Welcome to the Age of Cynicism

Does your value proposition resonate?

Not many years ago, we marketers enjoyed a pretty stable fix on what makes the American consumer tick. We understood his inherent idealism about hard work and its rewards. We knew that, despite some skepticism, he was proud to wear the T-shirt of the American dream.

But bad things happened to the consumer on his way to paying off the mortgage and growing a nest egg. War, institutional corruption, and financial cancer pummeled his psyche. Healthy skepticism gave way to downright cynicism about government, business, and capitalistic motives. (For evidence, glance at the gall posted to almost any online news story.)

The prevailing, negative worldview in consumer land is made worse by picked pockets. In June, the Federal Reserve reported that, between 2007 and 2010, the American family’s average (inflation-adjusted) income before taxes fell 11.1 percent, while the average net worth fell 14.7 percent. In July, the Institute for Supply Management noted the first decline in our nation’s manufacturing output in three years.

In short, consumers are wary. They feel pinched and are spending less. Which means we marketers must mind the fundamentals. Chief among marketing basics is the consumer value proposition (CVP). In simplest terms, the CVP tells the customer what he will get from a product or service.  A well-crafted CVP is clear, succinct, and persuasive. It takes the customer’s point of view and focuses on benefits.

Marketing gurus Anderson, Narus and Van Rossum describe three approaches for creating a CVP (Harvard Business Review, March 1, 2006; p. 90-99). One is to list all the benefits a product or service may deliver. The downside: some benefits may have little relevance to the buyer.  A second method is to stress favorable points of difference over competitive products. This falls short, however, when the consumer imputes little value to those differences. A third approach, they contend, offers the greatest advantage. Value propositions with a resonating focus identify one or two benefits that matter most to consumers, and emphasize those to the exclusion of others.

How does a marketer identify which product benefits will resonate with customers? Ask them. Every interaction with a customer is a chance to mine his wish-list. The constant questions: “How might we make your experience with our product better?” and “What other product benefit would you like to see?”

Sometimes consumers don’t know the answers.  Sometimes they want things that are impossible to deliver.  Sometimes they tell you exactly how to make a product the market leader.

Cynicism’s ugly boots are apt to remain planted in the American consciousness for years. Consumers will squeeze pursestrings and make what lemonade they can from the lemons of a sputtering economy. Fortunately for marketers, human needs show no signs of diminishing. Fundamental tools, such as the CVP with a resonating focus, offer a chance at competitive advantage.

What do you think?