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Marketers today understand that consumers think, feel, and react in ways different from June Cleaver some 50 years ago. We use descriptors like fickle, indecisive, and disloyal to describe the modern consumer.

Just what do these terms mean? Mainly, they mean that consumers have too many choices—multiple brands, brand extensions, and sub-brands—and too much stimulation, especially online, making it nearly impossible to predict their next move.

And yet, marketers continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on segmentation analysis and other research, hoping to understand and predict the behavior of these fickle consumers. It's as though they're still chasing June Cleaver when neither her modern counterparts nor today's consumerism as a whole bear any resemblance to the past.

So what can marketers do? They can start by grasping the profound societal and technological changes that define today's new consumerism.

Rather than predicting a consumer's next move—which is not only imprecise but also impractical—marketers should focus on forming meaningful brand relationships by listening to and actively engaging consumers as they negotiate the major changes in society and their lives.

Identity Crisis

That no two consumers are exactly alike is a given in marketing. And now, marketers are starting to realize that individual consumers bring with them a whole new set of complexities: Each person has several identities that shift with context. They may, for example, represent themselves one way in the LinkedIn business network, and another, very different way on Facebook with friends.

Each of those identities has its own idiosyncrasies and behaviors, so when they are in one context—e.g., a busy mom chatting on onechicmama.com—they're more receptive to some brands, perhaps recipes from Kraft, and totally closed to others that don't appeal to that persona.

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Manila Austin is director of research at Communispace Corporation (www.communispace.com), which creates and manages online customer communities.