3 take-aways from the MRS Customers Exposed conference

On Thursday October 30, MRS organized a one-day conference titled Customers Exposed. I have to confess that I did not fully know what to expect, based on the event’s title. Yet after ten interesting speakers having taken the stage, I can happily say that I do get it now! I get it, but I have to agree with the conclusion at the speakers’ debate: I think a better cluster term for these ten inspiring talks would be obtained by turning it around, naming it ‘Brands Exposed’. All sessions, each very diverse in nature, talked about the changing consumer and how marketers and brands need to uncover their true self to connect with them. These are my 3 take-aways of the day!

1. Considered consumption

I think we can all agree that consumers have changed, or at least that the whole environment around consumers is changing rapidly, consequently influencing the way consumers think and act. Brands can no longer simply ‘force’ their products onto the larger masses, they need to realize that consumers engage in what Joe Staton (Director, GfK Market Opportunities & Innovation) called ‘Considered Consumption’, which means that consumers think about who they want to buy from.
I agree with the latter, yet I feel we need to add the note that this ‘consideration’ is not only fueled by rational thinking (which can be the case for certain product categories); the implicit side is also very important here, just think about our herd behavior. Targeting and segmenting are becoming tougher exercises as consumers have a more fragmented identity which is not linked in any way to their sociodemographics. As a consequence, a brand can quickly evolve from being connected to feeling fully detached from its consumers.

2. Focus on functionality

In this fast-paced environment, brands should function as what Staton calls ‘Curators’, which provide stability towards consumers. More than ever brands need to deliver clear benefits to their consumers. Functionality is key – or as Peter Dann (Director, The Nursery) phrases it: “You must make a product interesting, not just an ad different”. It is not about the packaging, but about your core product and its relevance for consumers.
The presentation by Caroline Hayter (Strategist, Acacia Avenue) highlighted that this focus on functionality is even more important when targeting Millennials. When compared with older generations, these consumers have a utilitarian way of looking at brands, namely questioning what these brands can actually ‘do’ for them. This generation is in search for brands delivering true value for money.

3. Combine utility with experience

With this quest for functionality and relevance, is experience marketing dead? I truly believe the answer is no… The key to connect with consumers (including Millennials) is to combine utility with experience. As a result, brands needs to really understand who their consumers are and what relevance means to them. Because it isn’t until you understand their behavior that you can start influencing or even changing it.

In the past 5 years there have been a lot of developments in the field of neuroscience, leading to the unraveling of the human brain and thinking. Crawford Hollingworth (Co-founder, The Behavioural Architects) shared with us some applications of behavioral science techniques in branding. His talk showed that, when applying this thinking, brands have great power and therefore a great responsibility. Hopefully we won’t come across any examples soon of brands using these techniques for the wrong reasons! Yet, in this world of perfect information and words traveling at the speed of light, an irresponsible use of these techniques will for sure backfire.

My conclusion of the day is that brands need to connect with consumers in an honest and socially responsible way. The new consumer takes considered decisions – whether triggered by herd behavior or their own thinking – where the true functionalities are key. You can create a story behind your brand, but you cannot forget to clearly position this around your utility.

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