So, if we as marketers think it is so important to get close to the consumer – why do we call them consumers?
On the one hand, we like to give them names and build detailed profiles — “meet Lorna, she is a mother of 2. She lives in the suburbs of Calgary and works part time at a small insurance company….”. On the other hand, we then call them consumers, which is more of a way to keep them at arms’ length.
Generally, when we label groups of people it is because they are different from us – labels generally define “the other”. In our day-to-day lives, when we are getting to know someone, we tend to build relationships on similarities – not differences. So, rather than bringing us closer, labels create distance.
Labeling theory does hypothesize that people do start to behave in ways that reflect how they are labeled. So, is that why we call them consumers, so they will consume what we are selling?
Consumer isn’t a new label. We see a steep uptick in the use of the ‘consumer’ starting in about 1900. Use of ‘citizen’ started declining around 1920, and in 1957 – consumer overtook citizen. Interestingly, up until 1990, ‘worker’ appeared more often than ‘consumer’ – suggesting our role as consumer has usurped our role as producer. (Thanks to Liberty Equality Fraternity and Trees for introducing me to Google Books Ngram Viewer – like I needed another way to spend hours with charts).
Now, I’m not suggesting that we go back to using “citizen” — although, it is sort of friendly. If someone said to me “hello, citizen” – I’d be charmed. I don’t think I’d feel the same way if someone greeted me with “hello, consumer”.
But, what if we started to call those people we want to get closer to … people? All of a sudden, they have lives beyond the grocery store, the gas station, the local big box “fill in the blank” store. People read books, love their dogs and their kids, ride crazy big motorcycles, transform furniture they pick up on the curb into art, are experts on clouds for no good reason…and they buy pizza and cereal, too. I suggest that if we want to get closer to and really understand the folks that might buy our products or services – we should start thinking about them as people, rather than consumers. It is easier, a lot more fun and rewarding to get to know people – it’s what people do.
On a personal note, I’ll be doing “people research” in future.