Why the industry needs to stop thinking about customers and start thinking about humans
A view from Sid McGrath

Why the industry needs to stop thinking about customers and start thinking about humans

A year after Karmarama sold to Accenture, the agency's strategy chief urges advertisers to deliver brand experiences that are more likely to be appreciated and acted upon.

In 1955 David Ogilvy wrote "The customer isn’t a moron. She’s your wife". While the wording is dated, the point he was trying to make is clear: to create effective brand communication, we need to see beyond the customer and see the person. 

More than 60 years later and it seems not much has changed. We live in an era obsessed with the idea of the "customer". Customer-centricity, the customer is king, the customer is always right and, pointedly, all businesses wanting a seamless customer experience.

But this is exactly where the problem lies. Are we really seeing our wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, friends or fellow man or are we just seeing "the customer"?

The problem is that the terms we use and the language we employ dictate the way we think and behave. When we conjure up an image of a "customer", we fail to think of someone exciting and inspirational, but instead we think of the bill-payer; the buyer. And if that is the case, we will always only ever be sellers and they will only ever be buyers. They become disconnected from what they really are – people. 

Of course, every business needs customers, and it would be a mistake to overlook this entirely. But people are only "customers" for an incredibly small amount of time in their daily lives. They don’t live, breathe and exist to constantly buy – as much as many wish they did. For the vast majority of their time they are just people, and if a brand only engages with them when they are customers, then that brand will never be able to fully engage with their audience’s lives and play a meaningful role.

This disconnect is even more stark when considered in the context of the purpose era in which we live. Generations of people are growing up valuing experiences over material possessions, while the board room is supposedly prioritising purpose, as brands and business are desperate to play a bigger, more fulfilling, more relevant role in their audience’s lives. A brand that focuses instead on transactions and feels a constant need to sell will always fall short of meeting this drive towards empathy and purpose in business.

Recently, advances in technology have exacerbated the problem. Take performance marketing as an example: an astonishingly precise tool that targets people when they are most likely to buy and delivers prompts, repeatedly, insistently, and for many, annoyingly. The thinking is incredibly short-term, making it popular in the board room, but ineffective for brand growth.

The increase in ad-avoidance and the uptake of adblockers must tell us that people are not finding this type of interaction rewarding; an interaction that strips the brand of the humanity, empathy and authenticity that people respond to. 

But there is another way. Replacing terminology that treats the audience as "customers" with "humans" will immediately change the way brands think about them and treat them. The result is more insightful, more empathetic and more engaging interaction. The brand becomes more human. 

When it comes to the "customer experience" this is particularly noticeable. Of course there is still a phase of brand engagement which involves a customer, but it needs to be viewed within the context of the broader and richer "human experience". Looking in isolation at the transactional element of brand engagement is what leads to a narrow-minded approach and creates the disconnect that plagues many brands.

Injecting empathy and creating a more rounded "human experience" also allows the brand to be taken deeper into people’s lives, into their culture, to inspire them, to assist them, and delivering brand experiences that are more likely to be appreciated and acted upon.

Creating this human experience is not a task that can be done in silos by a marketing team; the thinking has to be ubiquitous and should pervade all parts of the brand interaction. Reaching chief marketing officers is of course the primary aim of our industry, but communication campaigns must be accompanied with a shift in internal thinking.

A brand must really see its audience as "humans" in order to begin to treat them more respectfully and generate more connected, more valued and more successful opportunities. Because the customer isn’t a moron. The customer is a human being.

Sid McGrath is chief strategy officer at Karmarama