Consumer Is A Four letter Word: A “Culture” Perspective

Customers Not Consumers
Once upon a time I worked at a brand strategy and innovation company for a guy named Rich and alongside a couple other guys named Brandon and Oliver.  They are big thinkers, expert “do-ers” and all-around holistic strategy practitioners that believe we can use the power of brands and business to make the world a better place.  They have since taken this vision and created a company devoted to doing just that.  They do it by committing to exploration, distillation and activation of context on a number of levels.  Of critical importance in that endeavor is a deep understanding of consumer culture.
If you look on their website you will find a number of blogs on their unique, forward-thinking perspective.  Below is one of them: on why our fundamental point of view on humans as participants in a capitalist economic system needs to change: from seeing them as “consumers” to seeing them as “customers”.   It may sound like semantics – but it’s actually a strong paradigm shift and one that corporations will need to really act on if they want to have a sustainable future.


Customers Not Consumers

The semantic roots of the word “consume” are intertwined with the notion of an impulse that cannot be controlled – whether this is at the physical, biological or psychological level. Even when we refer to an “all-consuming” love or passion the subtext is seldom a positive one. We’ve all experienced, seen or heard about what happens to other aspects of people’s lives when an immoderate desire takes hold.

Because dealing with powerful and irrational desires is a challenge for all human beings (and always has been) this issue is one that most religions attempt to address through establishing ethical codes for behavior. Control of desire is also a fundamental theme of Western Philosophy, as we can see it expressed in the idea of “all things in moderation.” From the early Greeks to the present day people have always recognized that our impulses and desires have to be controlled and directed or they might destroy us.

If we simply look to the etymological roots of the words “consume” and “consumer” all of this becomes perfectly clear. The deepest roots lie in the Latin word consumere, which means literally to “take wholly or completely” and which even in the Classical period was used to express the idea of “to devour, waste, squander, annihilate, destroy or kill.” The same holds true for the early use of the word “consume” in English, when it was favored for referring to the ways that fire and disease utterly devoured and destroyed things. It is no coincidence that pulmonary tuberculosis came to be called “consumption.”

“Customer,” on the other hand, is an English word that was formed early on the basis of the idea of custom. And so it came to denote a person with whom one has regular or habitual dealings.

We believe that “consumer” is a kind of four-letter word. When we hear it we can’t help but wonder if people are really thinking critically about what they’re saying. “Customer” always denotes an individual person, whereas “consumer” can be applied to any destructive or devouring agent. On the one hand we can discern the idea of a person who engages in customary practices like frequenting a particular place for the purpose of purchasing; the customer makes choices and thereby establishes routines. On the other hand the idea of a compelling or uncontrollable force that has little or nothing to do with choice is apparent; consumers blindly devour and eventually destroy themselves or their resources.

Our use of the term “customer” rather than “consumer” is a conscious choice. We hope it will stimulate both ourselves and our clients to strive to make more of these conscious choices with a view to doing our small part to make the world a better place. To our knowledge we’re the first agency in the brand sector to draw a line in the sand on this issue, and we hope that others will follow our lead. When the word “consumer” came to be used to refer to the final buyer for a product or service it was nevertheless sharply contrasted with the idea of “producer”. As the American Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson observed:

“Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer. He fails to make his place good in the world, unless he not only pays his debt, but also adds something to the common wealth. Nor can he do justice to his genius, without making some larger demand on the world than a bare subsistence.” – The Conduct of Life (1860)

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