McKinsey’s word of mouth muddle
McKinsey have just released an
interesting new article called “A New Way of Measuring Word of Mouth
The article starts out with a clear
statement of the control shift I’ve been talking about for a long time:
sheer volume of information available today has dramatically altered the
balance of power between companies and consumers. As consumers have become
overloaded, they have become increasingly skeptical about traditional
company-driven advertising and marketing and increasingly prefer to make
purchasing decisions largely independent of what companies tell them about
This tectonic power shift toward consumers reflects the way people now
make purchasing decisions ….”
However, this is just a preamble to the real
purpose of the article, which is to introduce a new and better way of measuring word of
The methodology itself seems sensible
enough. Messages sent by trusted, influential people have more influence than
those sent by untrusted, uninfluential people (really?). They have even more influence if their content is
relevant and based on direct experience rather than irrelevant and based on
hearsay. (Wow! What a revelation!)
Then we enter The Muddle.
McKinsey call their new methodology “word
of mouth equity”. Now that’s odd, because in normal every day English ‘equity’
has connotations of ownership, when silly old me thought that the whole point
of word of mouth (and McKinsey’s dramatic intro) is that the conversation is ‘owned’
by the people doing the talking. Ah well, what’s a little bit of verbal
gymnastics between friends?
Using “word of mouth equity”, the article
continues, companies can “empower” themselves (McKinsey’s words, not mine) to “actively
manage” word of mouth to achieve brand goals. That’s odd again, because I
thought that the whole point of word of mouth is that it was empowering the consumer
and couldn’t be ‘managed’ by organisations.
Thus, with just a few bits of verbal
gymnastics, McKinsey take us to the brink of an abyss – “a tectonic power
shift” that’s “dramatically altering the balance of power between companies and
consumers” – and then gently, reassuringly, take us by the hand to lead us back
to the same-old same-old traditional corporate agenda of ownership and control. As if
nothing had ever happened. Phew! They’re a comforting lot, we must buy more of them!
But what’s the real price of such intellectual
contortions? Let’s dig a little deeper.
McKinsey tell us we need “word of mouth
equity” because we need:
“an index of a
brand’s power to generate messages that influence the consumer’s decision to
They’are at it again. Despite all that talk of “tectonic power shifts” they’ve brought us back to the same, tired
nothing-about-marketing-has-really-changed agenda of “brand power” (not
So let’s ask the oh-so obvious question: why are consumers more ‘influenced’ by word of
mouth than by traditional advertising? Because they want to make a better decision
and they believe that word of mouth recommendations are more helpful on this
front than advertising.
words, the “power” of word of mouth doesn’t lie in the “message”, it lies in
what consumers find valuable – in this case, help during the decision-making
process. If a brand’s message fails to provide this value its influence will
evaporate, whether it is delivered via boring old traditional advertising or
snazzy, sexy, new, improved, word of mouth.
To repeat. It’s
not about the delivery channel. It’s not about the “power” of the brand’s
“message”. It’s about consumer value.
with this for a moment and follow the logic.
Step 1: the
essence of good marketing lies in identifying and meeting consumer wants and
Step 2: the
consumer wants and needs to make a better purchasing decision …
So … what is
the obvious Step 3?
Option 1 is to
say: “Sod what the consumer wants! Find me a powerful “message” that will “influence”
the consumer’s decision in the way that I want!”. This is the road that
McKinsey and a thousand other marketing gurus have taken us down.
Option 2 is to
say: “therefore brands need to find ways of adding value by helping consumers
make better decisions”.
Oh dear. We
wouldn’t want that would we? If we help consumers make better decisions, they
might not choose our brand! So let’s return to Option 1, pronto!
though, when push finally comes to shove, there’s a massive No Entry sign forbidding
marketers to explore the path that defines their very mission – of identifying
and meeting customer needs. As a result, they’ve been left to whirl around inside some
sort of perpetual limbo-land for at least a century. McKinsey’s article is just
another example of the endless muddle it creates.
In my last
post I suggested that VRM’s stance of looking at relationships and processes (and
not just products or services) from the point of view of the consumer – in
other words, actually accepting that the “tectonic power shift” referred to by McKinsey
really is real – opens up huge new
opportunities. I also said some of these opportunities are counter-intuitive.
This is the
Big One – the one most marketers find hardest to accept: that they are far more
likely to succeed not by endlessly
looking for “messages” that “influence” consumer decisions but by practising
what they preach and giving consumers what they really want – in this case, genuine
help in making better decisions.
really create a ‘win’ for the marketers? How? These are the questions we now need to explore.