Consumer Report

Following Their Lead

In a society where everybody wants to belong, marketing is a top-down thing. You tell people what they want, and if you're convincing, they believe you. This was the world of 1977, where folks squeezed into designer jeans regardless of whether the miserable rags were made well, looked good, or allowed their wearers to carry on normal respiratory processes.

A market of individuals has no such intentions. In 1997, people have their own opinions about what they want. Needless to say, this poses a dilemma for businesses. Although companies still spend billions each year trying to win consumers over with catchy slogans, celebrity endorsements and all manner of hoopla, some say a major shift in the way businesses and consumers interact is already underway. Ideas aren't just flowing from the top down; they're rising from the bottom up.

Lopiano-Misdom points to the world of fashion as one example of this democratization. "Designers are getting their inspiration from the streets," she says. "The techno-plastic trend, for example, didn't come from a designer; it began with rave culture." The current advertising obsession with the word "extreme" also originated on the streets (although whether advertising execs have the authenticity to give the concept meaning is still up for debate).

On another front, cutting-edge companies are spending less time trying to dictate what customers want and more time trying to divine it. In Enterprise One to One, Rogers and Peppers make a case for tracking customer preferences as a way of creating future business.

"If I know what a customer has purchased in the past, I can predict what they will want next," says Rogers. "If you bought flowers for your mother on this day last year, I can call you today and ask if you'd like to send another gift. I can even suggest what you'd like to say on the card." Rogers believes this kind of proactive approach is the most powerful tool there is because it plays on consumers' actual preferences while saving them time and trouble.

This approach isn't exactly new to the '90s. In fact, Rogers notes that it harkens back to the days of the general store, when merchants knew their customers individually. Interactive customer service fits with the recent rise of interactive culture, and its beginnings may herald the start of a whole new era in commerce.

"We're entering an age where we're starting to see things differently," says Peppers. "Customers are becoming less tolerant of one-size-fits-all solutions. Expectations are already changing, [until finally] interactivity will become such a compelling way of doing business that very few businesses will be able to succeed without it."

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This article was originally published in the May 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Consumer Report.

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