| 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.