Marketing to the Well-Informed Consumer

Several of my close friends are salespeople, which often allows for interesting stories and insights on human behavior. Last Friday, after a hard week of sales, one friend said to me that he was growing frustrated because, in his words, “Customers these days are too intelligent”. What he meant to say, after I forced him to elaborate, was that customers in our day and age are spoiled with access to information, largely as a result of the internet — which can make the tasks of the salesman, and also the marketing manager, much more challenging than before.

While it may be subjective to say that we are living in the age of the “intelligent” consumer, we can certainly say that we are in the age of the Well-Informed Consumer. In the 1950s, my grandfather was selling insurance door-to-door for Prudential. In his meetings with potential clients, he was both the provider of knowledge on insurance in general, as well as the ambassador of his service. There was no internet, and the best a potential customer could do to compare offerings was to wait for another salesman to show up, or to call someone. In short, a sales rep like my grandfather had a position of considerable power and influence over potential buyers, simply because of the latter’s minimal access to information. In contrast, with the Internet, buyers now can immediately look up competitors online to see competing offers and services, and often can go to a site which already makes these comparisons for them. Furthermore, with the tapping of a few keys, they can see any unfavourable experiences that other customers have had with that company or product.

Hence, marketing to today’s Well-Informed Consumer requires an approach that acknowledges their access to information. We should also keep in mind that customers are more educated than ever before, and consequently, that they are more difficult to convince.


Focus on selling the steak, not the sizzle.

In the past several decades, one often heard the saying, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak”. In other words, sell the peripheral aspects of the brand or product while not addressing its core qualities. This was especially evident in US beer commercials, which generally featured women in bikinis, loud music, and various pastimes such as jet skiing, while saying little or almost nothing about the actual taste of the beer. (The closest was Miller Lite, who said its beer tasted “great”.) When rival beer companies discovered that their marketing, especially TV commercials, all basically looked the same, they began more peripheral strategies such as adopting animal mascots, such as the dog Spuds Mackenzie for Bud Light.  The rise in popularity of microbrews, or craft beers, is owing to the fact that some small firms started to actually ask what customers wanted, and discovered that they wanted to drink beer because they actually liked beer. In the US, we now see such beers competing on the same supermarket shelves with the giants of Miller and Budweiser.

Likewise, we are in an age where brands can benefit from messaging that is more direct. The Muppets Take Manhattan may be an unlikely source for a marketing lesson, but the film contains an amusing and illustrative example of seeing a more direct message incorporated into a brand’s marketing. Kermit the Frog comes into contact with three advertising executives (also frogs), who are stumped on finding a slogan for Ocean Breeze Soap, one of their clients. Kermit, after just a few seconds, blurts out his suggestion: “Ocean Breeze Soap Will Get You Clean”. The execs are astonished at the concept of simply saying what the product actually does, but they love, it, and offer him a job instantly.


(Here’s the clip: It may be an old film, but this scene was certainly ahead of its time!


In a nutshell, the days of selling the sizzle and not the steak are over. While the sizzle can still be a nice embellishment, it should never be relied on to replace a message that expresses the effectiveness of the product or service. Like Ocean Breeze Soap, they want a product that satisfies their purpose in buying it.


Secondly, accept that customers know that you want their money.

Yes, it had to happen eventually. While we have marketed our companies as solution-providers and “enablers”, consumers now are much more savvy and increasingly cynical, and can see our chief mission: we want them to spend their money on us. With this in mind, we need to find out what will give us the edge over competitors, and the key to doing that lies in learning about what this new age of customers wants besides the product itself.

Consumers want brand depth and also personality, which combine to form brand character. In addition to wanting to like you for what you stand for, they need to trust you. Note that things like trust and personality are not peripheral (like the girls in bikinis, jet skiing, and canine mascots mentioned earlier), but are rather part of the core of a brand’s identity.

In an article from the June issue of Shanghai Business Review magazine, which discusses marketing to the millennial generation (i.e. Gen Y), Kestrel Lee states that “consumers trust search results and friends, not brands, because age-old advertising has drifted too much from reality and from any meaningful engagement or relevance to their lives.  They do not ‘advocate or follow’ brands which are just about making money.”  Lee, the executive creative director at marketing agency George P. Johnson, adds that “To them, brands must stand for something, or such brands mean nothing to them, online or offline. To consider a brand, they have to first approve of the activities and beliefs of the brand, and these people prefer brands with an emotional mission of giving back to society.” (Full article at

This notion of customers knowing and appreciating a brand’s values is seconded by Tom Sepanski, director of naming and verbal identity for brand consulting firm Landor Associates. In his recent article on verbal identities, Say What?, he challenges brands by asking, “How would your brand propose marriage? What names would it consider if it had a baby girl?” Here, his message is that customers are only engaged when they have a holistic concept of a brand. The more meaningful dimensions we can build for a brand – its values, its beliefs, and its character – the more immediately we can attract consumers, and the more reliably we can keep them. Sepanski ends by stating that today’s brands have to “realize that every piece of copy carries two messages: the topic itself and the unspoken things verbal choices say about the brand’s values.” (Full article at

Keeping these elements in mind will make marketing, and also selling, to the Well-Informed Consumer less formidable. Simply put, the modern consumer is very no-nonsense in his or her approach to buying, is not easily deceived, and wants to know everything about you, which is why your brand’s website and Facebook page must concisely show what you do and what you care about. Undoubtedly, it is a more challenging era of marketing for all of us, but at least we know what we are up against.


By Tom McKinley, author of Winning the Fight to Be Happy and Make the Right Decisions Early.

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