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Consumer, target or Wendy. What is in a name?

by Nigel Hollis | July 10, 2013

A long time ago I remember Wendy Gordon corrected me very publicly on my use of the word “consumer.”  It is notable that I have forgotten the exact topic of my presentation, but know that in the course of it I must have used the word “consumer” multiple times. When Wendy spoke, she noted that she always preferred to use the word “people,” not “consumers.”

I suspect the subject of my presentation was the original incarnation of BrandDynamics (click here for more information on the new and improved version). BrandDynamics was new news at the time and very relevant to the subject of the conference at which we were speaking, so I was feeling a bit smug because my presentation seemed to go well. Then Wendy burst my bubble with a few well chosen words.

Why? It was immediately obvious to me that Wendy was right. By labeling them as “consumers” I was taking a very one-sided view of people and their lives, needs, wants, feelings and desires. The word “consumer” infers an entity not a person. “Consumer” is anonymized, standardized and knowable. By inference it suggests that people’s behavior is eminently predictable. This, of course, is one of the reasons I was happily using it in the context of my presentation.

I would like to say that since that time I have stopped using the word but it is not true. “Consumer” is too convenient, too familiar and too widely used to simply dump it from my vocabulary, but I do try to be more deliberate about its use.

Do the semantics of a word matter in the context of our business? I would argue that they do. If your job is to provide insights into why people think and behave the way they do, it helps to remind yourself that you are dealing with complex, instinctive and inherently variable individuals. Yes, we can identify common patterns in the way people respond to different experiences, but that does not imply that they are individually predictable under all circumstances. 

The idea for this post was triggered when I came across this piece by Don Norman. He suggests that customer, consumer and user are all demeaning to people and get between the designer and their ultimate objective, which is to deliver a great experience for people. If the use of the word “consumer” is bad, think about the implications of the word “target.” A person, object, or place selected as the aim of an attack. Now we are not only distancing ourselves from the individual, we are literally making them the subject of aggression.

Maybe I am reading too much into things but I can’t help feeling that the words we use both reflect our mindset and influence our thinking. If we think of people as consumers and targets, we distance ourselves from the reality of who they are. Perhaps this is why so much marketing and marketing research fails to resonate with people who matter most, the individuals whose needs our brands are meant to serve.

Once I started writing this post I had to make a decision. Do I refer to Wendy Gordon as “Wendy” or “Gordon”? I chose “Wendy” because “Gordon” sounds so formal, so distant. It is not the “correct” choice but it just feels better. So what do you think? Do names matter? Please share your thoughts. 


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  1. Ashley Case, July 23, 2013
    This article was very insightful and I've never really thought about the term 'consumer' being construed in a negative connotation. To me a consumer is just a way to group a bunch of people together but I can see that term cutting people off at the knees so to speak. It kind of takes away their identity (essentially what makes them an audience you want to target). Using the term 'consumer' can make you seem unoriginal. Thanks again for the post. 
  2. Balkar Singh, July 18, 2013
    Once I a bought "supposed-to-be-chill" lassi (a fresh drink consumed in Punjab, India) in Chandigarh. However, it was lukewarm and the concerned people could not arrange ice (usually it's available)...when interacting with the shopkeeper, I first tried to tell my concern - to which he almost ignored me. While after i said him that "please inform the CUSTOMER" - he understood the context - that I was speaking from his side.
  3. phil herr, July 10, 2013
    I try very hard to avoid the term "consumer" and even harder to avoid "target". But sometimes they creep in. To paraphrase the "elephant man":  "I am not a target, I am a human being!"
  4. Graham S, July 10, 2013
    Thanks for this thoughtful article, Nigel.  I agree with you and stand similarly condemned by by use of the word consumer. I have at least tried hard to ensure that the word respondent never appears in my conclusions.

    I would also contend that the use of the word consumer is, at least some of the time, correct.  As you have noted, people are multi-faceted.  And one of these aspects is that they consume (or buy, or use) goods of various types.  When we are describing them or their behaviour in this context, I feel the use of the word consumer, buyer, shopper or user is appropriately - particularly when we are making a distinction between the person-as-consumer and the person-as-shopper.  A lot of my packaged goods clients will refer to consumers (the end users) and customers (the retail companies they actually sell the goods to) and we use the langues to follow their model.

    I am wholly with you regarding the description of people as targets.
  5. Ed C, July 10, 2013
    I think names definitely matter (overall) but not really in this case. Sure, being individually labeled as a consumer or target isn't appealing, but neither would "when people like you go to the store, they..." People like me?! I think the terms consumer, target, or even people are ok if you are talking about the masses (a collection of individuals) but not about one lone individual. 

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