The Strategy of Shaming Customers

A meme running around social media that raises an interesting point about how suppliers address their customers.

When the customer says “Can you do it cheaper?”

While humorous on its surface, it raises a few questions:

The reason the meme is funny…

  • … because it illustrates the feeling a provider feels when they have a proposal rejected on price?
  • … it because it insults to the prospective customer, and his/her ignorance of what it takes to produce the proposed work?
  • … because it is an attempt to illustrate how ashamed a prospective customer should be of the exchange?

Further, the simplistic meme presents an incomplete picture of the question, which answers itself:

Between the two images, there has to be at least 100 different iterations from the most elaborate on the left to the overly simplistic on the right, with an equally diverse range of prices from very high to economical. Therefore, the answer to the question raised is obvious – yes, a beautiful horse newel post and balustrade could be created for less than the extreme shown on the left. No, the insult shown on the right is obviously not the only solution.

What I find intriguing about this, is that it places the provider in a superior position to the customer, and makes the “customer” the brunt of a joke. The underlying attempt is to shame the prospective customer for asking for a lower cost product.

My initial reaction was one of distaste. Then I really thought about it, and realized that shaming customers is actually a common strategic marketing approach – although it is never going to be termed as such.

Branding is a form of Customer Shaming

The strategy of branding is to establish one’s products and organization as superior based on imagery. The goal is to create pride in active customers and ultimately to shame customers of lesser brands, as accepting less. The imagery often conflates attractiveness or sex appeal, environmental awareness, or followership of a provider based on the image of its founders, and many other angles to suit the brand being marketed.

Brand based shaming has made Apple what it is, and for many years Android buyers were the target of shaming by Apple marketing. Even though product differentiation is very small, and the delivered value essentially identical, the imagery of Apple as a superior company with superior product has led to brand loyalists that borders on religious commitment.

Auto manufacturers employ this as well. From the core brand position, often represented by some stand out image model, to upselling between models, then more finite differentiation within models (SL, LE, LTS, LFX, Sport, etc.) that intends to shame customers away from the base model, which produces 90% of the real value of the transaction, into purchases of expensive add-on versions that produce higher profits for the manufacturer and dealer.

Real estate is perhaps the biggest shaming market of all. Prospective home owners are pushed into higher priced homes than they need or can afford, based on the potential of feeling ashamed of where they live.

Made in USA campaigns are founded on shaming purchasers of imported goods. Environmental branding is founded on shaming customers of “less green” providers. PETA and ASPCA are leaders in strategic shaming.

The Internet is a Shame Engine

The internet is an engine of shame, where individuals, for any reason, can shame other participants based on literally anything. This needs no further explanation, but bears keeping in mind that for every shame tactic engaged by marketers, the internet acts as an amplifier – the ultimate bullhorn of shaming.

Strategic Shaming for Power

The lighting industry, which has little official power to regulate customer behavior, attempts to use shame to push customers into buying products of various “important values”. This spans the entire industry, from the employment of designers to the application of product based on any number of unregulated claims of human or environmental benefit. Another example of customer shaming is the push for participation in a national trade show, under the guise of attendance being a “show of support to the community.” This is not an objective value, it is an attempt to entice based on the concept of shame associated with not seeing it as the value it promotes itself to be.

Politics is a blend of propaganda and shaming designed to influence hearts and minds to build support. Political parties use shame to keep supporters from leaving (traitors are the ultimate shamed), while attempting to attract members of the opposing party to convert (there is no shame in converting, when it it the right thing to do?)

Religion is almost exclusively a shame based industry – from the core belief foundation, to its demands on daily behaviors, and attribution of all morals and occurances to a higher being in the attempt to make members feel shame for thinking they have any control.

Women and men alike are shamed into believing any number of stereotypes, seeing themselves as unattractive, having too small (or too big) body parts, are too fat, too thin, too dark, too light, of the wrong race, of the wrong height, have big feet, walk differently, have an accent, like strange color combinations, follow the wrong team, etc… shame is so widespread and normalized, it’s the core of comedy and entertainment.

The Shameful Failure of the Unemotional Ideal

In business, we should remove emotion from the customer interaction. Business is not about the insult a provider feels when they feel unappreciated by the customer – which is irrelevant – it is about a failure to make the connection of offering to customer expectation, which isn’t funny at all.

It is every buyer’s prerogative to pay as little as possible for anything they purchase, as well as hold judgement as to what is an acceptable product. It is the supplier’s prerogative to extract maximum profit from satisfying a customer’s request – Including covering potential losses from unforeseen issues, missing information (withheld by the buyer to extract a lower price), recovery of investment in equipment, etc… Ultimately, transactions are an agreement between two parties. If there is no agreement, it is not an insult, it is simply a lack of agreement. Both parties can chose to negotiate a balance between product and price, or walk away.

In the case of the image in the meme, would it not be more productive to find a version of the desired product between the left and right extremes?

Should providers pass on opportunities to preserve one’s “artistic integrity”? Or, is this boorish attitude reserved for the elite? How many businesses can an afford to shove customers, and all future referrals away on emotional grounds. Or, conversely, how many businesses destroy themselves and their core competency by being so accommodating to whatever customers come at them, that they lose their identity altogether? I solid case can be made that unless you are rejecting a portion of customer prospects based on the miss-match between their “needs” and you core focus, you are at risk of losing your identity, and are doomed to become another in a sea of do-all commodities with no real core value add. That’s a real shame.

The reality is, we all feel emotionally rejected when a customer rebukes an offer, passes by us, or ghosts us without the courtesy of an explanation or opportunity to make an offer. That’s being human. Businesses do not exist in a vacuum, they are not even things. Businesses are communities of people interacting with one another. In this, there is always going to be some level of shame spread about, from marketing to losing a prospect from failure to satisfy them.

When Shaming Gets Out of Line

While it is apparent that shaming is indeed part of the interaction between communities, there is a point at which shame steps outside the realm of acceptable behavior.

When shame is used to deride individuals or groups maliciously, it becomes an engine of harm. This is evident in body shaming and racism.

The question for capitalists is: Does a meme that attempts to shame individuals who seek low cost solutions over the ultimate all-in proposal step out of line?

I suggest the answer to this has two answers:

  1. The sentiment of the meme is about how providers feel when customers make irrational statements or demands (can be price or time expectations). To providers of product and design everywhere, it is felt as an insult to the commitment to their craft or trade, experience, skill, quality sensitivities, etc… The desire to make the customer feel ashamed of their request is manifest here, with humorous intent to make the point. Of course, the point is irrelevant, as there is no benefit from making it… but, that’s true of most funny memes, which is a shame.
  2. The underlying reality the meme illustrates is that there are often instances where providers are overly invested in producing what that believe customers “should want” and not enough on what customers actually need. This is common, and applies to catalogs and web sites filled with product that never sells, because it solves problems in the mind of the creator, that are not shared by customers. In this, the providers should feel shame for the waste and lack of perspective and giving in to myopic ideals that lead to failed customer connections.

Lastly, any time shame is utilized to harm another with intent to do harm, it is out of line. The unfortunate reality is, knowing the boundaries of this is far more complex than most strategic marketers recognize. For example, the entire fashion industry is founded on imagery of skinny little girls with perky perfect breasts and bubbly little bottoms and pouty lips. The intended result it to entice buyers to buy the brand represented in order to look the part. The unintended, and often malicious product of this industry is to create body image issues with women and girls, to the point of being neurotic and obsessed about features that are perfectly normal, and the inevitable shame of aging in the modern world.

Other unintended consequences of strategic shaming is the debt load so many consumers are carrying due to the constant pressure to by the latest and greatest, go the the right school, have the right device, to own the best of the best, and to be seen as successful based on “things” they wrap themselves in.

In the purest sense, strategic shaming is a horrible practice, that generates more harm than good, for the pursuit of profit. It should not be tolerated, and we should all be making every effort to resist it. But, it’s part of free market capitalism, which means it is a part of the fabric of our community – which is the biggest shame of all.

Author: kwillmorth

Photographer and Artist

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