The Invisible Consumer


“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me”

Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man

The visible consumer

This post is born of a long conversation over excellent coffee with the clever and lovely Wiemer Snijders. It occurred to us that  - at least in how marketing- and adland regard the world - there are two types of consumers.  There is the visible and the invisible. 

The visible consumer is easy to find. Visible and vocal, they are the people lining up waiting for the new Apple Store to open. Waiting overnight to be the first to buy the latest iteration of Call of Duty. Or Harry Potter. Sporting Harley Davidson tattoos, and signing up as fans on facebook. The visible consumer is well, visible. They don't require that much effort to find and spot.

And for those of us in marketing and adland this visible consumer can be an understandable source of pride, as well as conviction that what we do and make really does matter a very great and really makes a big difference to people.

Lower Back Harley Tattoo

But uncritically extrapolating from the visible consumer or placing a disproportionate emphasis on the visible consumer warps our understanding. And blinds us from seeing and understanding the consumers who really matter. 

Looking in the wrong direction

Only to look at the hundreds of disciples lining up waiting for the new Apple Store to open risks forgetting that Apple must shift unit sales in the millions, not thousands. It is to forget that most people who might be in the market for something from Apple haven’t turned up. It is to forget that most people don’t treat the opening of a shop as something akin to a religious ceremony. And to forget that most people really don’t want to stand in line. 

Only noticing the guy with a Harley Davidson tattoo can lead us to  conclude that everybody who owns one exhibits cult-like devotion. We can forget that the vast majority of owners are perfectly normal, law-abiding and distinctly conventional people. For whom owning a Harley Davidson does not define their entire lives. And for whom getting a tattoo - any tattoo - is something they have absolutely no interest in.

We can marvel at all those hundreds of thousands of fans a brand has acquired on facebook. But not to look at this in context can lead us to overlook the fact that even the largest fan community on facebook represents but a tiny fraction (just work out the percentages) of a brand’s customer base. Let alone the broader population in the market for that category. It overlooks the fact that that most people don’t consider themselves fans of any brand, and are simply happy to buy them on a regular - albeit occasional - basis.

The visible consumer is not typical

But the visible and vocal consumer is unlikely to be representative of our real customer base. They may be passionate, interested, loyal, knowledgable and vocal but they are in truth unlike the majority of our customers. And just to notice the visible consumer and not the invisible consumer can lead to us to the dangerous assumption that brands matter a great deal to most people.

The visible consumer is not typical because most of a brand’s customers purchase it infrequently, the majority of a brand’s customer base is composed of light buyers, and most of a brand’s sales revenue comes from these light buyers. The vast majority of any brand's user base is not devoted or passionate.

Furthermore, the visible consumer is not typical because most of your customers  - unlike the devoted and passionate - know very little about our brand. The majority of knowledge about a brand is concentrated amongst a very small percentage of your customer base.

The visible consumer is not typical because most people aren’t buying your brand very often. They aren’t passionately devoted to it. They don’t know very much about it. And they’re aren’t thinking very much about it. 

There is a predictable appeal against this argument. Fans are influential. Fans act as a media channel. Fans provide us with content and collaboration. 

All this they can undoubtedly do.

But their atypicality means that the visible consumer is not the key to understanding our customer base. Or indeed where our future sales revenue will come from. 

(Re)discovering the invisible consumer

By all means let’s identify and understand those smaller groups whose enthusiasm and visibility we can harness. And let’s work out ways in which we can efficiently exploit it.

But our task as marketers and communicators is to influence the preferences and behaviours of large populations. And that means we must recognize, understand and value the invisible consumer. We cannot get lazy and merely notice that which is easily noticeable. We must love the invisible consumer as much as the visible.

The behaviours of the invisible consumer are certainly less public, less theatrical and less vocal than those of the visible consumer. And so their very ordinary habits might not make the egos of those in marketing- and adland swell with pride. 

But the fact of the matter is that measure of our success is not whether we succeed in creating remarkable consumers. The measure of our success is whether we succeed in creating a remarkable brand in the habits and minds of very ordinary people.