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The End of Push Marketing

by Glen Emerson Morris

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With the Internet winding up it's third year as a viable commercial communications system, it's becoming clear that the real trick isn't learning how to use the Internet to reach customers, but how to adjust advertising and marketing to survive in an Internet based society. This was a topic that drew some attention at the recent annual conference of the International Advertising Association (

Morris Tabaksblat, the CEO of Unilever, one of the world's biggest advertisers, told the conference that a fundamental change in marketing has occurred. "The maker can no longer make the consumer do what he decides," he said according to Reuter's news service. "The era of 'push selling' is definitely over. We are now well and truly in the era of 'pull marketing.'" The question is no longer, 'What can we sell the consumer?' but 'What learning can we draw from the consumer in terms of his or her needs and then how can we help satisfy those needs?' " Tabaksblat said. This isn't going to be easy, he conceded, since consumers are increasingly coming to control the media advertisers are trying to reach them through.

Another speaker at the conference, creative director of Two's Company-Euro RSCG communications company, Rowan Gibson, said the consumers now have access to a vast amount of information about products and the companies that sell them. "That turns the tables on us, and people are having a very difficult time reacting to that," he said according to Reuters.

Access to, and control of, information has always been a critical factor in successful marketing and advertising. As Wall Street Week writer Alecia Swasy pointed out in her 1993 book on Procter & Gamble, "Soap Opera," it was largely research into consumer buying needs, done in the first half of the century, that made P&G the giant it is today. She made the point that P&G's supremacy was substantially undermined when supermarkets installed computer controlled scanners, and were able to know more about their customers buying habits than P&G did. Previously, P&G salesmen could blitz everything from mom and pop stores to the major supermarket chains with the copious data they presented, which always clearly showed that at lot of P&G products should be purchased, and as soon as possible. After the introduction of scanning cash registers, P&G salesmen found that even smaller stores had plenty of data to counter, or at least balance, the data P&G presented.

As the cost of collecting and distributing data has fallen, access to information has progressive trickled down the food chain. In the beginning only the major corporations could afford it, then mom and pop operations could, and now it's the consumer's turn. This latest development is going to cause companies of all sizes, even those like P&G and Unilever, to rethink their entire strategy of dealing with the public.

Unilever has chosen an aggressive strategy of embracing and exploiting the Internet, and in unconventional ways for a household goods company. One of Unilever's projects offers movies on demand while promoting Dove soap. Another project is a Web site for Ragu spaghetti sauce (, which features the greeting "Enough surfing already. It's time to eat." and a very folksy interface.

Unilever seems well aware that for all the pleasantness of their Website, the Internet can be a very unpleasant place for businesses at times. In the historic Pentium disaster, which cost Intel something in the neighborhood of a half a billion dollars, a major corporation found that its consumers knew more about their product than they did, at least in some very critical ways. Intel's best damage control experts couldn't put a lid on the problem once consumers started using the Internet to publicize the flaw, and the exact steps to reproduce it.

Unlike commercial broadcast and print media, the Internet operates without any real influence from business interests. Damaging information, which could be managed in the conventional commercial broadcast and print media, is now basically impossible to contain. The Pentium disaster is relatively minor compared to the scale of disaster that could conceivably happen. Since the Pentium disaster, private, individually financed, Websites have appeared on the Internet, tracking everything from complaints against airlines to evidence used in product liability cases.

The Internet is already having a profound influence on the tobacco settlement, in part because of the Internet distribution of the tobacco settlement document. At 60+ pages the agreement is too long for nearly any commercial print media to run, but as a simple text file of 130K or so, it's easy handled by the Internet, and was soon available for downloading from several Websites (including It became quickly apparent that the agreement had far too many loopholes to prove acceptable to health officials and the public, even at this point. The settlement is likely to appear even more unacceptable over the next few years as a vast amount of related, and very damaging, information becomes available on the Internet from the Liggett settlement, and other civil and criminal actions.

The tobacco settlement, a classic example of push marketing by both business and government, is coming at a time when push marketing can no longer be counted on to be effective. These days, consumers just know too much for it to work. As Unilever's CEO put it, "The empowered consumer expects me, you -- all of us -- to answer his needs, not ours. He expects us to inform him, entertain him while we're doing so -- and above all, involve him. Or there's no deal."

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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