Fender-benders on the information superhighway

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.I believe strongly that we marketing people are overestimating the benefits and underestimating the difficulties of interacting on the emerging information superhighway.The theory that...

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.

I believe strongly that we marketing people are overestimating the benefits and underestimating the difficulties of interacting on the emerging information superhighway.

The theory that many seem to subscribe to is that it will get easier to reach and engage ever more discrete groups, ever more cost-efficiently.

Less wastage

There will be, the theory goes, less wastage, more relevance, and, finally, interactivity with the customer that marketers are trying to reach and persuade.

All of this seems too good to be true, and it is.

If anything, the information superhighway will only make marketers less relevant and less of a force in the new economy.

Recent experience has given us a preview of this. Just as the free flow of greater information shifted the power in the marketing equation from manufacturers to retailers in the 1980s, the democratization of information will shift that power again, this time to customers.

With more information, more choice, and more technology for selecting and buying, customers are less dependent on marketers.

Brand loyalty, already experiencing a steep decline, will become an even more fragile commodity. And the process of marketing, which builds that loyalty, will become harder as it becomes less relevant.

Everything’s marketing

Some will argue that in an over-communicated world, everything becomes marketing. And that’s the point.

As marketing becomes pervasive, it eventually becomes like room noise – an incessant hum that the human mind chooses not to acknowledge so that it can focus on the things that are important to it.

I cannot, and will not, predict the shape of the still-under-construction information superhighway. That would be presumptuous because none of us really knows what it will be like, how it will work, and where it will go.

What I do know with a fair degree of certitude is that most marketers will try to use it to sell to people with the same attitude and disciplines that we have been using all along. And that is what will defeat us.

Intimate access

The promise of the new technology is that it provides more intimate access to people.

While this is a saliva-inducing prospect for marketers, our past record suggests that we will see this as an opportunity for greater intrusion, an opportunity for further invading the consciousness of our prospects with the traditional ideas and tactics which support sales.

What I do not hear anyone in marketing acknowledging in discussions about this powerful new technology is that such intimate access to people also carries greater responsibility.

Intimacy is not a function of access, but of commitment. So, the more precisely we can talk to people, the greater the need for marketers to subsume our priorities in favor of those of our customers.

Even while proclaiming the primacy of the customer, marketers show that we cannot help but put the needs and priorities of the brand first.

As information empowers customers, this brand-focus will become not only less tolerable, but, also, ignorable by the market.

The ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude that customers take with them up and down the superstore aisle will apply to the expressions of marketing that people are exposed to as they zip with insouciance along the information superhighway.

The new technology is especially coveted by marketers because it promises interactivity. But the people who are dulled to boredom by the heavy-handed marketing they are currently subjected to will more often than not hardly care to respond and interact.

In fact, the notion of interaction assumes that the brand is, indeed, even important enough for people to want to have a relationship with. This high importance we ascribe to brands only perpetuates the old arrogance of the marketers and further alienates customers.

Before we embrace the technology, we should reconnect with the personal. Intimacy and interaction in human relationships require a foundation of respect and a commitment to reciprocity.

These heart principles are missing from most marketing plans, and their spirit is absent from most marketing executions.

Reconstruct discipline

So, unless we reconstruct the whole discipline of marketing to include these lessons from the heart, we risk turning the technological opportunity for greater involvement with our customers into another reason for them to regard marketing with a mixture of suspicion and indifference.

Everyone seems to be scrambling to build on and off ramps to the information superhighway before anyone even knows where it is going.

Marketers especially see the opportunities, without seeing the need for dramatic and fundamental structural change within our own discipline.

Driving blindly is bad enough. Driving blindly with a rusty wreck is an invitation to disaster.

John Dalla Costa is an author and consultant to senior business executives.