Pinning Down the New American Shopper

By Mark Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne

The consumer that marketers have had a lot of fun selling to over the last few decades is disappearing. Those were the days—when a snappy jingle did the trick, a celebrity carried the day, and a higher price signaled higher quality.

The old obsession with personality, emotion, and overarching experience is giving way to the green eyeshades of facts, research, and greater rationality. Not all consumers are changing, but enough are to start altering the way we market to and treat consumers. Originality and zaniness will still have their place, but marketers will have to deliver some cold, hard messages at the same time.

Going forward, American ad-makers must contend with a savvier, more proactive consumer than they have ever known. The new American consumers want facts, not emotions. They want value, not cheap bargains or overblown cachet. And they want safety, both for themselves and their environment. As a result, marketers will have to stop catering to those with "Consumer A.D.D." and start catering to those with a Long Attention Span. As consumers have more education and hold more information-related jobs, they have far greater ability and interest in absorbing information and detail. It is these Long Attention Spanners who dominate Internet searching and stay up all night hunting down the perfect product.

Shoppers' passion for facts has been stimulated by the Internet. For most of the last few decades, if you wanted to know how a product truly performed, you had to ask a friend who had been braver than you in buying it first, search out Consumer Reports, or trust the salesperson at your local store. Now you search the item, and within seconds you have manufacturers' reports, industry analysis, expert reviews, consumer experiences, and competitors' perspectives. The Internet has become a rolling Zagat guide to everything. And those few spare minutes at work are often just the best time of the day to go shopping.

People have always done a lot of kicking the tires when it came to the cars that they buy. They will rigorously vet houses and various aspects of medical care. But now they have extended that approach into smaller and smaller product areas. In a recent poll we did, 58% of U.S. adults said they do research before they buy a vacuum cleaner. Forty-three percent said they won't go to a movie without researching it first. And nearly 1 in 4 Americans said they do research before they buy a bottle of shampoo. Shampoo—the product that once sold bottles by the billions because a pretty model bounced her hair or kids giggled in the tub. But no more.Today's consumers have questions: Does the shampoo work on curly hair? Is it good for swimmers? Was it tested on animals? Are there toxins in it? Are the bottles recyclable…? Amazon has been way ahead of the trend in its marketing of products, providing an open platform for experts and consumers to provide detailed information on products' benefits and problems. Few others have really adopted this kind of sales model, and no one has tried to duplicate the experience in-store.

The Shift to Serious Evalution This consumer appetite for information, which was already rising before the recession hit, has now been conjoined with an intense demand for value. Value doesn't just mean low cost, although of course everybody these days wants to save money. Today, following an age of extravagant overpricing in everything from homes to stocks to consumer goods, value means that a product is worth at least as much as we're being asked to pay for it. In a sense, this is a moral impulse as well as an economic one. Just as buying "green" came to signal to consumers that they were doing good for the world as well as buying what they needed, "value" now also conveys that second level of satisfaction: We are buying a good product and helping to return the world to some greater state of sanity and propriety. When we buy at Wal-Mart (WMT) instead of, say, Bloomingdale's, we are not only spending less, we are also doing our small part to reverse the toxic greed that so spun our world out of control.

The third new trend shaping the New American Shopper is the desire to buy things that make us safe at home and are safe for the environment. In a recent Green Brands survey, we found that even in the recession, which has caused price to shoot way out over quality, convenience, and ethics in terms of what consumers say is important to them, the importance of green has stayed exactly the same. In fact, three-quarters of Americans now say it's important for products to be green, and nearly half (41%) rate energy or pollution as the top issue facing our nation.

Taken together, these new passions for information, value, and green will have deep significance for marketers. The fun is over, and a new seriousness is setting in. These days, shoppers are less like spectators and more like prosecutors, searching for facts and devoted to the causes of safety and equality of quality and price. The result is also a redefinition of brand value—the ones you trust to deliver these qualities will rise, while those that fail to adopt will see their brands devalued and reset—especially in the luxury space. Starbucks (SBUX) is trying hard now to make the leap into value, and McDonald's (MCD) has been coming on strong in the coffee marketplace. KFC (YUM) is again trying to add healthier items like grilled chicken to its menu, and Wal-Mart has successfully added green to its value attributes. Great brands have to do it all—measure up on the facts, offer great value, be safe to use, and help the environment.

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