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.
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.