counts when appealing to media-savvy, hype-averse, free-agent customers who have everything they could possibly need except time. Oh yeah, and meaning. They're short on that, too.
For these "New Consumers," the English authors write, "decisions over what to buy and why are based on the core constructs around which their personality and self-esteem are formed. ... The marketplace is their soul and the soul is the marketplace."
They go on to add, echoing the American social critic James B. Twitchell, that "for some people, consumption - in its widest sense - has replaced religious belief as their main source of solace and comfort. Their major choices as consumers are dictated by a need to satisfy an inner hunger rather than an external appetite."
For the rest of the book the writers try to explain how to reach these people, a task at which they are only middling. They have the right ideas - avoid hype, over-deliver, stress customer service and so on - but leave a lot of questions unanswered. Just how many of these New Consumers are there? Assuming they exist in any numbers, aren't they exactly the people you haven't a prayer of reaching through advertising, unless you tell them why your product is better?
This magazine's readers are probably the sort of New Consumers the authors talk about, and so I ask you: When was the last time an ad got you to buy something? Not an ad that alerted you to a product or offer you didn't already know about; obviously such useful advertising can lead consumers, new or old, to buy.
I mean those other ads - the ones with sports stars and actresses, or with women on deserted beaches - the kind that are supposed to make you feel a certain way, and then boom! - lemme at those Champion spark plugs. Who in God's name responds to this stuff? Who even pays attention to it?
Certainly the authors do. They are, after all, marketing consultants, though what they really want to be are scientists: "We equipped our guinea-pig shoppers with miniature cameras to record their shopping experiences. We monitored such bodily responses as blood pressure and heart rate. ... We analyzed electrical activity in their brains as they watched TV commercials."
Although they offer examples of how offbeat entrepreneurs appeal to today's less easily manipulated customers, the authors don't address a more interesting phenomenon: how certain mass-marketers succeed with disloyal "New" and plodding "Old Consumers" alike. Consider Southwest Airlines, not only a favorite with customers but also with investors. The formula seems simple: Get enthusiastic employees to fly people around at less than the going rate. Also, forget the stuffy uniforms and airs. It's just transportation, for Pete's sake.
Home Depot is another example. Not only does it have everything (including knowledgeable help), but I could probably take off my shoe, plunk it on the return counter and get a refund on it. City slickers who've never been to a Wal-Mart would be shocked at how nicely it treats the working folks who shop there. Not New Consumer-ish enough? How about Trader Joe's, the discount gourmet chain whose customer loyalty verges on fanaticism?
For Lewis, Bridger and their ilk, who seem to be the antithesis of the authenticity they urge for their clients, there is a terrifying lesson here. In the future, success in business may depend - the horror! - on selling good stuff at low prices, and being really nice to customers while you're at it.
If this is the future, I think it favors the Internet. The implication, after all, is that traditional advertising is pretty much a waste, especially in reaching the affluent (read: educated) buyers many businesses want. Online, though, companies can target these same people with virtually limitless product information, and let them act on that information immediately. If this seems impersonal, well, nobody really thinks that someday there won't be any stores. Besides, consider the alternatives. The authors predict a boom in "washroom advertising," approvingly quoting a company in this business as saying that audiences are "often captive and fixated on the wall directly in front." Yeah, but what if they ever run out of toilet paper?