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Don't call them "consumers"

What you call people matters. It tells them what you really think about them.

Here's an example. Years ago my friend Jules shared how her mom would call for her dad in a never-changing escalation of urgency and decline of affection: "Sweetheart!" she'd trill, followed by, "Honey?" and then ending with "Bill!" 

The equation worked this way:

"Sweetheart!" = "Hello, loving husband. It is I, your loving wife, checking in this happy morning."

"Honey?" = "Where has that man taken himself off to, and is he perhaps forgetting that I've asked him to accomplish something this morning?"

"Bill!" = "Move it, old man -- I've got shit to do!"

In three words, Jules' mom went from an affectionate to a functional relationship with her husband. Fortunately, relationships are dynamic and tend to move in both directions.

This matters for marketers and their attendants (agencies, media) because when you talk about those folks who either already buy your stuff or may one day buy your stuff as "consumers," then you have reduced your relationship with these people to a functional one in which their only job is to consume your stuff so that you can make money, then make new stuff, and then sell that stuff to the consumers also.

If you are an old-style marketer who is using one-way pipes like TV and print to firehose impressions at a somewhat resigned population, then you're probably OK doing this, because you're just talking and not pretending to listen… sort of like Jules' dad. (This may sound like I disapprove of such messaging, but I don't: it's honest and practical and sometimes the ads are entertaining.)

However, if you're a marketer using social media to create so-called "friends," or if you're content-curious and trying your hand as a publisher, then the moment you use the word "consumer," you've proven that you are a liar.

They aren't your friends. You don't care what the people on the other end of the communication think or how they feel. They are just consumers, and you're saying, "Shut up and eat."

Now, for the most part, people don't want to have relationships with brands. They don't want to be friends with brands. They don't care about the brand behind the products they buy and use except insofar as those brands save them valuable cognitive effort when shopping (so they can go back to playing with their phones) or save them money at checkout.

But that still doesn't make them consumers. At no moment do people welcome marketers' efforts to paint them into a corner where they are consumers.

So, if you're a marketer reading this, then join me in vowing not to call the people who pay your bills "consumers." It's just rude.

But what do I call them? I hear your plaintive cry. Much ink has been spilled on this question.

Marketers don't want to call people "customers" because they reserve that label for the folks who have already bought something (not that they treat customers any better than consumers). This is bullshit, but at least it's logically consistent.

My friend Joe Jaffe and I got into a spat many years ago when we disagreed about whether to call the online version of these folks "users" or not. (I thought yes; Joe thought it made them sound like addicts…and this was before Facebook made us all into genuine addicts.) Another friend, Grant McCracken, once suggested calling these people "amplifiers," but I think this is too hopeful a term, as most folks decline to amplify.

When you're talking about folks who do or might buy your product in a social media or content marketing context, then I suggest using "audience," since even though they don't have much of a voice, at least we credit audiences with having brains, opinions, and feet with which they can vote.

If a marketer is talking about people who are actively doing something, then I suggest "participants," because that label recognizes their efforts -- whether positive or negative.

And if you're fire-hosing messages, then I suggest you talk about the collection of drenched bodies as people -- since that's what we all are.

Just don't call them consumers.

Brad Berens is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting, Inc.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

A trusted advisor to companies of all sizes and a respected voice within the interactive media industry, Dr. Brad Berens has enjoyed a wide-ranging career that features storytelling as an organizing theme. These days, he divides his time among...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Davaughnu Banks

2015, November 03

Hi Brad,

I definitely appreciate this perspective to allow us to view "people" in a more action and emotional driven fashion. Although if you were to look at it in from a broader sense you could still call every person a consume. Every individual is a consumer on some level, even if they are not consuming your product they are consumers. We consume energy and resources, on very primitive level and then there is material consumption (i.e. needs vs wants). The question that we may or may not be answering is what type of consumer are they? When are they more likely to make an impulsive purchase for certain product vs. a utility purchase?

Both needs and wants have been splintered, emphasized or diluted by marketing. It has also created a grey area where the "audience" thinks that wants are needs thereby consuming more than necessary. Holiday events like Halloween that just passed and Christmas are perfect examples of over consumption based on marketing and conditioning. Despite this reality, we are consuming creatures of habit and conditioning via our environments.

I agree that we shouldn't throw everyone into the same singular "consumer" bucket, but Brad do you think with all the data we have at our fingertips we could truly define types of consumers? Consequently, you could create specific consumer names just like husbands and wives come up with creative names to call each other. It doesn't mean they are not still a husband or a wife, but they get a more specific label based on their behavior and emotional state of mind. I believe some marketers already do this (in-house) when they are defining "people" who they believe to be their client's "audience", using on and offline data. I don't think a profile of a specific consumer gets shared to the masses because of the competitive nature of our business, so maybe it's more about generalizations.

As I said, we are creatures of habit and conditioning, so our tendency to collectively generalize an audience down to just a "consumer" in our industry may be just that, but technically we are all consumers.