06/09/2015 12:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

Stop the War! Your Customers Are Not the Enemy.


Target an audience. Launch a campaign. Capture the market.

Many marketers use terms that sound a lot like what a military unit would use to describe a plan of attack. But that's no way to talk about a relationship, which is what marketers should really be after. In fact, it's terms like these might make you think that they've been taught to treat their customers like the enemy. No wonder people are so cynical about advertising and public relations.

What if you walked up to a stranger on the street and said "Hello, you may not have been aware that I've spent thousands of dollars tracking and targeting you for the last six months. And because my company's owns a relationship with you, I thought I would contact you."

Any reasonable person would run the other way or call the police. No one wants to be captured, much less be considered owned by a company's marketing and sales department.

Companies are forever buying market share through mergers and acquisitions with the assumption that loyalty and goodwill are just as transferable as all the other assets in the transaction. While it's possible to earn the loyalty, respect and trust of a customer, thinking that you own the customer from the get go can be extremely destructive to the hard-earned relationship. You risk alienating large portions of the customer base.

Now, what if you had walked up to that same stranger and said, "Would you mind sharing your thoughts on how we could do a better job for you?"

Chances are that stranger might actually listen to what you have to say and consider building a relationship with your brand.

Who started the war against consumers anyway?

In 1972, the book Positioning: Battlefield For Your Mind, by Al Ries and Jack Trout became one of the best selling business books of all times. In 1986, Ries and Trout followed up with Marketing Warfare which also became a best seller. These two books introduced much of the military lexicon that is still used in marketing today.

This military language has been around for so long, and is so entrenched in the industry, that people don't even realize its effects. They don't see how this jargon is creating a bunker mentality in the industry.

Psychologists have long understood that the words we use shape our thinking and behavior. Therefore, it's easy to understand why military language gets in the way of relationship-building marketing. If we think of a customer in the abstract as a target, we have lost the opportunity to truly empathize with the customer and gain the insights necessary to initiate and sustain an authentic relationship.

Humans have been building relationships the same way for the past 10,000 years. Most personal relationships start with a conversation. When we meet someone new, we subconsciously begin to ask ourselves a series of questions such as: is the person like me, do we share the same values, would I enjoy spending time with this person, can I trust them?

In business, the strongest relationships with customers are built the same way. Unfortunately, many companies are stuck in the old mindset of relying solely on advertising, public relations and promotions and have not created the opportunity for a conversation. After all, they have already "captured the market."

But in the age of social media, modern marketers will find that "capturing the market" just isn't enough. Through social media, customers are having conversations with or without the participation of the company. Once the conversation is started, people ask the same questions about a company and its products and services as they do about another person. Do I share the company's values, do I trust them, and do I enjoy spending time with the product or service? Today people are very outspoken about these relationships. External conversations have given rise to consumer activism which, in the best case scenario, results in brand loyalists or, in worst-case scenarios, results in reputational hits, boycotts or class-action suits.

Let's replace target markets with customer segment, launch a campaign with start a conversation and capture a market with build relationships. We would be a lot closer to describing the real work of marketers.

It's time for marketers to climb out of the trenches and engage in conversation with customers again. Only then will they build the long-term relationships that they seek.