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Embrace Irrationality: A Human- vs. Customer-Centric Approach to Marketing

by Jeremi Karnell  |  
July 20, 2011

In this article, you'll learn...

  • How the customer-centric marketing approach is evolving into a human-centric approach
  • Characteristics of human-centric marketing
  • How your company can adapt to changing times

A new marketing paradigm is emerging—human-centric marketing, which is an evolution of our current customer-centric approach. And it's beginning to change the way we are introduced to and form relationships with brands.

Before I define human-centric marketing and answer the question "why now?" it makes sense to review why the consumer-centric approach to marketing is falling short:

1. It views people as somewhat passive participants.
2. It measures success by how much merchandise a consumer moves.
3. Rising paradoxes have led consumers to seek more meaningful relations with brands.

The consumer-centric approach to marketing is a result of the information age, which has information technology at its core. It was an economic shift, a move away from older corporate-centered systems defined by large companies to a more people-driven one.

Websites, social networks, blogs, microblogging platforms, and mobile apps now allow people to have a voice. As a result, that shift has driven transparency and global access to products and services in the market. It has changed the dynamics of individual and corporate communications, which have becoming more active, micro, portable, live, informational, improvisational, and personal.

However, one problem with the consumer-centric approach is that it views people as somewhat passive participants in marketing campaigns.

"Consumer-oriented brands' only meaningful metric is how much merchandise they move, and consumers tie their status to how much of a scarce resource they consume," writes Mike Bonifer in his GameChangers. "The model is unsustainable. It is a zero-sum game. If we keep playing it, we are like arsonists watching our own homes burn."

Events such as 9-11, the massive economic downturn of the past decade, and rising paradoxes associated with globalization and environmental disasters, such as BP's oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico and the devastating earthquake in Japan earlier this year, have led people to seek out more meaningful, authentic connections with one another and with brands.
In his Marketing 3.0, Philip Kotler, author of some 20 marketing books, suggests we have been going through a process of social adaptation, organizational readjustment, and changing personal expectation. At first glance, these recent changes seem centered on new forms of informational resources, much as the Industrial Revolution seemed to be powered by new machines and new forms of energy. But a closer examination reveals that the current transformation we are undergoing is broader.

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Jeremi Karnell is co-founder of One to One, an integrated marketing and technology firm focused on helping brands activate and acquire the social customer. Jeremi can be reached via

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  • by Bill Baker (StorytellerBill) Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    It's interesting to sit back and watch the proverbial pendulum swing back to more meaning and humanity, as indeed it is. Society—and with it, consumers—seems to be emerging from the sometimes dehumanizing fog of technology and recognizing that, at the end of the day, what drives and motivates us most are meaningful human relationships. More than money, more than status...relationships; connections; sharing.

    That all said, to ween executives (and Wall Street) off an overly-myopic focus on sales, companies need to be able to quantify human relationships somehow and—in doing so and if at all possible—link stronger relationships to stronger long-term sales and loyalty. It's a messier, less black-and-white arena as you point out Jeremi, but we all know instinctively it's an important one. This notion of higher purpose especially resonates with me. Towards that end, I often counsel brands to stop thinking so much about their elevator pitch and start thinking about their sermon (blog post on that —

    Thanks for the dialogue!

  • by Lisa Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    A very interesting article to be sure with much that I can take away and use with and for my own clients. But I sometimes wonder if we as 21st century marketers over emphasize and exaggerate the average customer's need or desire to "seek more meaningful relations with brands."

    For the most part customers want hassle free satisfaction of their current need, want or problem. And that may include warm and fuzzies from a brand or contests that satisfy a need for 15 min of fame or a lucrative prize but we should not delude ourselves that these are truly meaningful relations.

    I love Apple, Clinique, Aveda, Starbucks, etc - they solve my needs, they are great caring companies in many ways but I don't need them to pervade my life or try to establish themselves as a "human" in my life. As soon as they stop providing what I want, I'm gone.

    While I do think companies should consider customers as more than just a "sale" and consider the overall purpose of their "being" as more than just the bottom line of their revenue, "how much merchandise they move" HAS to be a significant part of the equation, otherwise why exist? After all I am not a stakeholder in their company and they are not a stakeholder in my life - what they do is sell me what I need. And if they can do that in a way that is hassle free and not too intrusive all the better.

  • by Gabrielle Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web


    I really liked your article. It is good to see that some one is recognizing this shift in how brands can better market to consumers. I will also add, I think that for brands that have actively marketed to mutli-cultural consumers, they have already been doing this on some scale. However, with the way technology has quickly evolved our world, more brands are being required to take this approach to the general consumer.

    Yet, this approach does not come without risk, what I find interesting is that this approach can make a brand more vulnerable to how a consumer views and percieves the brand. If the brand appears to be exaggerating or "trying too hard" - the consumer will be quickly turned off. The Humanistic approach to me has to be done with subtlies, finesse and very thorough understanding about your consumers. This is like any other relationship; the more involved you become the greater risk you have of potentially getting hurt.

    Overall, I think you will have few brands that are exceptional with this approach and more brands that have problems with this approach.

    Again, thank you for articulated this shift so eloquently, as I have noticed it myself and actual have been fortunate to work with a brand that really believed in this approach.

  • by Joan Muschamp Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    As a B2B marketer of professional services, I'm pleased to hear more recognition of this problem. I've had arguments with former execs, telling them we aren't selling to a company or organization, but to people! There needs to be a solid relationship, based on mutual respect and understanding of the business challenge we are solving.

    At the end of the day, we need to solve the problem so our individual in an organization/company can see and share direct benefit. This sustains the relationship--constant touch points can reinforce, but if there is no substance ultimately it can fall apart.

    Sort of reminds me of marriage.

  • by Michael O'Daniel Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    I'll tell you where this approach will be even more valuable -- in the relationship between an organization and its employees, who are also "customers" but typically overlooked in that context. (Without good employees, you generally don't hang on to your external customers.) I have found that marketing practitioners generally do not assign a high priority to marketing internally -- getting the employees on board with the brand so everyone is enrolled in serving the customer -- but leave such communication to the HR department. I am presently collaborating on a book on change management and I find many of the principles Jeremi Karnell talks about immediately applicable to that field. Joan Muschamp's comment above is also relevant: the individuals within the organization need to share in the benefit as well.

  • by Jeremi Karnell Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    Hello everyone, thanks for your feedback on this piece. I plan to get to everyone's comments throughout the day. In the meantime, I would encourage you to view a screencast that my colleague David Laplante and I published on the subject a couple of months ago. It provides a lot more depth in detailing the paradigm shift and some very good examples of Human-Centric Marketing today:

    Also, you may reach me directly via twitter: @jkarnell

  • by Joan Muschamp Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    I do agree with Michael O'Daniel on involving employees in your brand to better meet client needs. In our case, we need to solve business problems, and it's an essential element of our branding and messaging. As we are soon to rollout a revised visual and overall brand message, we have been involving our staff along the way.

    It is a culture shift, to move from having a brand "just be there" to making employees realize they are part of the brand. In the end it's about 100% client satisfaction as a goal--solve their pains as people, and you will win for the company.

    Thanks, Jeremi for the link.

  • by Paula Green Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    Thank you for a great article about changes in attitude and expectations among marketers, prospects and customers. I certainly agree with the ideas of utility and simplicity in communications, as well as human values. Anyone who has ever made (or promoted) an impulse purchase has seen irrationality at work as a critical element in the sale.

    However, as Lisa and others mentioned above, will the ultimate objectives of brands and companies really change? Should they? Or, is this more of a change in tactics to accomplish their objectives?

    In the early days of social media, everyone spoke in hushed tones about establishing relationships with customers. Recently, though, I've heard more and more comments about companies and personalities using social media as way to "speak at" people, rather than with them. Kind of sounds like the complaints we made about mass media and mass messages, doesn't it?

    I applaud the many companies that have embraced social causes and human values as part of their strategy and corporate culture. I'm not usually a cynic, but I suspect that companies will view (and market to) customers as humans only as long as it helps them meet their sales goals.

  • by Eric Duchinsky (Edison Solutions) Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    Everything old is new again. Technology allows for increased competition between brands. Geographic territories mean so much less.

    This drives attention back to individual customers. Companies can not tell people what they want and need (unless you are Apple, Inc. maybe). The power shifts towards customers and away from companies.

    The humor comes from how fast marketing gurus go with the new flow. "Treating customers like humans", this should not be a new paradigm, but a very old one. Creative consumers always wanted an upper hand in the relationship. That has not changed.

    In the everlasting struggle between buyers and sellers, the power shift comes from buyers' ability to break out of the cattle chutes and go wherever they want. Sellers now need to play nice and cajole customers, instead of prodding them.

    The successful companies of the future will likely be the ones that have always treated customers like humans.

  • by Paul Hess Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    Marketing has been expanding its focus from satisfaction with the product, to customers solutions around a set of activities, and now toward the life of the person as a whole. This means that marketers need to know what is going on people's lives in order to inform innovative solutions.

    I've been making this point to the sustainable business movement, that from a marketing perspective, green biz should be more customer and human focused, as opposed to saving the "planet." Although many people agree in theory, there is still a lack of attention to what customers care about. Here's how i explained it on sustainable biz blog disucssion:

    Most “green” purchases are motivated by the customer’s concern with health, which is mainly about toxicity. Those of a fragmented mindset might think health is one issue that poses a trade-off in time and attention that takes away from climate change or other issues. But there is another way to look it: health is a connector, not a separate issue for five reasons:

    First, health connects to the personal concerns of customers, both consumers and corporate consulting clients. The importance of health is increasing with the steady rise in rates of most disease that are epidemic levels, especially for children. 1 in 6 children now have a developmental disability with autism being the largest group with known causes in toxicity. Parents with an autistic child are likely to spend every free minute trying to cure their child from being dysfunctional for the rest of their lives.

    Second, dealing with environmental health toxicity is huge gap in health care in which doctors do not check for toxic body burden or know detoxification protocols. In fact, medicine often adds to the toxic body burden with medications that treat symptoms while contributing to the underlying problem. Addressing toxicity can improve medicine and lower costs by dealing with causes.

    Third, health is connected to energy that is toxic: oil and coal create air pollution including mercury, one of the deadliest toxins, and nuclear radiation that doesn’t go away.

    Fourth, health connects to economics: health care costs are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy and health insurance is the single largest cost of making an automobile.

    Fifth, a focus on health can be integrated with business strategy to spur innovation in healthier products, capture revenue, lower costs, and raise productivity of employees and society. There is a growing field of green chemistry to make non-toxic products.

    Health implications of a product or service are one way to make sustainability and marketing human centered. The business goal of serving customers, when understood broadly as customer solutions, is about attending to human needs of all stakeholders.

    The method for this involves both talking and listening to people, and then showing the connections between issues for a meta-strategy of changing systems. In the case of health issues, the concerns are quite urgent in the minds of many.

  • by Mike Stintson Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    "...companies need to shift from category understanding to deep human understanding if they are to activate and captivate their relevant stakeholders..."

    Jeremi, I appreciate where you're going with this topic, but like so many of authors within our industry I hear but vague advice around "ideals" and little to no real, actionable insights. Would you mind providing specific examples of what you're talking about?

    You of course don't have to name client names, but if you could explain a few examples from your own work to illustrate what you're talking about that would be wonderful. I just find too often we of the marketing elite say "Oh, let's focus on *people*, not on *sales*, let's provide social media to *connect* brand advocates instead of *selling* to them". Yet when pushed to explain exactly how this is done at a very operational level I get blank stares.

    I also have found from my work from Crawford that far greater successes are achieved when -- instead of looking for ways to do nonsense things like "engaging the creative class" -- we nurture our own people, surprise and delight our clients, look for applications to use existing tools in new and engaging ways, and above all -- show results.

    If you can't show concrete examples of any of this then you're just sellin' snake oil, my man.

  • by Jeremi Karnell Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    @MikeStintson. Totally agree with your point. There was only so much I could convey in this particular article. We have collected some examples of Human-Centric Marketing in a screen cast on the subject matter:

    Check it out and send me a DM via Twitter (@jkarnell) or post to this thread and lets carry on the conversation.

  • by Paul Hess Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    Mike, A great book with case studies of mobilizing the workforce to innovate for customer's is Carol Sanford's The Responsible Business.

  • by Oletta Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    I agree with Lisa. I don't believe customers necessarily want to "build a relationship" with a brand. However, I do believe they expect the brand to look beyond the dollar signs and acknowledge they can always take their money elsewhere.

    Technology and social media especially is teaching brands that they are no longer held accountable to only their shareholders and the bottomline but also their customers and that accountability goes beyond the quality their product. It entails their stewardship of the relationships with their employees and communities they impact while doing business.

    They do that well, then yes customers will engage and laud them on Facebook, etc. All missteps go the same way. Subsequently, social media has made the reach of the customer voice go beyond the realm of the individual customer inner-circle and literally becomes global.

  • by Carol Sanford Wed Jul 20, 2011 via web

    Thanks Paul for referencing my book for examples. There are dozens. I would call it life centered instead of human centric. But rather it is the life of being(s) in the context of a system(s). It you stop with human you don't really enrich lives of people and the systems they live in. But the stories are many and detailed of a very different way of innovating for humans, who may also buy from you to enhance their lives. Not consumer s of your products or services.

  • by Mike Stintson Thu Jul 21, 2011 via web

    Love that Carol responds just after I add her book to my Amazon shopping cart. Looking forward to it, Carol!

    Jeremi, I appreciate the SlideRocket. Nice visualization, yet I'm still struggling to see concrete examples of how you've helped your clients in specific ways that were measurable, so in your end-of-year review you could send Christmas cards full of glad tidings.

    I guess I've just gotten somewhat jaded over the past six years with so much of this "ideal world" fluff and insufficient "here's how to do it". Whenever I hear someone go on about "environment paradoxes" and "shifting consumer climates" and "the new world of marketing is this [obscure construct]", I think they're maybe not doing enough real, actual work inside their company.

    For example, read this recent post my colleague Andy Gould. From this I take away a clear picture that he is focused on what may be the most important aspect of marketing -- finding the best employees, making them feel needed, giving them new skills, growing them into new positions, and trusting them to lead even as you benefit from their growth.

    Can we all agree to put a moratorium on useless expressions like "a new marketing paradigm is emerging", and for a short time, let's say just a year -- I promise after this we can get back to Twittering our mutual self-satisfaction -- we focus on our people, giving what our clients actually want in better ways, and creating real, actual business?

  • by Carol Sanford Thu Jul 21, 2011 via web

    please let me know what you think Mike. I will be curious.

  • by Jack Greenleaf Thu Jul 21, 2011 via web

    In an article that Mike Stinston suggests is vague snake oil, three phrases caught my eye. In descending order of importance:

    “Embrace the irrational” – this is either hand waving, faux visionary nonsense, or betrays a real ignorance of the realities of good marketing. Powerful brands have always communicated on a non-rational level, and the best creatives have always known that a brand must appeal to human feelings and non-rational life aspirations, and not to some abstract rational consumer. Embrace the irrational? This is either empty, or is old news to any real creative talent. The idea that you are just now discovering the human element in brand communications suggests, as Stintson points out, that you are probably also blind to the importance of the human element within your company. Consumers’ ability and desire to interact with brands has changed; that is obvious to anyone. But that brands are best communicated by humans to humans, in all their glorious irrationality, is something good creatives have always known.

    “a serious, deep purpose—an ultimate concern”: again, this is either nonsense or ignorance. If you are suggesting that a company needs to have a deeply coherent brand vision and understand how it ultimately connects with the lives and aspirations of the people it wants to appeal to, this is old news. But since you put this claim about deep purpose in the context of recent global scale tragedies like 9/11, the Gulf spill and the earthquake in Japan, are you suggesting that your clients need to have a seriousness of purpose on the level of international religious tolerance, environmental justice and disaster relief? If so, you will either be limiting your client base to pro bono non-profit work, or lying to yourself about the seriousness of purpose of, say, some inconsequential service company.

    “Rising paradoxes” – I wonder where you glommed on to this bauble of a phrase, which you use twice without suggesting that you mean anything deeper than, Gee the world’s complicated! How exactly did the Gulf spill and the earthquake in Japan contribute to ‘rising paradoxes’? I mean, the phrase does sound cool, but do you really want to squeeze real tragedies into the service of empty jargon? Rather inhuman, if you ask me…paradoxes are tricky things and best left to those who understand them, say, geniuses like Oscar Wilde, or practicing mystics who’ve had real, as opposed to faux, visions.

  • by Paul Hess Thu Jul 21, 2011 via web

    Thanks Carol for the suggestion of focusing on life, not just humans. That captures what i was saying about health as a connection to nature, since our bodies are part of nature. We are disconnected from nature, which is related to minds being disconnected from bodies, and then from eachother. This is actually the source of our business troubles according to Ikujiro Nonaka, author of the seminal Knowledge Creating Company in 1995. These insights were developed concretely by examining product develop and organizational collaboration, and helped inspire the creation of Agile product development in software. He agues that the root cause of our conceptual thinking is the separation from nature, and this leads to the separation of mind and body that manifests as a separation knowing and doing, and knowing and feeling, which are so important to integrate in human processes of creativity and sympathising with others as the third integration of self and others. It is a Japanese view that is quite different. I've seen such views presented in a long marketing video by Toyota's chief ethcis officer at the Haas school of business. Toyota is playing with the idea of the car in a more transparent relationship with nature. They succeeded to some extent in conveying that feeling and insight, as the audience was moved--you could hear it the sighs and cheering at the end.

    My comments about health above may seem out of place here because I was not talking about branding but getting the vision first, and then the branding. The vision is to reconnect ourselves as minds to ourselves as bodies, and through that, to nature. Our bodies are nature. And in that collectivity, we are connected to each other. My message was especially for the "environmental" movement that presents nature as "out there" and we have to sacrfice to help "it" through guilt motivation. Nonaka speaks about affection and sincere relations to all things. I have observed that in other cultures that tend to be more sensitive in their interactions.

  • by Paul Hess Thu Jul 21, 2011 via web

    I agree with Jack and Mike that this project needs to be more concrete. I understand that you are using Ken Wilber's Integral framework and Spiral Dynamics in the background, but you have not used specific insights about the different moral perspectives people use. There is more concrete research, such as, Bolt's, How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding. He shows how branding addresses major social conflicts and aspirations, starting with Coke's advertisement to "teach the world to sing in peace and harmony" from the early 70's. He also gives examples about race, class and gender in advertising, some of which are positive images that could contribute to improving relations.

    There’s a huge opportunity to address the gender identity crisis in America which is so confusing the problem does not even have a familiar name like gender identity crisis. The problem comes into focus through comparing videos from different cultures that present men and women as friendlier and relating better, rather than as being used for sexploitation advertising or portrayed in a gender war dialogue in sitcoms or gestures in music videos. Music videos from other countries have been used in a kind of self-administered therapy that changes men and the results are astonishing. I learned that we are much more influenced by media and culture than I thought, and that people can change quickly with right opportunity. Everyone’s talking nowadays about creating their own reality, but that depends on being conscious of cultural influences to make a choice. Making friends with people from other cultures and trying to understand their ways is one way to become aware. There is also much literature to explain these insights that few people know about, but I believe visual media can reach more people. Advertising could do that.

    There’s a lot at stake here for our culture and politics. Problems between women and men contribute to stress, anger, depression, over-medication and manifesting emotional problems as physical diseases. This can feed cynicism and politics of fear and blame. We need to channel our energy toward good social causes, says Alison Armstrong, creator of the program “Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women.”

  • by Carol Sanford Thu Jul 21, 2011 via web

    BTW Michael O'Daniel, my book includes as many stories about how the term 'employee disappears and they become co-creators when you apply the same principles to a workforce including suppliers. And why all this makes from stronger democracies and societies as Paul Hess is suggesting we need to do.

  • by Michael O'Daniel Thu Jul 21, 2011 via web

    To Carol Sanford, Joan Muschamp and anyone else interested in the concept of enrolling your employees in marketing...

    In Europe, some of the more enlightened companies follow the principle of "co-determination," which means employees are involved in decisions across the enterprise, not merely in marketing.

    For more information, check out Steven Hill's article "Europe's Answer to Wall Street" which appeared in the May 10, 2010 edition of The Nation (sorry to go all pinko on you) which was adapted from his book
    "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age" (

    This wouldn't have a snowball's chance in the U.S., because then how could CEO's collect their obscene compensation, plus their obscene bonuses, based on how many employees they were able to get rid of? Sorry, bad dog...

    Carol, I look forward to reading your book...

  • by Carol Sanford Thu Jul 21, 2011 via web

    Some of my stories in my book are from Europe, S. Eastern AFrica and of course the USA. Colgate Palmolive Europe went way beyond "Involvement" in decision making to full self-organizing teams that made the decisions for customer and created products based on being champions for customer and consumer success. It was deep commitment to the life of those who purchased the products and services of the company with no delegation or approval needed from the hierarchy.

    And there are stories from the USA where it did happen and is still unfolding. It is not every CEO who is insanely greedy, although there are many and they are the headline stories.

  • by Darryl McDonald Mon Jul 25, 2011 via web

    Hi Jeremi – thanks for sharing this informative post. Human-centric marketing is an interesting trend, and I agree that we’ll continue to see a shift in this direction. You point out how platforms like websites, forums, social networks and mobile apps allow consumers to have a voice, and online discussions are making us more active participants in campaigns. We’re sharing our thoughts and feelings about brands more than ever, but this only represents a small piece of a larger puzzle. To take it a step further and see customers from a more holistic perspective, we must socialize, or marry, data from online sources with information companies already have – from call centers, financial records, supply chains and more. Socializing data allows companies to use what consumers are doing and saying to enhance customer understanding and engagement, and approach them from a human-centric perspective.

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