Jeff Rubin must have hated gas prices over the past year or so. They were headed for $1.40 per litre back in 2012 when the author of The End of Growth published his warning that the high price of oil would soon halt the economic expansion we had taken for granted for decades. Growth, he argued, would soon be essentially unaffordable, and we’d better adapt. But being the short-sighted mammals we are, a few months of sub-dollar gas prices distracted us from that very reasonable thesis. That’s a shame, because he’s likely right, regardless of what your last fill-up cost. And because, if you ask me, his observation would have made a handy object lesson for today’s besieged chief marketing officers.
For marketing, of course, the problem isn’t the price of oil; it’s the price of attention. Marketing was invented in an era when you could buy as much attention as you could handle. Understimulated consumers roamed the earth in dense hordes, like the plains bison or Grand Banks cod. Growing a business simply meant scooping up more of them.
Not anymore. The price of television advertising, marketing’s most effective drift net, has outpaced inflation for years, making attention-getting an increasingly expensive strategy. While network execs are once again popping champagne corks at next season’s higher ad prices, the same dwindling herds that are making them rich seem to foretell the end of marketing as we know it.
Or perhaps, if we have any sense, we should treat this as a coming of age. The paradigm of conquest was probably never a sustainable approach to advertising. Most businesses have always depended not on how many new customers they could win but on how much those customers would eventually spend. One who sticks around, happily buying over and over again, has far greater real value than a hundred costly prospects. If that person wasn’t always marketing’s top priority, she surely soon will be. In other words, marketing’s post–mass media future lies in the same place as Rubin’s post–global economy does: in our own backyards.
If that’s true, then marketing is about to become the easiest job in the world, because the bar is so abominably low. Customer experience—especially in Canada—is the most dismal and ignored corner of marketing. Poorly measured, conferring little corporate glory and mired in office politics, customers’ affection is taken for granted—or, worse, considered unimportant—by too many companies. The common result is brand relationships worn away by untended email addresses, dead-end phone numbers, impenetrable user interfaces and sullen, disempowered staff. There is so little competition on this front that experiencing responsive and appreciative contact with a corporation is enough to shock most consumers to tears.
The worst of it is, most companies never find out they’re failing. According to one recent study, fewer than one in five Canadians disappointed by a brand experience ever says so in a public forum. Yet half of us switched retailers, telecoms or banks in the past year—59% of the time because of those negative experiences. This kind of attrition has become so normalized, the business even has a prosaic name for it: churn. Marketers accept it as a natural phenomenon, as it if were like the weather, and simply double down on promotion instead. Meanwhile, yesterday’s hard-won customers just “slip away,” as the study’s authors put it, not because another brand was more attractive but because the first one stopped caring as soon as the cash register rang.
This should keep us up at night. There is no more valuable marketing asset than the customers you already have, and they’re well on their way to becoming irreplaceable. We should be obsessively monitoring their happiness. We should be rewarding the employees who keep them just as we do the ones who drag them in. We should be engineering every single point of contact to be uniquely and addictively rewarding so that we’re just as priceless to them as they are to us. In a low-growth world, customer experience is marketing—and maybe soon the only kind of growth anybody can afford.
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