Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Sweatshop Free

GAP in consumer awareness

From The Statesman

I gaped in amusement a few days ago when I received Diwali greetings from a telecom company. Someone wanted to help me to save my money only if I would switch over from my present long-distance carrier to them.

Lightheartedly I said I was more interested in saving time and wanted to be left alone. That was the end of the conversation but the beginning of a serious concern, which many Americans have today that they are being profiled, clustered and targeted for data-base marketing. The company knew who I was: an Indian Hindu, one most likely to respond to the Diwali message, especially when no child labour was involved. This paradigm shift in marketing communication, individually designed messages, is seen even at the shop-floor level, where most of the sales are finally clinched.

Recently I went to the Home Depot, a cavernous store which sells everything you need to build, repair or decorate your home. The young salesman not only helped me in selecting the four-by-ones but also cut them to the size, and assured me that the material was so good that he had bought the same stuff for his father. The store, he said, has a no-question-asked return policy. The aggressive marketing was so kid-gloved that the Home Depot indeed felt homey.

A specialist in marketing communication explained to me that American businesses are embracing a new concept, integrated marketing communication (IMC), heralding the end of mass marketing era. One size fits all may still be true but the message should be custom-designed for different people. Now you understand why the telephone company sent me the Diwali greetings.

The technology to segment masses into clusters of tastes and special interests is available. It gives advertising and marketing experts the tools to reach the customer as if he were very special. People may drive the same model car, wear the same designer clothes and eat the same food in a restaurant, but they feel special about their choices because they receive individualised messages.

For many of us, personal freedom means to make our own choices, although some time too many choices puzzle us. Remember how our grandmothers made us feel so special when we were kids. Of course she did the same with all our siblings and made them feel equally special. That’s why we love our grannies. Something similar is being done by today’s marketing communication experts. Like a child, every customer is special.

Companies are moving away from the traditional Four P’s of marketing - price, product, packaging and promotion - a formula that worked well in the era of mass-produced culture, when consumers were struggling with their basic needs. No longer in the United States can a manufacturer simply make a product and price it to sell by packaging and promotion through the mass media. Consumers do not tolerate being treated as undifferentiated mindless dolts; they resent manipulative and condescending messages.

No wonder the Wal-Mart salesman, I observed lately, was so apologetic to the housewife because the GPS that she had used for more than a year did not work very well, and he gladly returned her money. He took the blame for her choice. This is salesmanship in a new key.

Consumers have rising expectations because of the variety of sources from which products and services are available, and they prefer to buy things which enhance the quality of life, especially in regard to environment, human rights and child labour. Experts say that consumers today not only buy a product; they buy the company which produces them. The entire matrix of marketing communication, that’s, advertising, public relations, sales promotion and even employee communication should appear to the consumer as a stream of information from one single source that establishes a distinct identity for the company. Call it raising a brand. Brand creates public trust. It reveals core values and business philosophy.

GAP, of course, is good: but who makes the product? Children, who should be in school rather than in a sweatshop? Today buyers of imported rugs want assurance that no child labour is involved in their manufacture, and they look for label such as Kaleen, promoted by the Government of India and the carpet industry; and RugMark, an international non-profit organisation which guarantees to customers that they have gone thorough inspection.

The recently published undercover story in the Observer, a British newspaper, has persuaded GAP to work with the Global March Against Child Labour to develop a plan for putting a label on its products: “Child Labour Sweatshop Free”. The other day when I was browsing through Macy’s domestic section, I overheard a customer asking the salesman whether she could buy chinaware not-made-in China.

The salesman apologetically said that everyone was asking the same question. Millions of toys and other made-in-China products have been recalled by US companies because of the hazardous materials including lead that had been used. It is not going to be easy for a company to be able to sell made-in-China products in the United States unless it certifies product safety. In fact, some companies in the United States have begun to put a label: China Free.

Conscience of the consumer is awake. Children should go to school, not work in sweatshops. Clothes and toys should be made for children but not by children. Above all, children should be safe when they use products made for children. All factories in China and India should be open to international inspection.

(ND Batra teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University. A googled edition of his new book, Digital Freedom is available, and it is free: Click here

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