Although digitization has empowered consumers with information and competitively priced goods and services, until now it has likely had a greater influence on the supply side of markets, spawning innovation in manufacturing, supply chain management, marketing, sales, and other business functions. For marketing’s “hunters,” digitization has proven to be a high-powered scope, enabling them to track every move of their consumer prey. It’s no wonder consumers feel more hounded than ever — constantly interrupted by the cacoph-ony of barking from marketers vying for their attention, and disquieted by the not-so-far-fetched suspicion that silent trackers are always sniffing at their heels.
Searls argues that the time is coming when customers will be “emancipated from the systems built to control them.” The instrument of their emancipation will be vendor relationship management (VRM), the consumer equivalent of customer relationship management (CRM). In other words, individuals will adopt the principles, practices, and guidelines that today’s companies follow when interacting with them.
What VRM (yawn) lacks in appeal as a brand name, it makes up for in ambition. Searls envisions it as a digital tool kit that will create value for consumers by allowing them to manage relationships and service requirements with companies on their own terms; by enabling them to collect their own data and control access to it; by giving them the means to express demand in the open market; and by facilitating negotiated outcomes with sellers that, in the best-case scenario, will support value-creating collaborations.
Searls’s dramatic prognostications are supported by ProjectVRM, which he runs and which was launched in September 2006 from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. The project’s purpose, he writes, is to “encourage development in an area that has been largely neglected: empowering individuals — especially customers — natively, outside any corporate or organizational framework.” Dozens of companies, mostly startups, have already subscribed to the VRM vision, and they are in the early stages of developing the tools and capabilities that consumers will need to take control of markets. Personal.com, for instance, provides individual users (called “owners”) with a private, fully owned, and fully controlled data vault.
Searls’s vision raises provocative questions for companies and for marketers. Imagine, for example, an elderly woman who wants a computer that is simple enough for her to operate, or a man who wants a wool sweater in a particular style, or a driver seeking a part for an automobile. Instead of searching for suppliers, what if they put their specs online and companies vied to meet their needs? How would your company respond if the clearinghouse for supply meeting demand devolved to the level of the individual customer and was orchestrated by that customer? Could your company survive in a marketplace in which gaining the attention of targeted consumers has given way to paying attention to consumers targeting you?
It’s hard to answer these questions. If the Intention Economy does come to fruition, it will likely render obsolete many of today’s marketing practices, which were designed to capture the attention of consumers. (Searls reminds us that the word branding was borrowed from the cattle industry, and its intention was to burn a product into the customer’s mind — not an image that will appeal to tomorrow’s customer–kings.)
That day is not here yet, however, so read Grow and Brand Real to learn how to build a better connection with customers in today’s markets, and then read The Intention Economy to ponder how you might prepare for the future.
- Shaun Holliday is a senior executive advisor in Booz & Company’s consumer and retail practice. He spent much of his career leading businesses and functions in premier global consumer companies, including Pepsi Bottling Group and Guinness Ireland Group.