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Tom Petty passed away a couple of weeks ago, aged just 66 (note to self – do more with my life). I am of an age that mourns such passing – David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince. All genius song writers and performers.

While his famous “I Won’t Back Down” hit was a message of unabashed defiance against unnamed forces, listening to it being played on all the radio stations over the weekend (yes, I am THAT old that I still listen to scheduled radio!) my mind turned to thinking about the changing nature of business and branding.

The Beating of Chests

I recently witnessed a boardroom discussion (that’s the polite word for a stand-up row) regarding the future direction of the business. I had been brought in to their strategy session to provoke a debate on the new consumer, new values and the need for this particular business to change significantly in order to both survive and grow. However, some of the old guard around the table still didn’t agree. No matter what was discussed after my speech, the silver back gorillas in the room simply ‘wouldn’t back down’.

This was how they had always done business, how it always had been, this is how the business had grown to what it was and they would continue along the same lines into the future. Why change now when what had worked in the past had built the empire? It is a warped and dangerous logic. It was like watching the officers on the bridge of the Titanic see the iceberg, and decide that the voyage had been going fine until now, surely the ship could just go through the obstacle ahead. It was a mind-numbingly depressing conversation to witness.

Of course, change is scary, it always is. It is even more so when there is risk involved. But I have always loved that quote “If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less”. Today few businesses have the luxury of ignoring change, particularly the changes relating to what consumers value. It has always been critical for any successful business to understand and deliver on consumer value.

The Blue Dot Consumer

To demonstrate the new consumer, I like to use the metaphor of old v new using a Road Map. These paper folded maps we all held in our car doors and glove boxes were old technology. The were not only fragile and awkward, they relied on the user already having key data to hand. You see a road map doesn’t actually work unless you already know where you are on the damn thing. You have to know your precise location on the map, and then you also need to know the exact location of where it is you want to go. Armed with these two pieces of information you can then navigate your route, but only then. It is old school, reliant on data input and a knowledge of how the ‘system,’ works. As a consumer what you learn is that the world is a big place, and that you are a small part of it. You need to learn to navigate your way through the world.

Compare that to our modern day Blue Dot Consumer. For this consumer, that blue dot that pops up when you open Google Maps IS their world. They are not ‘part of a big world learning to navigate their way through’. No, they ARE the world, placed at the centre, everything shown from their perspective. If they take one step right, they expect the world to take a step right with them. This changes the nature of retail, indeed of society and consumerism. The consumer is no longer at the END of a supply chain or distribution flow chart. They are at the centre.

Three Implications to Blue Dot Consumerism

  1. Personal

The very essence of the blue dot on the screen is that it is you. Your journey, your location, your presence. It wouldn’t be much good to you if you were navigating your way on a journey following someone else’s blue dot. But that is what many businesses still expect today. That their customers will follow them. That they can continue to run their business with their own operational concerns at the core, with the consumer as an end game of some sort.

Today consumers expect to be treated like the individuals they are, they expect you to know them, to tailor your product/service to them, to converse with them as opposed to using mass ‘marketing communications’. It is a major challenge for omnichannel players.

On the one hand a customer logs on to your website and you recognise them, recall what they last bought, prompt them with items you know they will like and make it easy for them to buy with just one-click. The next day that same customer walks into a physical store of the same brand and no one knows them or knows what they have bought in the past. They are treated like another faceless transaction. Every time a blue dot consumer is treated like another face in the crowd, they love your brand a little bit less. Learn to get personal.

  1. Predictive

But personalisation isn’t enough. There is no point in knowing who a customer is unless you are going to act on it. Today real value is added when we know who the customer is, and then where they are, what they are doing and what they might need next.  That is actioning the data we have on them and adding value they will appreciate.

Imagine that you are walking down a supermarket aisle and your phone buzzes. A beacon has set-off a message from the retailer’s app reminding you that two days ago you favourited a recipe on their homepage. Well, you are just coming up on the ingredients you will need to make it. Why not buy today, and just for you they will give you 15% off, but ssshhh … just you. That is a personal offer, actionable based on where I am and what I am doing, and is relevant as I had liked that recipe. Predictive doesn’t have to be all complicated algorithms. Sometimes it can simply be knowing what the customer needs next and being there ready. It is the same as old school retailers who would put out umbrellas for sale at the front of the store on days with poor weather forecasts. Know your customers and know what they might want.

Blue Dot consumers expect you to know they are on their way and they expect you will be ready. Are you?


  1. Painless

We hear so much about seamless and frictionless customer journeys and yet we seem to still live in a world torn between two realities. On one hand there are brands and businesses that get it. Amazon has led the charge from one-click ordering through to Alexa. Toady we just expect easy. If it takes more than a few clicks or is more complicated than it needs to be, it loses appeal, rapidly.

On the other hand are business that seem not to get it. One of my favourite examples is an email I regularly get from an airline asking me to check in for my flight. But nowhere on the email does it say ‘click here to check in’. It is a small frustration (having to leave your email, open their App and then check-in) but a great example of friction along a customer journey.

Today consumers want it to be easy. Not only do they expect you to know who they are and what they might need next, they also expect you to give it to them in the most seamless way. If the customer journey of the 1980’s or 1990’s could withstand being made in parts using sandpaper (with consumers still willing to drag themselves across it), today’s consumer expects a good spray of WD-40 or baby oil (that is possibly the strangest analogy I’ve every written but worth keeping in just for that fact alone!). It needs to just glide

Do We Need More ‘Computers’?

So back to our silver back gorillas beating their chests in the boardroom. They didn’t want to sign off on an investment in a back-end system that would enable fast and seamless Identity Management. A system that would allow them to recognise a customer at every touch point, pull up the relevant data on the customer and enable the business to action that data on every transaction across all channels. They didn’t see the value in investing in this system despite the staff and management screaming for it at every level. It seemed like a lot of money to be spending on ‘computers’ (one of them actually said that! I think I’ll send him an EtchoSketch for Christmas)

It is a business that will eventually hit the iceberg of irrelevance as their competitors, and everyone else, invest in order to maximise value to this new consumer.

Technology is sometimes your parachute, guiding you safely and securely to where you need to land. Otherwise, as our friend Tom Petty sang, you’re just “Free, Free Fallin’”



Ken Hughes is one of the worlds leading Shopper and Consumer Behaviouralists, blending his vast expertise in consumer psychology, social & digital anthropology, behavioural economics and neuromarketing to answer the question to which he has dedicated most of his career: Why do shoppers buy and how can we make them buy more? Click here to read more

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