Is customer obsession giving your customers the creeps?

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Union Direct Head of New Business, Karen Andre, challenges the problem of control freakery in marketing head on, and shares her thoughts on what we as marketers can do about it.


All marketers want to control the customer relationship, clients and agency folk alike are guilty of control freakery. But control in any relationship is never a good thing.

This need to control comes from a good place. Customer experience, customer journeys, customer obsession, customer centricity. The customer, after all, is king. And every self-respecting company’s primary focus should be the customer experience.

But today, very few relationships with brands exist in the moment of consumption. Reducing the target audience to the role of customer means we’re missing a trick. These customers are so much more than that and our desire to control the relationship is where things can go wrong.

“That’s a big problem and all, but at I’m not like that!”, I hear you say, but the problem has become so engrained that many of us are guilty of this when we don’t even realise it. You might have the control freak bug without being any the wiser. To help you find out, we’ve prepared a short self-diagnosis test for control freakery. Let’s take a look.

  • Do you choose the best time to communicate with customers?
  • Do you decide which channels customers can use?
  • Does your customer relationship lack fun and spontaneity?
  • Do you control what consumers can talk to you about?
  • Do you direct consumers to your response channel of choice?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s ok. Many brands and marketers are still clinging on to control. It’s understandable. Control is a human response to chaos and anxiety, and chaos and anxiety are rife in our industry thanks to the levels of change in recent years (and the sheer unpredictability of human behaviour).

It is an understatement to say that technology has turned marketing on its head. Martech has changed what we do beyond all recognition with complexity going off the scale thanks to programmatic, data management platforms and machine learning. Many brands still struggle to get their internal data ducks in a row or have confidence in their singular customer view.

Because customer touchpoints are literally infinite and we want to improve the relevancy and impact of our communications, we hold onto the few areas we can control because it makes us feel a better, and if we’re honest, more in control…

The big problem is that consumers have got wise to it all. The value exchange between brands and consumers has evolved. It goes beyond product and price. People want and expect to be in control as part of the deal. And the clever brands are handing it over.

As a general rule though, marketing practices are still very much ‘brand to consumer’ rather than recognising that the balance of power has shifted to ‘brand and consumer’. Giving up control is brave and bold, it’s not for the faint hearted but it can be as rewarding and powerful as taking control. So, what should marketers be doing differently to tap into this?

  • Data is the currency that fuels customer and brand relationships. Be careful how you treat the customer data you hold. You don’t own it. It belongs to your customers, they’ve chosen to let you use it for a while – in exchange for something in return. See that for the privilege it is and make sure your customers feel the benefit of sharing.
  • Know your customers. Not just their segment, demographics or their transactional history. Know their behaviour, their hopes, fears and aspirations as real people who feel the full range of human emotions from love and excitement at best and frustration and anxiety at worst. And remember, loyalty in marketing is as good as a myth!
  • Choose the right agency partners who really “get” the new marketing ecosystem. Data savvy and tech literate agencies can implement and operate your martech stack efficiently and effectively on your behalf. Challenge your agencies to use data and technology to provide new levels of targeting and relevance in your marketing communications, but ensure those messages are delivered with human understanding and emotion.
  • Give customers what they want before they know they want it. Put them back in the driving seat by providing tools to manage their own marketing. Invite them in and share transactional or usage data to them to help them see the value.

Once you’ve given up control the potential payback is huge. You can halt declining returns for the offers and deals you used to incentivise your audience with and instead see the returns from a healthier relationship with increasingly engaged consumers.

With a little careful relationship nurturing, those consumers are likely to surprise you with their enthusiasm and passion for your brand, not to mention a renewed willingness to spend.

If you’d like to talk about how the Union group can help you put your data and marketing to better use in a world that is increasingly taking control out of your hands, you can contact me at or call our offices on 0131 625 6000.