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What We’re Reading … Engaging the New Consumer

Series #2: The New Chameleons: How to Connect with Consumers Who Defy Categorization
By Michael Solomon

Are you a marketer who needs new ways of reaching and engaging customers in today’s changing landscape?

Michael Solomon “wrote the book” on understanding consumers — literally. Hundreds of thousands of business students have read his books, including Consumer Behavior: Buying, Having, and Being, the most widely used book on the subject in the world. 

Somewhere in his busy schedule advising global clients such as Calvin Klein, Under Armour, Timberland, eBay, Progressive, and the Philadelphia Eagles and serving as Professor of Marketing at the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University, he sat down to answer a few questions about his views on marketing, the future marketers he teaches, and his latest book, The New Chameleons: How to Connect with Consumers Who Defy Categorization

Can you say more about how you came to write The New Chameleons ? How would you say companies and marketers are actually doing in this new landscape of consumer behavior?

As the author of the Consumer Behavior textbook that gets updated every two to three years, I have to stay on top of emerging trends and changes in the marketplace. Over the last decade or so, I began to notice that a lot of consumers didn’t seem to fit neatly into the tidy categories we use to describe them. This change seemed pervasive, yet no one was talking about it. That’s why I decided to write The New Chameleons.   

Take gender, for example: most people (and marketers) assume that every customer identifies with one or the other of two labels, male or female. Many different products are “sex-typed” so that they’re clearly suitable for either male or female users, but not both. Yet today it’s clear that this traditional distinction no longer applies to the many people, especially younger ones, who think of gender as more of a continuum than a dichotomy. In fact, some even question whether the fundamental descriptor of gender even makes sense anymore. As gender roles shift and mutate, that creates opportunities for marketers to supply the “artifacts” that people seek to play these new roles. Thus, some (but certainly not all!) companies that sell products like accessories such as bracelets, handbags, or even cosmetics to women are discovering that their potential market actually is much larger because men are starting to buy these items as well.  

Many other familiar categories (as I discuss in the book) are subject to the same fate, such as income, or race and ethnicity. While some marketers are starting to pick up on this, most remain mired in the monolithic model of consumer behavior that worked fairly well back in the days of a broadcasting environment — but not so well in today’s narrowcasting environment where many individual consumers actively use brands to craft a unique social identity.

I am very interested in your comment that consumers today defy categorization, sometimes deliberately.  Would you explain in more detail what consumers might be doing deliberately and how marketers can address this?

While the traditional logic of market segmentation (identifying a large, homogeneous group of consumers and developing messages and products that meet their needs in a broad sense) is appealing from an efficiency standpoint, I’ve yet to meet a real consumer who agrees that they belong to such a group and therefore their purchases are in lock-step with that group. After all, these cute labels like “Young Career Women,” or “Millennials” may pigeonhole other people — but I am a unique individual!   

Indeed, some marketers,especially those that sell online, have figured out that it makes more sense and is technologically feasible to think about selling to “markets-of-one,” where the message or product is customized to each buyers’ individual profile, within reason. In my opinion, the biggest challenge marketers face today is engaging their customers and a personalized approach is one powerful way to meet that challenge.I expand on this idea at length in my online course, ENGAGE!  How to Turn Your (Bored) Customers into Brand Fanatics!    

Can you say more about how companies can horizontally market rather than taking a vertical view?  Do you see this becoming a common marketing practice in future companies where companies “partner” with others across possible horizontal consumer interests?

For years, I have maintained that marketers think vertically, while consumers think horizontally. This means that the seller typically benchmarks its activities and success in relation to its direct competitors.  For example, a lamp manufacturer gauges success in terms of the number of lamps it sells compared to other brands in the same niche. But a customer doesn’t buy a lamp — they want to buy a living room that includes many products from disparate categories in addition to lamps.  This means they evaluate what a company sells horizontally (how a product or service “fits” with the other items that go with it?).  A horizontal perspective means that a brand should identify partnering opportunities across verticals (known as “co-branding”). For example, that lamp manufacturer might identify the specific carpet, furniture, or paint brands that consumers commonly use together to find potential promotional partners.  

We do see some instances of this, but usually it’s still within a broad category rather than across categories, such as with food products. But I’m often surprised by how little effort I see to “upsell” a customer who buys an item in a particular category (for example, a “contemporary living room”) so that the customer has an opportunity to choose other elements that go with it, perhaps items that transcend multiple categories. Marketers typically leave those tasks to the customers because “we sell lamps, period,” when in fact they are looking for guidance to acquire complementary items. That’s a lot of money left on the table! 

You are also a professor at St. Joseph’s University. How do college students and recent marketing graduates understand the new identities of these consumers? Are they more able to relate, since they are actually too young to remember any other way?

In a sense, we have created a monster: young consumers today have learned to expect that marketers will identify and gratify their unique needs — and quickly. According to one survey I saw recently, more than half of Gen Z customers assume that an organization already knows who they are and what they need before it even contacts them! Many of these customers engage in a dialogue with companies rather than passively accepting their messages, so they tend to view companies as more organic than the rest of us. Thus, the brand is, in a sense, a living entity that, like people, develops its character over time, and with significant input from its customers.  

How did you come to participate with AMA Philadelphia?  Do you see the student members in the AMA Student Chapter continuing their participation into their professional working years?  How can AMA Philly serve them better?

About a decade ago, I led an initiative to develop a certificate program with the Philly AMA. We offered the program on our campus for several years, and during this time I got to meet some very enthusiastic and dedicated chapter members. We also have an award-winning student AMA chapter on campus, and we do try to involve them. For example, we bring groups of them to the Super Bowl Smackdown when it’s done in-person. But frankly, there is currently a big disconnect between the student and professional chapters. It would be great to have more direct contact between the student and professional groups, so that students recognize the great asset that’s available to them via AMA, both before and after they graduate. In particular, while we emphasize the importance of networking, many students are at a bit of a loss as to how or where to do that. It would be great to have more opportunities for them to meet marketing professionals.


Want to expand your marketing knowledge even farther? Check out other books in our “What We’re Reading Series,” such as Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.