Is it Time to Retire the Term “Consumer”?

Matthew Wilcox, Founder & Executive Director, Institute of Decision Making at FCB
Matthew Wilcox, Founder & Executive Director, Institute of Decision Making at FCB

By Matthew Willcox

Mea culpa. The subtitle of my book,The Business of Choice is “Marketing to Consumers’ Instincts.” I may seem hypocritical bagging on the word consumer. But language is important. And is describing someone through the lens of consumption the best way to talk about the people we would like to choose whatever product or service we’re offering?

I am far from the first to suggest this. In an interview in 2013, Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever, had this to say:

Marketers need to…engage with consumers as people, not as consumers. I think the term “consumers” doesn’t help. Once you start looking at people’s lives, they are not a pair of armpits in search of deodorant or a head of hair in search of hair benefits. They are people with full lives and a lot of challenges in a rapidly changing world.

 A large part of Weed’s concern is the practice of defining people through the lens of consumption in an age when all of us (from governments, companies, to individuals) need to focus on sustainability — to be conservationists rather than consumers. In The Business of Choice, I put forth another reason to abandon the word.

The thinking behind this comes largely from how I define marketing. There are hundreds of definitions out there — one website alone lists 72 — but many of them seem to be rooted in packaged goods thinking or sound like they were written for an MBA textbook, not real people. My simple definition is: marketing is about influencing choice.

Every organization has objectives — whether they are a global packaged goods company, a media network, or an NGO. And those objectives can only be achieved if people make certain choices — to choose one brand over another, to choose to watch something, or to choose to adopt a healthy behavior. All organizations need to understand the pathway to getting chosen. We are all in the business of choice.

So if marketing is all about choice, what should we call the people whose choices we need to influence?

Instead of “consumer”, I suggest we take a page from Columbia Business School’s Sheena Iyengar. In her book, The Art of Choosing, she frequently refers to people who are making, or have made a choice, as choosers. I like this word for two reasons. First, it reflects and respects the importance of the “consumer” in that purchasing/buying/consuming is their choice. Second, the word chooser aligns with something I believe:

Marketing should be about making it intuitive and easy for people to choose your brand, your product, your service, or your cause. To buy a product in the first place is a choice, to use a product is a choice, to continue buying a product and keep using it are further choices, and recommending a product (should we be so lucky) is yet another choice. The science and art of marketing is much more about choice than it is about consumption.

While I may still sometimes lapse and use the word consumer, I try to use chooser or potential chooser whenever it makes sense. But, of course, eschewing jargon, and just using the word people works pretty well, too.

Willcox is Executive Director at the Institute of Decision Making at FCB, and author of The Business of Choice: Marketing to Consumers’ InstinctsHear more of his views on choice at the 4A’s Strategy Festival in New York City on Tuesday, October 18.