“Consumers” or “multipliers” A new language for marketing?

Syd_2American consumers spend more than $8 trillion a year on everything from popcorn to Porsches and eye exams to electricity. WSJ

Not everyone likes the term "consumer." Some think it’s anti-ecological. "Consumers" sound like ravening beasts who must destroy what they buy instead of renting it from the recycler.

Others dislike the term "consumer" because it suggests that the consumer always destroys value, and can’t actually ever participate in its creation. Producers have power. Consumers do not.

There’s a third reason. When it comes to the tech sector, information economies, the software user and the internet user, the term "consumer" is simply odd.

Jerry Michalski raised this issue at a Push conference a couple of years ago, and I heard it again Monday night at the CoburnVentures dinner from David Isenberg. Their point, if I may speak for them (and I am sure they will let them know if I can not), is that when we use the term "consumer" we smuggle certain assumptions into discourse, and these stowaways are inclined to act with mischievious and sometimes malevolent intent. Calling people "consumers" prevents us from seeing them in other ways. It may indeed prevent marketing from moving from the old verities to the new ones.

I don’t honestly know the historical particulars, but I believe the term "consumer" is relatively recently arrived. Before consumers, it was customary, I think, to talk about "customers," as if all relationships were "b to b" (business to business) ones.

I did a little hunting around, with the idea that the historian of marketing, Robert Bartels, might have some thoughts on the topic. I was unable to find any. Bartels does say that Charles Coolidge Parlin invented the phrase "consumer is king" in or around 1912, so we know the term was active then.

More to the point, "consumer" was essential to the effort to make the corporation "consumer centric" (as we could now say). It is precisely because corporations were persuaded that they were selling to "consumers" that they paid attention to taste and preference. In their last days, command economies gave us a glimpse of what the world might have looked like otherwise.

All of this is to say that "consumer" has done yeoman’s service, and the rise of marketing is hard to imagine without it. Still, Michalski and Isenberg have a point, and it is perhaps now time to think of alternatives.

My current favorite is the one that spring into conversation as Isenberg were talking on Monday: "multiplier." Sure, it’s a little weird, but I gave it to the boys in the lab and asked that they do a little product testing. Here’s what they came back with:

American mutlipliers spend more than $8 trillion a year on everything from popcorn to Porsches and eye exams to electricity.

WSJ (amended)

Good work, fellas! That’s pretty much all they could come up with.

But imagine this conversation at the headquarters of "Bang the Brand."

"Do multipliers care about this sort of thing anymore? I mean isn’t this old fashioned marketing."

There is something in the term that invites us to ask whether the product, brand, innovation, campaign does actually give the "multiplier" anything he can, er, multiply. And if the answer is "no," well, we have what we are looking for.

Furthermore, "multipiers" also bids us ask, down the road, whether indeed the product, brand, innovation actually produced anything in the world. Did the multipliers multiply it, or is it still just sitting there.

Finally, the term multipler may help marketers acknowledge more forthrightly that whether our work is a success is in fact out of our control. All we can do is to invite the multiplier to participate in the construction of the brand by putting it to work for their own purposes in their own world. When we called them "consumers" we could think of our creations as an end game and their responses as an end state. The term "multiplier" or something like it makes it clear that we depend on them to complete the work

These are thoughts only and other candidates are eagerly solicited.


Bartels, Robert. 1976. The History of Marketing Thought. publisher unknown. This book is excerpted here.

Wessel, David. 2005. Consumers Might Curtail Shopping Sprees. Wall Street Journal. November 9, 2005.

14 thoughts on ““Consumers” or “multipliers” A new language for marketing?

  1. Peter

    Grant —

    The Oxford English Dictionary Online gives as the first meaning of consumer, “He who or that which consumes, wastes, squanders, or destroys”, which shows what baggage the word carries with it. The first written usage of this meaning is cited as 1535.

    However, a further meaning (c) is given as, “One who purchases goods or pays for services; a customer, purchaser.” The first written usage in this sense is, interestingly, the Sears Roebuck Catalog of 1897, which contains a heading: “Consumers guide”.

    Among the other citations in the OED is this nice one from Emerson’s “The Conduct of Life” (1860):

    “Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer.”

  2. Peter

    These ideas tie in well with notions of Deliberative Democracy which are current in political theory. The prior dominant theory of democracy was Rational Choice theory, which viewed voters only as consumers of political ideas, making choices between offerings put to them, usually on the basis of the different expected utilities of each choice. Deliberative democracry, by contrast, views voters as both producers and consumers of political ideas, engaging in debate and dialog with one another, as well as with politicians, and doing so with the firm prospect that their own views may change in the process.

    Perhaps “multiplier” is a good word to express this dual role, although the word has an inanimate, machine-like, connotation which carries its own baggage, IMHO. It would likely lead marketers to treat their customers less as individual human beings than is the case now.

  3. steve

    It has its own baggage, but what’s wrong with “user”? It connotes active participation while leaving general how the good or service is used. So beer drinkers may “use” Miller Lite to quench their thirst, control weight gain, pretend they are sexy dancers like the ones in the ads, or, instead, playfully flaunt the mismatch between their appearance and the ad message.

  4. Peter

    In response to Steve, I don’t think the word “user” conveys the idea that the consumer is an active participant in the construction and diffusion of the meaning of a product. “Multiplier” does this well, IMO.

  5. Jerry Michalski

    Hey, Grant. Great post, and thanks for adding to the “consumer” conversation.

    You’re dead on in describing my objections to the word. There are more where that comes from.

    But I’m not crazy about “multiplier.” Any word that sounds less than fully familiar and human, like “individual,” “person,” “member,” or “guest” (what Target calls ’em) dehumanizes us into targets. Or multipliers.

    Whom exactly are we multiplying for? The company marketing to us. What does that say about that company’s intentions toward us? Nothing good.

    I like “user” because it implies usefulness. I understand people’s angst about drug users, but I don’t subscribe to that point of view. Yet “user” is a little less human than “person,” etc.

    BTW, “client” and “customer” are perfectly groovy. And the consumer market can be called the retail market, which is also a term in long use.

  6. Scott

    You suggest multiplier because of its implications about us depending on them to complete the work. Please give examples of what they are doing when they “complete” work.

    If this is referring to the mythical concept of a convention generating $XX million for a city because the money is spent and respent, it directs us further from the goal of considering the needs of the person sending us money.

    The idea of “consumer” is well respected in technology with the advent of Service Oriented Architectures. Services are consumed.

    I look forwars to hearing more suggestions for a new name for consumer. An idea to spark discussion is to think of their position in the value chain…

  7. brkily

    possibly, the change of sensibility we are looking for, resides more in the objects being exchanged – and not the transaction. like the whole idea of valuableness and worthiness.
    does the thing make any larger contribution to general well-being of us all or does it only exist for personal gratification? does it have the quality of not subtracting from mutual resouces or increasing them or being re-cycled or lasting a very long time? is the entire cost of the life-cycle of the thing being taken into consideration?
    so, perhaps it’s the concept of value which needs rehabilitation…

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  11. Greg

    Curious if transformer may be another relevant term, people don’t consume things in the strict sense, they attach meaning to them, and transform products, services, and experiences.

    1. Grant Post author

      Greg, excellent, “transformer” works well for meaning, “multiplier” for value. Thanks, Grant

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