When Sy Syms died last month at the age of 83, the world of consumer retailing lost a true pioneer. Fortunately for us consumers, the chain of discount clothing stores that he created lives on, as does the slogan which encapsulated his progressive attitude toward marketing:
“An educated consumer is our best customer.”
I think these are great words to do business by, whether your business is selling to consumers or other businesses. I was impressed to learn that Sy Syms not only created that slogan but delivered it, in person, in TV commercials which started running in 1974.
Back then a lot of advertising was still taking a “dumb it down” approach to the consumer. Sy saw things differently and by all accounts his respect for the customer played a big role in the success of his stores. Even 35 years later the slogan still sounds fresh; the company still displays it in the store and prints it on their packaging.
In fact, I remarked upon the slogan when I made my first visit to a SYMS store earlier this year (during which I received a valuable education in choosing just the right tuxedo for a man of my years). Why had I never been to a SYMS store before? Only because the SYMS chain is regional and I had not spent much time in the region until recently. However, the company has been expanding and profiting for many decades despite the ups and downs of the American economy (for more on the history of SYMS and the man who changed his name to match his store see this Washington Post article).
So how does this relate to online marketing? To me it underlines the importance of “educating the market” as a means of winning customers and reminds us of the long-term benefits of freely sharing knowledge with current and prospective consumers of our products.
Another way of looking at this in the age of global social networking is “getting out in front of the inevitable.” The days of shadier forms of marketing, like the inflated claim and the bait-and-switch, are numbered. The era of “companies know best” is coming to an end. Technologies such as social media have ushered in a period of unprecedented transparency, a time when educating the consumer and assuming that the consumer is educated are not only good ideas, they are likely to become the only marketing strategy that works.
I think the companies that succeed in the future will be those that engage their customers in two-way conversations rather than feed them a line and hope they swallow it. A textbook example of this may be the 2011 Fiesta, a small but well-equipped car that Ford will soon start selling in America, ending decades of telling Americans there was no market for such vehicles.
During those decades I’ve flown back and forth from the U.S. to the U.K. noting the availability of desirable fuel efficient Ford cars in the U.K. and the lack thereof in the U.S. From time to time I would drop by a U.S. Ford dealership and check out their small car inventory only to find it sadly lacking. For example, there was no way I could buy a Ford Focus with the same amenities as my brother’s back in England.
Why? The official line, trotted out by senior Ford executives in interviews and repeated by salespersons on the showroom floor, was that Americans were not interested in small cars. This always struck me as arrogant. Regardless of how many surveys they might trot out to buttress this assertion, Ford execs obviously never sought the opinion of anyone I knew, because all the people I know are interested. Well, at some point in the last year or so, enough execs at Ford wised up and the Ford Fiesta, a car that is one size smaller than the Focus, will be coming to America next year.
I predict it will be a big hit with American consumers, particularly educated consumers because, as Sy Syms first said 35 years ago, they make the best customers.