Consumer is a Four-Letter Word

As is my wont in the lead-up to Christmas, I was getting into the spirit by watching “The Elephant Man” and contemplating just how horrible we can be to each other. There’s a key scene in the film where the titular John Merrick announces, “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being!”

It’s this declaration that got me thinking about how us marketing types tend think of people. We like to put people into buckets so we can think about more of them at the same time, and one of the biggest buckets we use is “consumer.” It’s our way of describing any sentient individual based on the only aspect of their existence that we’re remotely concerned with and I think it’s time we let it go.

As with most things in marketing, there are strong moral reasons for making this change, but it also makes sense from a business perspective. While on the surface, “consumer” seems an innocuous way of referring to something that’s not a “business,” like many evils, its damage is slow, insidious and subtle.

Words – pregnant with meaning

The language we use in everyday life has power attached to it; words are pregnant with meaning and history, and have an agenda independent of their speaker. By calling the people that buy our goods and services “consumers,” we’re referring to them by the basest representation of how they sustain us, as if they’re an indiscriminate mass that lives only to absorb what we push out.

But not only do we do a disservice to our customers when we refer to them as “consumers,” we rob ourselves of the opportunity to maximize our meaningful engagement with them. How can you engage with someone who you define purely by their capacity to consume stuff?

As someone who looks at the digi-web-o-tubes all day, most of what I see is product marketing people who obviously have one, catch-all term for the people that turn up to interact with them. I’d even go so far as to say it’s one of the biggest reasons why people don’t buy as much from us as they might.

Ironically enough, people are “better consumers” when they’re treated like anything but. This is because it’s nobody’s purpose to consume. People don’t get up in the morning with an insatiable desire to acquire indiscriminately. Consuming is a means to an end. We buy things because we believe they will help us be the person that we want to be. Even if I’m only buying a hamburger, it’s because in five minutes’ time, I want to be the guy eating a hamburger, or the guy who’s not hungry, or the guy whose girlfriend is impressed with the size of the hamburger I can eat.

Not buyers, but beings

By focusing not on what someone wants to buy, but on who they want to be, we can create a more powerful bond with customers. We are transformed from vendors into partners — sometimes even trusted partners. But this dedication to working with the people who sustain us can’t be an afterthought or an additional consideration; it must be baked into our core offering.

We don’t have to do it out of a sense of benevolence — although I’d like to think we could — but because happy people are good customers (unless you’re selling antidepressants). And strangely enough, people are most happy when they are given the opportunity or the help to be who they want to be.

Anyone who sells anything can help a customer be someone else, even if he just wants to be the guy with no rats in his house. But you don’t get to that stage by assuming that the best way to define your audience is by its capacity to consume your product.

I don’t expect that this little piece will change much in the way that marketers refer to their audience, but then I don’t think it has to. Companies that truly understand who their customers are trying to become, and put that consideration before shilling their wares, will shortly put everyone else out of business.

People don’t want to consume — they want to be. So maybe we should just stop calling them by a name that demeans their role and recognize them for what they are. They’re not elephants. They’re not consumers. They’re human beings.

This article originally appeared on:

No Free Lunch Photo

If you missed the news (, you have until January 16th to delete your Instagram account, or you’re automatically opted-in to their new terms of use, which allows Instagram and its Facebook overlords to use your content for commercial purposes without your permission or consultation.

When the story broke, I began to understand how my parents must have felt when they caught me shoplifting or drinking booze as a teenager –not angry, just disappointed.

I never expected that Facebook would just “give” us Instragram, but it seems they’re going out of their way to prove that there’s no such thing as a free (washed-out, sepia-tinted photo of) lunch.

Part of the problem is that last April, Facebook paid $1 billion for Instagram and, call me a cynic, but I reckon they expect some return on that investment. I’m not an expert, I’ve never spent a billion dollars on anything, but I have paid for an engagement ring, so I understand the basics of ROI.

Unfortunately, Facebook is learning that even a cool billion can’t buy you love, as celebs, musicians and Mia Farrow have abandoned Instagram in protest of the new regulations. It’s unclear at this stage if this departure is going to put a problematic, dent in Instagram’s subscriber base of 40 million users, but it can’t be a pleasant time for them none-the-less.

The other part the problem is that we’ve come to expect free world-class web services, because that’s how we (mistakenly) think of them. On the surface, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and Instagram all look like they cost us nothing, because they cost us no money. But unfortunately, they all cost us information, which we don’t value, but which is gold dust to the people who actually do want our money.

It’s not that we believe that all of these companies are building amazing social tools for us out of the goodness of their own hearts, it’s just that I don’t think we’re collectively aware of how much personal data gets sucked out and sold to third parties who we wouldn’t normally want to deal with.

Now I’m not begrudging the right of Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to make money off their services, I just wish they would be a little more transparent about how they do it, so that we could make more informed choices.

If I had my way, free Internet services would all come with a sticker on the front which says, “This service is free for you to use, but here’s how we make money off it:

80% — We sell your user data and demographic information to advertisers
10% — We plunder your content for ideas, which we then develop and sell to our clients
10% — We’re natural voyeurs and providing our engineers access to your personal content saves us a fortune in legal fees.

I’m not sure if this sticker will take off as an idea, but it would at least mean that while we’re eating our “free lunch,” we’re aware that the wait-staff is going through our wallets, not for cash, but for our badly taken photos of our children, our painted fingernails and, of course, our cats.