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Marketing's problem: me

Vincent Heeringa prepares to wreak a consumer’s revenge

Vincent Heeringa prepares to wreak a consumer’s revenge

Vincent Heeringa

[Marketing]

I’m on the verge of posting my first public flame. A Trade Me seller sold us a dud camera, and boy am I pissed! First, I’ll post bad feedback about the guy, then I think I’ll slowly toast him in the Trade Me forums.

The power to ruin the life of a marketer has never been greater. And it’s going to get worse. It’s already as competitive as hell out there.

You’d think the arrival of Ferrit, Telecom’s new online ‘buying club’, might give retailers and manufacturers some cheer. In the short term it will—the site has about 1.3 million products available from 93 retailers. In December, after just one week of marketing, it had 100,000 unique users. (By comparison, Trade Me gets a little over 250,000 visitors a week.) Marketing manager Peter Wogan tells me his ambition is at least in part to drive traffic into shops where customers can enjoy the “richness of the in-store experience”. Ferrit gets nothing for in-store sales. It’s all part of the service, he says.

Wogan is being kind. Ferrit is the thin end of the wedge, because the future with Ferrit, Trade Me, SmileCity or any number of online shops is ugly. Or beautiful. It depends who pays your marketing salary.

These trading portals are steps towards a place where the individual wields the power. Alan Mitchell, marketing writer with UK Marketing Week and a frequent visitor to these shores, predicts a marketing revolution: the emergence of buying agents that will broker deals on behalf of individuals—a sort of butler for the masses. He calls them reverse marketing services because the marketing is done not by the seller (“hey kids!”) but by the buyer (“find me a new toy!”). He calls the overall trend ‘buyer-centricity’ (visit rightsideup.net).

The power to ruin the life of a marketer has never been greater. And it’s going to get worse.

Driving the trend is economics. Quoting research from McKinsey & Company and others, Mitchell says the cost of getting products from factory to customer has skyrocketed. In the early 20th Century, 75% of a product’s final cost was in manufacturing and 25% in marketing. Now it’s 50/50. Unilever chairman Niall Fitzgerald says marketing and distribution is now so costly it’s “crackers”. With so much noise and competition, the real power is now held by the organisations that act as go-betweens—mega-retailers, the media, search engines and online buyer’s clubs.

That’s still not a buyer-centric universe, in Mitchell’s view. But it’s closer. The last step is for manufacturers to abandon the ever-increasing cost of consumer marketing and plough the money directly into rewarding customers for having a conversation.

The first expression of Alan Mitchell’s new world is Pure Profile, a UK-based online business launched in September last year. Pure Profile gives individuals an anonymous shop window to display their ‘goods wanted’. Sellers who engage an individual in a conversation about a product or service pay the individual for the privilege.

Pure Profile calls itself the first ‘reverse search engine’ and its rapid uptake suggests it may work—or not. So many failed Web ideas seemed great at the time. What’s certain is that the cost of traditional marketing shows no signs of falling and there’s a fantastic opportunity for any agent who can better bridge the gap between buyer and seller. That might be something as brutal and anonymous as Trade Me. It might be as left field as Telecom utilising its enormous reach into our daily life to create a Pure Profile equivalent. It might be a retailer like the Warehouse getting smart with its customer databases and acting as a genuine buyer’s club. As I see it, the winners will be those agents who behave the most like a good butler—trusted, loved and damned convenient.