Customers Are Behind the Wheel on the Buying Journey

While the hit show surely exaggerates 1960s ad man behavior, there’s no doubt that overall, Don Draper is spot on.

Brands -- through their advertisers -- told consumers what they wanted, and did so with great authority. People of a certain age will remember Trident’s campaign Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum. This statistical-scientific sounding fact was drilled into the consumer’s head so often that later on in the campaign, the brand ran a commercial in which the voice-over asked a young toddler why his mom let him chew Trident. His response: “Because of the thing on TV.”

My how things change. Let me count the ways. 

1. Brands No Longer Control the Conversation

Brands haven’t controlled the conversation since the early 2000’s. Once the Internet went mainstream, users started generating content for other users to read; content that detailed their opinions and experiences with products and services. In 2005, the term user-generated content, or UGC, entered the lexicon and savvy marketers realized the user’s network of friends and family held just as much sway as they did.

And perhaps it always did, but without the means to survey a large number of friends simultaneously, people had no choice but to rely on the brands. After all, in the days before email, if you wanted to know the opinion of ten friends, you’d have to call them individually -- or host a party. Today, you can ask 200 of your closest Facebook friends what they think quicker than you can dial a phone.

2. Brands Can't Dictate What Customers Want

Brands no longer dictate what consumers want; often it’s the other way around. Case in point: Amanda Hocking, the romance novelist who, after receiving no less than 50 rejection letters, decided to self-publish. People were free to buy and download her books online -- and in short order, 6,000 did so each month. Reviews started appearing on, and eventually the publishing industry got interested. In 2011 she signed a multi-million dollar deal with St. Martin’s press.

And then there’s Kickstarter and the whole crowd-funding movement, where people literally say what they want by financing a product’s development. Since 2009, Kickstarter has helped bring to market a host of video games, technology, films, albums -- even an origami kayak. Meanwhile, AirBnB has completely eliminated the hospitality sector from the travel equation for a great many vacationers.

Now I’m not claiming that brand messages and branded products will fall by the wayside. But make no mistake about it; brands no longer control what the consumer wants or what the consumer believes. And they certainly don’t control how people go about deciding which products or services to buy -- that process is now fully owned by the consumer, and there’s no going back to the Mad Men days.

3. Decision Making is Complex

Consumer decision-making is no longer linear; it’s a web. Once upon a time, the brand more or less bombarded people with a message, and after seeing it enough times, we went out to buy the product. Decision-making today is so much more complex: with steps for discovery, learning, choosing, purchasing and sharing your opinions with your network.

That last part -- sharing -- is what makes the process webby, because now friends and family in our networks begin the process anew. All you Don Drapers out there need to figure out how to exert your influence in each and every one of those steps. Good luck!

4. Media is Fragmented

Media is super fragmented. Back in the Mad Men days, people who wanted to watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom tuned in to NBC at 7:00pm on Sunday evenings. And advertisers who wanted to reach most of America bought airtime on NBC during that hour.

Today, you can watch Mad Men without even owning a TV. In fact, you can watch just about any hit show, wherever and whenever you like, and from any device, including a television, laptop, iPad and if you’re really desperate to catch an episode, your iPhone. To stay relevant, and exert any influence at all, advertisers must find ways to reach people wherever, whenever and however they tune in, and that’s not so easy. Many broadcasters are still trying to figure out how to make this happen.

5. Different Devices Need Different Ads

People rely on three or more devices to consume content -- often simultaneously -- and advertisers need to learn the role each plays in the decision-making journey. This is a problem Don Draper never had to consider. But I ask you; does an ad someone sees on TV have the same impact as one seen on the computer? If a user initiates a video ad on his or her tablet, does it indicate a higher level of interest? If yes, should the tablet ad be the same as the one that’s broadcasted on TV? How should the message change? And if the person didn’t convert after he or she initiated the video ad, what’s the next step? Re-target that same user with the same video until a conversion eventually occurs? Or is there a better way to move that person further along the sales funnel?

Lots of marketers now get that they have to be on all screens, only they’re taking a channel view rather than a people view. That’s a mistake. Your consumer is the same person, whether she sees your ad on her laptop, or clicks on it from her iPad. If you treat each device and channel as a campaign unto itself, you’ll never -- and I mean never -- be a part of the buying journey in any meaningful way.

The digital universe has changed the way people consume content and decide what to buy and from whom. Learning how to adapt to the new consumer-driven buying journey isn’t an easy feat. It requires new expertise, expanded skillsets and a willingness to re-invent the way we market. It’s kind of like what retailers went through when digital upended their world.

If you think you can put off making that transition, let me remind you that you can go to to buy Amanda Hocking romance novels, but you can’t go to Borders.

Title image by MC_PP (Shutterstock)