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One Big Idea: Respect the Consumer

For marketers, success hinges upon making a connection with the consumer. No matter what market, product, service, or story, we must understand and, above all, respect the consumer. In this episode, Bill examines how respect builds brand authenticity, shapes brand strategy, and delivers results in the real world. If you enjoy our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Welcome one and all! This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, your host, president of Finch Brands, which is a premier, boutique branding agency. Happy to be with you for One Big Idea. This week’s One Big Idea is ‘Respect the Consumer’.

Seems obvious for those who are seeking to transact with those consumer. But I think, in our industry, it isn’t always practiced as being obvious. We had Jordan Goldenberg, Finch Brands’ Creative Director Emeritus, with us last week. Having worked with Jordan for almost 15 years, one of the things that he said in last week’s interview but has modeled over that time is in being and understanding that the role of what agencies do (whether Finch or others) is to transact. And that in order to do that, to become cheerleaders for the client brand and by extension to respect and seek to communicate in a substantive way with their target markets, with their consumers, is essential to being successful as an agency. It may seem obvious but it isn’t.

We often find (I have found in my career) or observed agencies where folks were ‘too cool for school’ when it came to the product they were trying to sell – they didn’t like the product. We found in the research realm brand and market researchers who may not ultimately believe that the consumer they are speaking to, or seeking to collect data from, has anything all that interesting to say because of who they may be or where they may shop or what they may value.

We’ve seen clients, won’t mention any names, but clients who by being leaders, owners of companies or senior level executives have entered or embraced a different lifestyle, within their own lives, than that of the customer base they are seeking to attract. While that isn’t in and of itself a challenge when one is dismissive of the choices, the dignity, and the wisdom of one’s customer, any of these conditions or thought planes – whether its agencies that are just too cool, or researchers who are dismissive, or senior leaders/heads of companies who are dismissive of customers – the net effect is failure and really the lack of seizing the opportunities that exist, the lack of the ability to be strong and authentic and savvy communicators. If you treat people as rubes when you seek to sell, or market to them, or learn from them, or whatever it is, you will fail.

When we look back at the numbers of clients with whom we’ve worked from different categories and industries, a lot of the consumer work we’ve done, in the furniture realm for example, Jonathan Adler on one hand is not just furniture, but is a very smart, clever nod and wink type of brand that has quirks and personality. On the other end of the spectrum is Ashley Furniture, a brand that is really about value and quality. Their customers, desired customers, and most likely customers could not be more different. In order to be effective for those brands across that wide expanse of difference, those who seek to work on them (and when we sought to work with them) needed to respect them equally. Even if in our industry Jonathan Adler is much more in line with those personal sensibilities of most of the folks in the brand and agency world, more so than Ashely is. But when you go out to research with customers and consumers of Ashley, when you spend time in their home stores or in their wholesale accounts, there is immense dignity and importance to the way those folks live, the way their customers think, and make decisions. In order to be a good steward of the message for the company like that, one needs to have a healthy respect for their consumer.

Then, you look at brands that are really seeking to appeal to well-defined fandoms. ThinkGeek, for example, (which we’ve spoken about on this podcast before) is very much about a wide and deep targeting strategy in terms of the belief that everyone has a geek inside of them. But, of course, the core customer there is really of, by, and for the classically defined ‘geek’ universe. While the project team that we worked with may not see ourselves as that, we need to endeavor to understand. You always have to seek to understand before you can be understood. So if we have the responsibility and have earned the right to help a company, like ThinkGeek, communicate its essence and value, then showing respect to the eccentricities, rhythms, and quirks of their target is absolutely essential – not only to understand them well enough to do this work, but also so that the work that comes out of this is perceived and felt authentically. People can smell a fake no matter who they are. Consumers of all stripes, all types, all ages, and demographic groups can smell fakery and detect it seemingly from a mile away. So it’s on us as communicators and as marketers to ensure and take every step, not only in terms of the content but also in terms of the process that leads to the content, to be authentic.

Another example of a client, at least that I’ve worked with a lot, that has a defined fandom is World Wrestling Entertainment. WWE is a phenomenon. It is a brand, a business, an entertainment form and some would say, I certainly would, an art form that is uniquely American. It is, when one thinks of the spectrum of different artistic programming, sort of middlebrow or lowbrow in terms of the way ou might think through the sense of humor or the nature but it is a tremendously important brand to those who are fans.

Just speaking personally, I had been at the right age to be a part of the Hulkamania generation in pro wrestling, in the early 80s, where the form of entertainment was really about some pop culture connectivity with MTV and Cyndi Lauper, among other things. But many of the characters were cartoonish. These characters were written cartoonish. I, like many others, reached my teens and got interested in other things. When WWE had its second big era, which is called in the wrestling world the Attitude Era in the mid to late 90s, in many ways the brand had grown up with its fans. Guys who had been fans of Hulk Hogan and others in the early 80s had grown up from 85 to 97/98 so now they are late teens to early 20s. The Attitude Era was Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Rock, and everyone else, and was really the baddest thing on TV. WWE led this rush to the edge in terms of taste level, sexuality, violence, and attitude. That’s why it was called the Attitude Era and that really led to a major peak for the brand.

I personally had lost touch, and many of my friends in college or just after had gotten into Attitude Era WWE/WCW programing. I had lost touch and really hadn’t followed the WWE brand when we were brought in to help them with brand research in 2003. What it took, really, was a reentry into that world in order to do well for them. One cannot do that in a detached way, so our project team and I threw ourselves back into the world of WWE. Over the course of working with them 2003 to late 2012/early 2013 completing 15-20 different projects, I think our effectiveness was based largely upon the fact that we got it, we respected it.

So whether we were doing on the fly focus groups with the crowd that was in town for any WrestleMania, or whether in Phoenix or Atlanta, wherever (which we did for a few years), or whether it was a series of focus groups for apparel, or whether it was helping them think through the strategy in terms of how to interact with Madison Avenue or whatever it was, the many different business issues that we dealt with over that span – and because of the length of that span, I personally have probably conducted more research with wrestling fans than anyone other than maybe those who work for the company – got me back in to the WWE product. And here I am at 41, watching RAW every Monday night, being excited because this coming weekend after we record this is summer slam, reading the gossip sheets (called the dirt sheets), getting involved and appreciating this art form, listening to podcasts, being a fan. We’re not currently working with WWE but I’m a fan. I’m back. They got me. I think being that way has really helped us be effective [in working with them].

Longer story than perhaps one might find interesting, but it’s an interesting example of a client that I think those that are traditionally oriented to our industry may look down on. In fact, we saw when WWE was renewing their TV contract last year with USA Network and NBC Universal, there was a lot of media coverage. Given the ratings and the regularity of those ratings for RAW, it almost looked like the size of the TV deal was a lot lower than you would have thought for programming with that level of popularity. There was speculation that there is a tax on WWE because of the fact that their fans are not deeply coveted by advertisers. That may be true but in many ways, I think that point of view, if it does exist, (and I think it very likely does on traditionally defined Madison Avenue) is much more aesthetic than it is quantitative. WWE is a brand that when they entered films when they entered books, I remember speaking to an executive at one of the major publishers who said “We got an opportunity with wrestlers back in the 90s, early 2000s, right when WWE began to publish or publish in partnership, and I had no idea how this was going to work. I didn’t even know that these people could read.” Which made the point about how folks viewed the fan base. Of course a WWE book now, depending on the title, is almost an automatic bestseller.

There are many brands, companies, and product types that appeal to all different types of people. In order to do what we do well, you have to respect the consumer. Find dignity in their opinions. Believe that they are acting in a way that you can study and understand. And that has inherent need and worth in terms of respect at the end of the day. Client performance is the score card of an agency of any kind. Jordan Goldenberg talked a lot about growing up into feeling this way, enjoying, and finding value in how our clients perform as the ultimate measure of how effective we’ve been. If you don’t feel that way, find a different business. If you do feel that way, inherent in caring about how work ultimately is in making the brand an ever more powerful driver of business performance for clients, you must, at least respect the consumer. You create when you listen and learn, you must respect the consumer.

So that’s it for me. One Big Idea. As always, 3 ways to register your support in what we’re doing here at Real-World Branding is to give us a rating. Make sure you don’t miss a one of these by clicking that subscribe button. Also, leave us a rating if we’ve earned it – 4 stars, 5 stars (we hope). Finally, enter the dialogue with us via twitter, the best way to do it, @billgullan or @finchbrands with questions or comments. We’d love to hear from everyone. Signing off from the cradle of liberty.

About The Author: Bill Gullan

Bill Gullan is the President of Finch Brands. His nearly 30-year (ugh!) career in branding has revolved around naming, messaging, M&A brand integration, and qualitative research. He has been with Finch Brands since 2001.

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