Stop calling me a ‘consumer’

Reducing people to a single act such as ‘consuming’ strips away context and will hold your brand back from truly connecting says Debbie Spence.

Too often, vocabulary in our industry refers to people in a way that’s one dimensional with no consideration for humanity.

I can recall at least eight different labels I’ve heard used in the past couple of weeks: consumers, targets, shoppers, buyers, customers, members, stakeholders, and – the most odious – recipients. I shudder when marketers reduce people to this. It’s lazy, demeaning, arrogant and contrived.

We need to see people as a whole person and not reduce them to a single act such as consuming or using. It dehumanises all of us and strips a person of their circumstances, eliminating context and the opportunity to connect on a real human level.

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

I’ll give you an example: I’m in the midst of building a house. Last week, a salesperson called me to arrange an appointment to measure for blinds and curtains. He literally referred to me as a ‘lead’. I told him where to go.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about being politically correct. It’s about encouraging marketers to think more deeply about the role their brand might play in the real lives of the people they’re trying to connect with.

Move beyond the artificial division created by the boardroom, focus group room or workshop space and get under the skin of the real-world context.

By thinking about people as human beings and recognising the importance of humanity in the work we do, we’ll build better brands and stronger relationships with people.

In my role as head of design research, I focus on discovering human insights and galvanising design, language and technology teams around the people we’re designing for. You can call it human centred design if you want to use the latest buzzword. At the heart of this is a fundamental interest in people.

The work we’ve been doing recently with one brand, in particular, is directed at capturing the human insight that people want to demystify superannuation and reduce the distance between them and their money. They need someone on their side, encouraging them to do what’s best when it comes to their super. A simple nuance in language reframed super funds as their ‘super savings’, a more accurate reflection, as far as people are concerned, and immediately helps them feel closer to their super.

It’s important to make sure there’s space for the human context in the encapsulation of brand strategy. Brands must always consider the context they are operating in. Brand purpose responds directly to this, wrapping up the ambition of the organisation as something meaningful for the people we’re trying to connect with. Unless we understand the human context, we won’t unlock a brand purpose, and the brand strategy won’t inspire great work that has a commercial reward.

There must always be a fundamental human truth at the hearts of our brands. Without that, we’ll continue to be distant, disconnected and arrogant in our assumption that people care about us when in reality we are very low on their priority list.

It’s also not just about what we say, but what we do that’s important. Connecting with someone on a human level requires more than lip service. Don’t tell people: “We’ll treat you as a person, not an account number” unless you intend to follow through. All the lofty aspiration written into an ‘about us’ statement on a website is irrelevant if the way people experience the brand doesn’t deliver.

Brand building today is the same as it’s always been. It’s about making genuine connections with real people. So let’s shed the outdated, dehumanising labels and think about people as fellow humans and make branding human again.

Debbie Spence is the head of design research at branding agency Principals.


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