February 22, 2021|
The Age of Goliath
The Imperative of Consumer Choice
In the early days of 2021, I’ve been thinking about the market and where it’s heading. And one of the things that keeps striking me is how much is changing. There's more conglomeration, more dominance by big players in the market. I'm thinking about how much consumers need choice, and how much we need tools and tactics to give them that.
Why is consumer choice so important? More than that, are we actually supporting choice or are we taking it away? What can we do to make sure that the market—and our marketing techniques—aren’t constricting people?
The Modern Consumer Wants to Think for Themselves
There’s an old saying in marketing: You need to know what your customers need before they know it. In a lot of ways, our role is to be a knowledgeable guide, helping our customers make the “right” choices. The market is very crowded, so there are lots of choices, and our customers want to make good ones. They can be overwhelmed, though, so they may not always pick the right thing.
So, some people see it as our job as Marketers to sort of “steer” them to the “right” decisions.
This idea assumes our customers are naïve. They don’t know what’s good for them or what they want! So we, the knowledgeable and savvy Marketers, must help them discover what is “good.”
We can see this in ads from the early 20th century. Think about Listerine pretty much inventing “halitosis”—bad breath. This wasn’t a problem most people thought about until Listerine told them it was a problem! Now we’re all hyper-aware of bad breath, and we pursue dental hygiene, use mints, chew gum, pop a breath strip, or rinse with mouthwash. The same thing happened with deodorant and lots of other personal hygiene items we now assume are “basic needs.”
These companies were “educating” their audience about a “problem” that their product solved.
Today, this kind of thinking doesn’t go over well with consumers. They’re much more skeptical of anything we tell them. And they’re likely going to ask if what we’re selling is really solving a problem! Think about infomercials that show people failing at basic everyday tasks. It’s so over the top, we might ask if the product is just making the problem up so it can “solve” it.
What we see here is that our idea Marketers always know what's best for the consumer meets resistance. Customers today like to think of themselves as pretty savvy! And, in a lot of ways, they are. They’re “wise” to a lot of marketing tactics, they’re more likely to doubt brands, and they’re more likely to ask questions.
They’re also a lot more independent. Today, almost 90 percent of customers start their search online. Customers who click on ads on Google say they’re aware it’s an ad and they click because it’s what they want.
We can even see this in Millennials and Gen Z. They know Facebook and Google follow them around the web, collecting their data and selling it. And yet, if we look at their attitudes, some of them seem to embrace this. They want these big companies to get their hands on their data. They believe it will lead to better “matches” with ads.
That’s a huge difference from audiences who turn on the TV and watch whatever ads are tossed at them. Gen Z offers up their personal data to get personalized recommendations for ads. So they see more stuff they’re interested in, and they’re actively asking for it to happen.
Constricting Choice Makes for Unhappy Customers
Given these attitudes, we have to be cautious about constricting our customers. We can see that reflected in why people are so upset about lockdowns at this point.
These are restrictions on choice, by and large. With little stores closed, consumers have no choice but to go to the big box stores. When governments tell us we can’t buy “non-essentials” here, we have to turn to online retailers.
This restricts our choices! We’re no longer able to shop where we want. Some of the businesses we want to support don’t offer online shopping or maybe the shipping’s expensive. What about people who don’t have access to the Internet at home?
We also may not have access to the same selection of products. If we have to buy at a big box store, then we may not be able to get the brands we love, or the prices might be too high. We might have to “settle” for something else. Maybe we can’t find what we want at all.
We like having free choice, because it allows us to make choices based on what’s best for us. Gen Z is highly attuned to environmental issues. So what if they can’t access products with biodegradable packaging, because the local shop where they usually buy is closed? Suddenly, they can’t make the best decisions for them any longer, which is upsetting. It can feel like our individual needs are being ignored or cast off.
This is why we as Marketers have to be especially careful in this environment. The last thing we want is to make our customers feel like they’re having choices taken away from them!
Is Choice Even Possible with Big Data?
The pandemic isn’t the only thing that got me thinking about the issue of consumer choice. Big data is another big factor.
There may be more choices today for products or where to shop. But there’s a huge issue in getting the word out. Social media was supposed to be the great equalizer. But brands with big budgets and deep pockets are able to monopolize. They can outbid the little guy at every turn—and they can pay top dollar for datasets. They can even invest in their own data.
We should be concerned about this trend. It means that “the little guys” are going to get squeezed. We’ve already seen the pandemic impact the pricing for digital ads, because everyone was competing for the same spaces. And brands with deep pockets can almost always out-compete the little guy.
There’s something to be said for targeting—which is where our consumers have a bit more control, if they know what they’re doing. They can change their ad preferences, block ads, report ads, or even change how their data is collected and shared. An example is someone telling Facebook never to show them posts from a certain advertiser again.
That still doesn’t solve the bigger issue, of course. Few people are annoyed enough by an ad to ban the advertiser from their feed. It’s also unlikely they’ll ban the big brands, whom they’re already familiar with. Doing so might free up certain ad spaces for smaller advertisers to elbow in, but it’s still a limited audience.
So what we end up with is a tug-o-war with consumer choice. There are more choices, and our consumers, in theory, have more control than ever before. But they can only exercise those choices when they’re aware they have them. And, as digital marketing prices increase and big brands eat up more of the advertising space (and shelf space and so on), there’s a good chance people won’t be aware of the alternatives.
It’s a push back to the way things “used to be,” before social media and the Internet shook things up. If you want to reach consumers, you need to have a big budget. And if you don’t, there’s a good chance people won’t be aware of your product.
There is one small spot of hope, and that’s our audiences. Like I said, they’re more independent than ever before. Many people start with online research, asking Google a question. And they’re more likely to take the advice of a third-party website or influencer. If they search for “the best pizza places in Toronto,” they’re going to look at Yelp! or Google Reviews before they look at the websites of individual pizza places—because they know every single pizza place is going to tell them “we’re the best!”
So, for the moment, there are spaces where “the little guy” can get in and get the word out. But as these become more important, they’ll likely get squeezed out by bigger players who have the budget and personnel to get those reviews.
How Can We Make Sure Our Customers See Us?
There is one fallback “the little guy” will almost always have—and that’s word of mouth. Even today, word-of-mouth marketing is the most powerful tool we have. It’s why social media works, it’s why influencers work, and it’s why customer reviews work.
People want to hear from real people about their experiences with a brand. So our most loyal customers are, in some ways, our biggest marketing asset. Sure, they may not have a huge following, but they are going to retweet us. And they’re going to tell their friends and family about us.
How do we cut through the noise to reach the people who want to be our loyal customers? They can’t “get the word out” if they’re not our customers yet. We still have to figure out a way to reach them, to get them into a position to be our customers.
The one thing that seems to provide hope is that the modern customer is, in some ways, more in charge than ever. So they are looking for smaller brands or alternatives. They’re researching and comparing as best they can. And they’re giving companies data in hopes of getting better “ad matches”—which means they’re more open. So, in a lot of ways, our future customers, our future brand enthusiasts are looking for us. We have to put our brands out there and try to connect with them.
Because, at the end of the day, customers want choice, and they have more of it than ever. Big companies are going to put the squeeze on shelf space and advertising avenues, which is going to impair the little guy’s ability to get the word out. But it seems like consumers want more choice, are demanding it even—and they’re going to keep demanding it.
Think about this: You want to buy your favourite brand of soda. You go to the supermarket, but they don’t have it. You have a few options. You can talk to the store manager about ordering some. You can choose another grocery store. You could even check out a store like Wal-Mart or Costco. You might check out a small, independent grocer or an “alternative” grocer. And you can always go online and look for it on Amazon or even direct from the soda company themselves.
The first supermarket, if they want your business, might be inclined to order the soda in. Otherwise, you’re taking your dollars somewhere else. In this way, a customer can exercise more power, saying they want choice.
Of course, this isn’t foolproof. There’s a large number of people who will buy what’s on the shelf at the store, no questions asked. These people aren’t likely fiercely loyal customers—they might buy what’s convenient, what’s on sale, and so on.
This isn’t to say that it’s not tough to reach loyal customers or the people who will be loyal customers! There’s a lot of noise in the market, and even “equalizing” channels like social media aren’t necessarily giving the little guy equal footing.
So, how do we reach these people? We need to know where they hang out, what social media platforms they’re using. More than that, though, we need to make sure we’re connecting with them in real ways and ensuring that we’re delivering what they truly want from us. Getting the message out there is key, but we also want to make sure we have the right messages—particularly in the age of algorithms.
So, like always, we need to come back to research. We need to talk to our loyal customers, and we need to really listen to them about what they turn to us for. Answering this “why” will help us answer the other questions—who, where, what, and how.
Remember to start with the why!
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I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.
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