Marian Salzman

NEW YORK — Who’s the prosumer? She’s someone who can bring new meaning to the phrase “shop talk.”<BR><BR>Shop talk as in buzzing about the latest thing — particularly as regards boutiques, stores, foods and...

NEW YORK — Who’s the prosumer? She’s someone who can bring new meaning to the phrase “shop talk.”

Shop talk as in buzzing about the latest thing — particularly as regards boutiques, stores, foods and restaurants.

Beyond the buzz itself, fashion marketers, among others, would do well to make prosumers a primary target because they pass along opinions about various experiences to an average of nine people each. That compares with the two people with whom the typical consumer shares such impressions, noted Marian Salzman, executive vice president and chief strategy officer at marketing agency Euro RSCG Worldwide here, which recently released results of a study of the prosumer, a word coined in the Eighties by futurist Alvin Toffler in his book “The Third Wave.”

Largely defined as an age of information, the Third Wave, Toffler wrote, is one in which “civilization begins to heal the historic breech between producer and consumer, giving rise to prosumer economics.” The equalization of an economic dynamic once controlled largely by producers could result, Toffler added, “in the first humane civilization in recorded history.”

Indeed, as Salzman pointed out in an interview, “The prosumer will tell everyone if they don’t like the way you treat them.”

What’s more, asserted Renegade Marketing president and chief executive officer Drew Neisser, “Marketers who aren’t focusing their dollars on influencers are flat out wasting their money. There are a few categories, like gas stations, where focusing on prosumers might not make sense,” Neisser continued. “But for fashion, influencing the influencers is not just smart, it is fundamental.” That’s because prosumers are heavily represented among the 20 percent of people who consume 80 percent of the goods in most categories, from motor oil to couture, he noted.

A strong inclination to connect and communicate with others ranks among the principal traits of prosumers, who are defined in part by a mind-set more proactive than most. The group also manifests a greater-than-average inclination toward experimentation and innovation and a tendency to be in tune with contemporary life. Thus, prosumers — who account for approximately 25 percent of any consumer niche — are credited by Euro RSCG with setting trends between six and 18 months before they take hold in the mainstream.

This story first appeared in the July 28, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

For instance, these leading-edge individuals have driven the development of 24/7 retail and customer-relationship management, found the report “Prosumer Pulse 2004: A Global Study — Anticipating Consumer Demand.” The study is based on an online survey of 4,109 adults, 1,982 of them in the U.S. and 2,127 in the U.K. It was conducted in February by Market Probe International for Euro RSCG, whose clients include LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Joop, Diesel.com, New Balance, Wonderbra, Wolford, Playtex Lingerie and Petite Bateau.

“We refer to prosumers as brand evangelists,” Ira Matathia, director of strategy at Euro RSCG Worldwide, New York, said in a statement, citing “the inordinate amount of influence they wield on others.”

In fact, a 24 percent greater share of prosumers said they are very aware of brand names than are consumers overall, or 82 percent and 66 percent of those groups, respectively. Further, proactive consumers have far greater expectations of being treated well by brands they are loyal to: 79 percent of the segment said so, versus 59 percent of people surveyed overall.

As a result, the most important message for marketers, stemming from the Prosumer Pulse findings, is to give prosumers something to talk about. “Prosumers are far more likely than [typical] consumers to be consulted for their opinions on companies and brands,” Matathia recounted. “These are the gatekeepers to the consumer masses.”

Capturing the hearts and minds of prosumers, Salzman said, means delivering “something unique, something truly signature.” Since the proactive consumer’s most powerful asset to marketers is their conversational currency, stirring buzz among prosumers is essential, emphasized Salzman, author of “Buzz: Harness the Power of Influence and Create Demand” (John Wiley & Sons).

Paradoxically, prosumers are the hardest people to reach via traditional advertising, particularly a subgroup dubbed “style-lifers,” those least likely to follow the pack when it comes to choices about brands, personal style and lifestyle, in their pursuit of a high quality of life. Style-lifers, who account for roughly one-third of proactive consumers, tend not to look to others for approval.

“Marketers need to study style-lifers because they cannot be dictated to through marketing,” Salzman advised. “These are the people mixing haute couture and discount clothing,” she added. “They’re the ones setting their own media diets with Sky-Plus, TiVo, and other devices.”

Why is it valuable to harness the power of the group’s buzz if they’re so hard to reach in the first place?

Because as mass marketing messages continue to lose relevance and subsequently clout, buzz is paving another path for brands to connect with large numbers of people, marketing executives pointed out.

“We can broadcast messages, but that’s increasingly inefficient and ineffective,” said Dan Stanek, executive vice president at Columbus, Ohio-based management consultant Retail Forward. “Even the ultimate mass brands, Coke and McDonald’s, have hired specific ad agencies to target niches such as Hispanics.”

Still, at least one cool hunter, Irma Zandl, cautioned against aiming marketing messages exclusively at prosumers, as they tend to discover trends on their own. “The essential element for creating buzz among fashion consumers is newness at exactly the right time — when a sufficient number of consumers are ready for a fresh approach,” Zandl advised. “For many large retailers, being too early is a bigger problem than being too late.”

Yet there’s another reason for targeting this influential group, based on the Euro RSCG findings — it represents significant buying power.

While just 27 percent of prosumers consider themselves style-minded, that’s still 69 percent more than the 16 percent share of nonprosumers who see themselves as such. For example, Euro RSCG found, 18 percent of prosumers buy their clothes in smaller shops, even if they cost a little more, compared with 12 percent of nonprosumers. And when asked about their preference if forced to choose between apparel that is either comfortable or stylish, 69 percent of prosumers opted for comfort over style, a smaller share than the 79 percent of nonprosumers who picked comfort.

Not surprisingly, twice as many prosumers as nonprosumers, or 22 percent versus 11 percent, said they are influenced by what the style leaders in fashion are wearing or doing. Further, more than one-third of the proactive set, or 39 percent, are very aware of people’s style and influenced by it in forming an impression of those people. That’s 7 percentage points more than the 32 percent of nonprosumers who are so influenced.

“Prosumers are very aware of how things look, feel and taste and are much more likely than the average consumer to judge something based on aesthetics,” Salzman said, when asked why the group is more responsive than others to people’s appearances.

Prosumers also are more deliberate than the average person about style, whether it’s the look of apparel they’re selecting, choice of foods or design of a home — a mentality that often results in a highly individual sense of style. “Going forward, we can expect to see a greater emphasis on signature styles that send a consistent message from [one’s] home to car to office,” Salzman said. “People are getting a lot more serious about protecting and promoting ‘Brand Me,’” she continued. “Smart companies will be offering style aids that allow [people] to customize any environment, including their cars and work spaces.”

In the future, marketing specialists such as Neisser expect to see “more carefully selected and nurtured prosumer panels, whose members will be given the chance not only to see the new stuff but influence it before it goes mainstream.”

Style-driven brands that have examined the Prosumer Pulse data, Salzman said, include Old Navy and L’Oréal, which sought to learn who influences whom in the realm of new hair stylists and hairdos, in an age of consumers empowered by access to far more information than their predecessors via 24/7 media. Louis Vuitton and Lacoste are slated to be shown the data by Euro RSCG’s Paris office later this summer.

Oddly, there is nary a fashion brand — manufacturer or retailer — in the ranks of prosumers’ 20 favorite names. The closest approximation is Target, the chain that reinvented cheap chic, which rated as 19th most popular. That’s a lot of potential word-of-mouth for fashion labels getting lost.

More troublesome still, Salzman noted, is Wal-Mart’s lofty rating among the influential crowd’s favorites, as it placed fifth behind top-ranked eBay, Dell, Google and Verizon. “I’m worried about a lot of fashion brands when Wal-Mart ranks so high,” Salzman offered. “I saw the Levi’s Signature line [at Wal-Mart] and thought it was great, but I don’t think they understand they have to invent demand with fashion,” she continued. “It was hard to find; I had to keep asking. It was buried near the plus-size section, deep in the store. The Signature product was great, but I don’t think Wal-Mart is great at marketing fashion yet.”

If Wal-Mart corrects missteps such as mixing pants and skirts together in the same display and opting for downscale presentations of jeans on hangers rather than folding and stacking them, then the discount giant will significantly enhance the appeal of the Signature collection, Salzman said.

“When Wal-Mart gets it down,” Salzman added, “they will be a [fashion] threat.”

Statistical Snapshot: Stylin’ Prosumers
Attitude
% of Prosumers
Who Agree
% of Nonprosumers
Who Agree
1. I take pride in my appearance.
91%
80%
2. I am physically fit.
47%
39%
3. I am willing to pay a premium price for grooming items.
68%
51%
4. I consider shopping a recreational activity.
62%
47%
5. It is fun to browse and shop in shopping malls.
67%
57%
6. I enjoy food shopping and consider it one of my favorite chores.
50%
38%
7. When I shop for personal care items, I like to browse and try new things.
66%
50%
8. I like to experiment with new grooming products.
57%
43%
9. I am distrustful of advertising and the claims it makes.
62%
58%
10. I am less trustful of a product or company I can’t find on the Internet.
49%
37%
11. Even if I don’t make purchases online, the Internet is a key part of my shopping.
88%
76%
12. I have made 20 or more purchases online in the past year.
28%
15%
Source: Prosumer Pulse 2004: A Global Study — Anticipating Consumer Demand, Euro RSCG worldwide