Apple just launched the iPhone 15! I have no problems with my iPhone 12. But a new phone does seem attractive. I can’t explain why. That’s great marketing at work right there! At the same time when I open a news site I get the sneaking feeling that my consumerism is directly contributing to weather disasters around the world. That’s a dampener for dopamine shopping.

But wait – I just saw this brilliant video from Apple which tells me that they are so green. Maybe my new phone won’t harm the environment at all? That would make my decision easy. The fastest way to reduce our impact on earth would be to stop consuming. But that would be painful. So if the brand can convince me that my purchase isn’t harming Mother Earth, I can continue my cash-for-dopamine spree with a clear conscience.

I’m not praising this effort – just pointing out that it helps make things easy for the customer.

Make it Easy for Me!

People (we must stop calling them consumers!) are looking for ways to make their lives easier. Every new item or piece of data that launches actually makes our lives more complex as it increases the cognitive load of decision making. Google research shows that 41% of people in MENA find it harder to make a purchase decision today than they did five years ago.

I’m a Starbucks regular. Yet I drink the same coffee over and over and over. Happy meals exist to uncomplicate decision making for kids and their parents in McDonald’s. 31 flavours of Ice cream? Just take vanilla or chocolate.

What’s my choice criteria?

That’s where it gets tricky for marketers. And where AI can help a lot. Each segment of customers walks around with selection criteria in their head. Even if the criteria are the same for a bunch of customers, the priority of each one can vary. For example, Apple has a simple tool to help you decide which model you want based on what I guess they know are the key metrics – video watch time in hours per charge, optical zoom, size of screen. In B2B the criteria might be credibility, domain expertise, or after sales.

As marketers it is our job to understand the full basket of choice criteria and then map them to our customers. Then comes the fun task of customising our products and messaging based on this understanding.

The Role of AI

AI can help not just with segmentation but also customising offers and communication on the fly for your audience. It can have conversations on the buyer’s priorities and then offer packages based on that. In other words it can put together a Happy Meal relevant to your context! In order for this to work, the human-in-charge needs to decide what’s ok and what’s not.
The Ethics of Marketing

Thing is with this power brands can really tap into the long tail of diversity. I also grapple with satisfying a latent need and creating one that exploits an insecurity. More so when there is no proof that the product or service is more than a placebo. Yes, yes, the choice is the consumer’s but it’s important to have our own clear boundaries of what we will and will not do.

So Apple’s brilliant marketing of its green initiatives soothes us to the fact that they are boosting replacement sales of a phone that could last another year at least. A few years ago Apple paid $113 million to settle a US lawsuit that alleged that they were deliberately slowing down older iPhones.

In 2007 I was a fan girl who ran around New York with my then colleague Abhishek Mendiratta to hunt down the first ever iPhone as a gift for my husband. It was oh-so-cool then. Today I’m having a moral dilemma over yet-another-purchase. Climate change and waste are definitely troubling factors for the consumer of today.

It gets even tougher when we come to topics like exploiting insecurities. Women are subject to the “pink tax”. And what about the neurodiverse? The elderly? The illiterate? Every time we touch digital we are sharing information about our weaknesses that fellow marketers can use either to deliver us real aid or to sell us snake oil and beads.

Building a Trusted Brand

There’s only way to build an ethical brand that lasts for the long run – build credibility. Authenticity means different things to different market segments – for a Louis Vuitton watch priced at $52,000 it means being desirable. For a bottle of Manuka honey – which is a fascinating marketing case study – it means something else.

I’ll leave you with an anecdote on marketing ethics that I mention in my book, Marketing Without Money. I used to work on a brand of tea that was sold in sachets priced at 50paise (less than a cent). Sounds reasonable, but at that time our consumer was spending only around 10x that on discretionary purchases weekly. I felt guilty as an unbranded version of this tea would be half the price. But when I visited the customers they felt it was their one daily luxury – the ability to have a cup of branded tea as a family before they set out for work. There was pride and aspiration in that brand.

This is what makes marketing so intellectually challenging – and satisfying.

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Jessie Paul is the Founder and CEO of Paul Writer, a firm she founded in early 2010 to raise the bar for marketing in India. Previously, as Chief Marketing Officer of Wipro’s IT business and as Global Brand Manager at Infosys, Jessie has been recognized for her contribution towards putting the Indian IT industry on the global map. With over 18 years in services marketing, including a stint with Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, Jessie is considered an expert in brand globalization and has been named one of the most influential business women in the Indian IT industry.


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