From a marketer’s point of view, numbers don’t drive recessions. They may start them. They may justify them. But they don’t actually make them happen. What drives recession in a consumer economy is very much the same thing that drives boom: emotion. When enough people believe in it, it will happen – and that’s because there will be enough people acting in a recessive way for the mindset to become embedded, and for the behaviours to seem logical, sensible, responsible, unavoidable.
Commoditisation works in much the same way. As something becomes more commonplace, as the standards rise and the costs of production fall, the expectations that all the products are the same also increases and people become more motivated to look for the cheapest option. It makes sense. It’s the obvious thing to do.
As consumers, the less we enjoy something, the less it surprises us or motivates us, the less that it elates us, the less we are happy to pay. The more people who feel less, the greater the loss of value (because then the effect shifts from being individually-sensed to being collectively endorsed)
We can monitor that fall-off in value now to a high degree of granularity. Data and algorithms drive so much of how brands do business today. Businesses take comfort in that because it delivers patterns and predictability. But it also brings with it a shift in emphasis. More and more brands find themselves focusing on what the numbers are doing. And that’s a dangerous reference point for a marketer – because the focus moves away from the human drivers of why people buy (and what generates value) towards the non-human drivers of what is being bought (and what most companies value themselves). In time, customers become an expression of the numbers, not the other way round.
That atmosphere can soon foster critical assumptions. One is that the emphasis must be on driving down cost in order to bolster the balance sheet and feed the numbers. That’s not a bad thing. But then, in response to calls for even greater returns and greater efficiencies, the numbers people can look to drive every ounce of delight out of the brand experience (because it can’t be quantified). They justify doing so as cutting costs, acting responsibly, doing the right thing, sweating the assets. At the same time, they’ll often look to drop prices in an effort to appear more attractive, be more “competitive”, boost the top line and the volume data. From a brand standpoint, such decisions go to a bad place: more companies peddling more vigorously in greater misery for lower returns and less loyal customers.
Marketers need to be able to advocate and quantify the effect of joy. And I suspect that the way to be doing that is to keep asking “What do we need to be introducing into our product range for our prices to stay stable or even increase?” The resurgence of Lego is a classic example of what can happen when a company focuses on the ‘emotional profit’ of its customers.
Ironically, cost cutting wasn’t the problem at Lego – in fact, quite the opposite – but the effect had been equally telling. Lego had basically let the designers run wild, according to this article in Businessweek, and the brand had stopped resonating with its constituency – in a market where buyers are beseiged with options.
Designers had indulged their creative streaks with increasingly complex models that required more and more new components. By 2004 the number of components had exploded, climbing from about 7,000 to 12,400, and supply costs had done the same. And while adults and the designers themselves loved what was being created, kids hated it. Their Lego wasn’t a joy to play with anymore. It was frustrating and complex.
Lego fought its way back, not by cutting costs directly but by holding its designers to account. By making its customers its priority and focusing on what worked for them, the company was able to slash the number of components to those that were most used, most loved – and to scrap the rest. It then brought creative and noncreative people together and used their combined insights to produce products that the market loves, that were practical to make and that were realistically costed. By celebrating creativity, but focusing it within agreed parameters, the company was able to restore profitability and retake hearts.
The key learning for marketers from Lego’s success is to focus on the buyer’s delight and make the money work, don’t compromise the joy to get the equations to work. And the second learning is equally salient – don’t expect that equation to be figured out by one group. Instead, bring people with different mindsets and emphases together, put the customer at the centre of the problem, and start talking.
If your products are struggling right now, slashing the delight to make the numbers work may temporarily alleviate the economic pain but it won’t address the key brand need. Find a way to inject joy into what you offer. Make your customers smile … and the money will follow.
Photo of “joy flights” taken by Mark Roy, sourced from Flickr