Consumer Affairs: The New Advertising Department

If I ever return to corporate America, I want to run the consumer affairs department.

Yes, I’m talking about the department that runs the call center, the Web feedback forms, and anything that revolves around actually talking to consumers.

Aside from the periodic consumer photo op, or annual field trip to the call center, most marketers treat consumer affairs like a wasteland of non-strategic, low-value, cost-center fluff. After all, these are the folks we like to outsource, streamline, automate, and relegate to second-class citizenry.

That’s precisely why I find the role so attractive. Opportunity and upsides abound. If a big company, such as Kraft, Unilever, Kimberly-Clark, Sony, Nestlé, Pepsi, or even my former employer, Procter & Gamble, tapped me on the shoulder to run consumer affairs, here’s what I’d say in my very first memo or speech to these organizational underdogs.

Fellow Colleagues:

It’s time to stop getting kicked around.

In the coming months, we’re going to take back the consumer, driving real shareholder value in the process. You may not see it now, but believe me, we’re the new center of marketing. And we’re not going to let anyone tell us otherwise.

I feel your pain. You beg for scraps, while marketers and their agencies eat filet mignon. You’ve been repressed, downsized, outsourced, automated, trivialized, and forced to say “no, no, no” to every conceivable innovation because you barely have enough food to get through the winter.

On top of that, you’ve been subjected to an impossibly lame and archaic compensation structure that only rewards you for reducing, not growing, consumer relationships and for keeping that dialogue to an absolute minimum. You’ve been taught Orwellian nonsense such as “less is more” and “curt is cool.”

To add insult to injury, the marketing department or agency — even our own CEO or CMO — waxes poetic about nurturing loyalty and customer relationships. About managing in a world where the consumer controls the stakes.

There’s something rotten out there, but we can turn things around.

Marketing in Crisis

Here’s the reality: the marketing folks are in crisis. Consumers tune out advertising, and the current ad model is broke. TV is about as reliable as toast in water. Your brand brethren throw money at everything that might keep branding afloat: product placement, branded entertainment, fancy programs to seduce Wal-Mart.

One thing is clear. The consumer is not only the boss, she controls and shapes the message as well. Consumers are vocal, viral, and armed with high-impact, high-reach megaphones through message boards, blogs, and more. When they experience our products, they talk and others listen. Their voices are far more trusted than advertisers’. This counts big time in our self-critical age of accountability and return on investment (ROI).

The catch is the untapped value is right under our noses. The engaged and passionate consumers who reach out to talk to us are the same folks who seed message boards, instigate viral chains, and author blogs. They are the ones most likely to create consumer-generated media (CGM). Did I mention most of them are intensely loyal?

The consumers you touch are far more valuable to the brand franchise than “typical” consumers, and you are simply not getting credit, compensation, or even a thank-you for it!

Advertising Department

Starting today, think of yourselves as the advertising department, not the consumer affairs department. We nurture, encourage, promote, and manage consumer-generated media — the most trusted, effective form of advertising anywhere. Consumer affairs is where agencies and brands should turn with their fat checks when they need to build “influencer” opt-in email lists.

We’re the folks brands should generously compensate when they send “free samples” to our database, because vocal consumers spread the word faster than anyone. We’re the folks shopper teams and research groups should worship because our unaided, unsolicited data is absolutely indispensable to consumer and shopper understanding, especially in the age of accelerated product launch.

Critical Next Steps

Actions speak louder than words, and we need to make our case. Right now, we have low self-esteem, and it shows in every service interface we create, especially online. Shame on us for making our “contact us” form look like a hotel concierge with a big “get out of my face” sign around his neck.

Shame on us for allowing lawyers to dictate ridiculously archaic disclaimers, eschewing feedback, ideas, or suggestions. That’s a conspiracy propagated by agencies and high-priced ideation consultants.

Starting immediately, we’re putting out a friendly welcome mat for all consumers. We’ll make them feel special and empowered. We’ll nurture their respect and loyalty by asking for feedback. And in the process, we’ll build a real database that will make most marketers salivate.

Most important, we’ll break rank with the market research department. We’ll profile our consumers not merely by standard demographics but by “influence.” We’ll ask if they blog, write online product reviews, or hang out on message boards. The stuff that really matters, and that marketers will pay huge premiums to know.

The ROI Kicker

With happier, better profiled consumers in hand, we’ll march en mass to the CFO and make absolutely clear the consumers we touch are much more valuable than typical consumers. We’ll know, for instance, that 20 percent of the folks who rave about our newest products are bloggers.

Then we’ll borrow a trick from the marketing playbook and present side-by-side data showing how much agencies and brands pay outside vendors to acquire targeted mailing list. We’ll demonstrate the small cost of managing a toll-free call or email pales in comparison to the huge premiums agencies spend to acquire vocal consumers. We’ll put a value on the unique insight and intelligence they bring to the table. Before long, the naysayers will think of us as a profit center, not a cost center.

Make no mistake: we are the advertising department. We manage and nurture consumer-generated media. That gives us untold power and leverage.

Together, we’ll take back the consumer, and recast and revitalize marketing in the process. Let’s do it!

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