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Mar 21 2010

Why I hate the term consumer

When you start a business, you have to choose a word to refer to the people who buy your product or service. The default seems to be consumer. We hear it in many contexts, from consumer spending on the economic reports to consumer science in school (apparently this is what "home economics" has been renamed).

Here's what bothers me about that term: it makes it sound like our only job as individuals is to sit on the couch watching TV (consuming media and electricity), eat fatty snacks (consuming "food"), and then throw away the wrappers. The only things produced by this kind of consumer are waste, which damages the environment, and weight gain, which damages our health. As Stephen Colbert says in the video, "America is a consumer economy. Which means the only thing we still make... is ourselves bigger."

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As someone starting a business, I want my product or service to be used, not consumed. To me, consumed implies the customer uses it once or twice, then stops using it and throws it away. My goal isn't to make junk that will provide only fleeting value to people, then end up in a landfill. Even if it makes me money, I frankly can't imagine such a goal giving me enough motivation to start a business.

Instead, my goal is to make something that becomes a lasting, meaningful part of people's lives. Seeing people get excited about what my product or service does for them is the greatest reward I can think of. In the field of smartphone apps, this means trying to produce an application that people want to return to again and again, not just download on impulse, use or play a couple times, then forget about.

So what term should we use instead of consumer? I favor terms specific to your business. For example, if you're making an iPhone app for maps, say navigators. If you're making an Android game, say gamers or strategy enthusiasts. If you're making a webOS application about public transportation, say riders. If you're selling wine, say wine enthusiasts or wine connoisseurs.

Watching TV and drinking sodaPick a term that describes people in terms of their passions and gives you something to live up to. You can't live with yourself if you sell lousy wine to wine connoisseurs, whereas you can sell just about any swill to consumers -- their bodies are just going to process wine into waste, so what difference does it make if the wine is awful? Same with a smartphone app: if you're making it for navigators, you've got to provide accurate, reliable maps so people can actually navigate with it.

Yes, these terms are just words, but they can fundamentally affect how you think of your company, your product or service, and the people who use it. Ask yourself this: would Toyota have let its quality slip if it thought of the people buying its cars as drivers and passengers relying on Toyota for their safety, instead of consumers whose complaints should be disregarded and hushed up for the sake of profits?

Constantly reminding yourself of your obligation to the people who buy from you is key, and the easiest way to do that is to choose a term that emphasizes your relationship. If you really need a generic alternative, customers or individuals are better than consumers. Customer at least implies that your business has an obligation to provide people with something of value, ensure it's safe and easy to use, and maintain relationships with the people who patronize it. (As Toyota Motor Sales USA president Jim Lentz said, "We lost sight of our customers.") Individuals at least reminds you that these are real people you're talking about, not just automatons who turn resources into waste.

Image credit: Family watching TV in the 1950's: Wikipedia.

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