The Hidden Persuaders Redux Responsible and ethical marketers will do well to not take to the easier path and build brands transparently for a sustainable presence in their chosen markets

By Venkatesh Umashankar

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In 1957, when Vance Packard wrote his searing treatise on how marketers used communicational ploys that psychologically exploited customers to (say) consider two identical products as being very different, it was an exhortation for companies to stick to factual description of products and not indulge in creating brand "personalities" that mystified consumers.

He identified eight "compelling needs," that marketers promised their products will fulfill. Among others, these included ego gratification, emotional security, sense of power and reassurance of worth.

To the defense of marketers (always), is the principle that consumer is sovereign and rational, and only she can decide to be convinced or unconvinced about a promotional message and end up buying something knowingly or unknowingly, under a false assumption or pretense. This is supposed to absolve marketers from the charge of manipulation.

However, consider this: as far as impulse buying is concerned, research has established that the ability in a consumer to delay gratification is negatively correlated to three things, an acquiescent or compliant personality, a disadvantaged family, and the length of delay from last purchase. There are of course other factors that magnifies impulse purchases today, such as –internet access (on smart phones especially), ecommerce platforms that are always on, deep discounting, plastic money or e-money if you please, etc.

Dipstick surveys of millennials, conducted by yours truly, has invariably led to the realization that frequently it was a merely deep discount that uncovered a latent and completely unrecognized need, making many to buy almost subconsciously. We can add to this mix FOMO or fear-of-missing-out, which also drives many such impulse buying episodes.

Let us now add to this already potent mix the seemingly, Covid-19 like tentacles of digital marketing, which is – all pervasive, virulently effective and leaves us literally breathless…! In addition, as far as the increasingly infectious mutations are concerned, it has already enabled marketers to drive infinitely personalized campaigns in practicing one-to-one marketing, successfully persuading customers.

For instance, if we focus on one of the tools of digital marketing today, namely "Influencer Marketing" using social media platforms, a report from ClanConnect.ai, found that 78 per cent of marketing leaders in India used influencer marketing in 2020, whereas about 13 per cent were first time implementers of influencer marketing campaigns in 2020.

About 52 per cent of brands engaged with more than 10 influencers in 2020. Over 41 per cent of brands managed their influencer marketing roll-out themselves, while 15 per cent employed dedicated influencer marketing platforms.

However, crucially more than 89 per cent of the marketers were concerned about ever-increasing influencer frauds involving fake followers and engagement.

A 2018 study by MIT researchers – Vosoughi, Aral and Roy found that false news spreads more rapidly on the social network Twitter than real news does and that too by a substantial margin, across all categories of information. They also found that the spread of false information is not necessarily a consequence of programmed bots disseminating inaccurate stories, but also that false news travelled faster on Twitter due to people retweeting inaccurate news items. What all vanity does to us…!!!

In India, there are agencies who have contracted paid agents across the length and breadth of the country, who are routinely fed lines that they need to re-tweet, potentially creating a falsely viral communication.

All this rather cannibalizes and creates an ersatz meaning of a "market maven", as defined by Feick and Price who coined the term in 1987, as – "individuals who have information about many kinds of products, places to shop, and other facets of markets, and initiate discussions with consumers and respond to requests from consumers for market information."

The e-influencer today is a paid agent with no valid badge of expertise or knowledge of the -technology/applications/ingredients/qualities/pros and cons – of the value proposition(s), they are paid to promote. They cannot also be called – "influencers," as they are merely paid agents and that too not really qualified ones. Worse, anyone with a smartphone can be a paid influencer.

The original meaning in marketing of an opinion leader and a market maven, never considered the paid agency form of influence.

The logic is that when we search something on Google, the first page listing of sponsored hits are rarely clicked by us as they are clearly labeled as ads. Similarly, if all so called e-influencers messaging across any social media platform are clearly labeled as "sponsored,' I daresay the resultant followership, credence and believability - will be drastically lower than if this paid aspect was hidden from consumers of such messaging.

A new and not-so "hidden persuader" is on the prowl…! And Vance must be turning in his grave at this dangerously penetrative powers in the hands of marketers today.

Responsible and ethical marketers will do well to not take to this easier path and build brands transparently for a sustainable presence in their chosen markets.

Venkatesh Umashankar

Professor, Great Lakes Institute of Management, Gurgaon

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