Feature

The Direct Approach: Let us be the hero

Consumers rule today's world, forcing brands to bend to their wishes. Yet direct marketers can come to the rescue and build customer relationships.

As I write this essay, dozens of women are squeezing themselves into wedding dresses and preparing to amass outside the offices of HSBC. Elsewhere, a flurry of dissent from the US has seen an ad, shown solely in the UK, pulled from our screens; and a high-street restaurant has witnessed queues snaking around the block in the wake of a generous two-for-one offer. Everywhere you look, it's all kicking off.

But what do demonstrations around the demise of the wedding-list service Wrapit, the backlash against a supposedly homophobic Snickers ad, and a low-key but astonishingly successful promotion from Pizza Express have in common? It's the internet of course, and the rise of the empowered consumer - that potent individual currently striding unchallenged across countless marketing presentations.

It's a truism that, now they're all online, consumers exert enormous control. Today's brands are finding that they can neither escape from their customers nor the public at large, particularly when marks are overstepped. Honesty is vital because your sins, real or imagined, will most certainly find you out. Anything resembling poor customer service, product deficiencies, shady practices or, on the flipside, big-hearted generosity, will be seized upon in the blink of an eye.

What is particularly interesting in this context is the power of single, motivated individuals. Because of the speed of dissemination, it is now relatively simple to gather an army of followers behind a simple banner.

The internet has also changed the social make-up of these masses. Cast your mind back to protestors against, say, the Newbury bypass and you'll conjure up images of dreadlocked "crusties", tie-dyed shirts and dogs on strings. Joining Swampy's army would have meant a serious commitment, definitely involving time off work, not to mention uncomfortable nights strapped to a tree - just to make your voice heard. These days, it is far simpler - online petitions, blogs or even e-mails have made joining the ranks of protestors a simpler, far more white-collar affair. Even the lazy can be activists, and the critical mass needed to prompt change is far easier to achieve.

As well as the need to be honest, at the heart of the issue for brands is the long acknowledged need to apply joined-up thinking to every aspect of the user experience. But, in order to ensure marketing activity is both properly informed and effectively executed, brands must also seek to gain a far deeper understanding of each facet of that experience.

So often, the little things make the biggest differences. As anyone frustrated by the attitude of a poorly trained call-centre operator will attest, it doesn't take much to ruin a lot of good work. Equally, a crisis can be averted by an adept manoeuvre.

A colleague of mine recalls joining a horde of people camped outside a warehouse clearance sale at the posh furniture maker Lombok. Aside from his shock at seeing so many middle-class people roughing it somewhere other than Glastonbury, he remembers staff handing out cups of warm Ribena to keep people's spirits up. When the doors finally opened, to some decidedly disappointing stock, hastily distributed discount vouchers for the main store helped soften the blow. It's this kind of personal understanding that needs to be applied at all levels.

But there is another, deeper issue that marketers face, namely that of control. Brand owners have become accustomed to exerting more or less absolute control over their charges; but this world has gone forever. In its place is a need to adopt a more inclusive attitude to the way brands are built and shaped. There is a certain fluidity to modern brand management that feels alien to those marketers uncomfortable with blurred lines.

What strikes me about this new marketing world, characterised by a need to be consistent and open, as well as adaptable and malleable, is that it needs a hero. What's more, it could be that, in the direct industry, there is a mild-mannered janitor just itching to don the cape. Direct agencies, currently under the microscope in the face of slowing sector growth, are ideally placed to face down the challenges posed to today's brands, and are already at home across a range of media. We have decades' experience in tracking and interacting with consumers.

In many ways, direct "owns" the customer experience, having built its reputation on customer knowledge. Likewise, it pioneered the systematic use of direct feedback in the way a business is managed - as the best loyalty initiatives will attest. Combine this insight with a two-way approach to communication, and you have the bedrock for modern marketing.

Faced with the unprecedented power of individuals, brands need to start thinking in that same mindset. Like a campaigning politician, a brand must be aware of its audience and address it far more personally, with honesty and a consistency of message carried throughout. Direct marketing these days is more about an attitude than the use of specific media. It influences the way brands approach conversations, ensures that they listen as well as speak and use the information they receive. Far from being in a position of weakness, direct's inherent strengths should see it playing a vital role for today's brands.

- Lisa Thomas is the chief executive of LIDA.

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