How Technology is Changing the Relationship Between Consumers and Brands

White Paper

There is evidence that some long-held marketing beliefs may no longer be true. The digital age is changing relationships between consumers and brands, with only one in four people thinking brands communicate with them appropriately. This whitepaper contains vital findings for marketers who want to stay ahead of the curve, by demonstrating the effects of consumer interactions with brands and how devices such as smartphones and tablets can be used to increase your brand awareness.

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The digital age is accelerating the opportunity for brands to truly engage with consumers across all channels. Equally, the risk of getting contact strategies wrong and wasting budget is increasing.

From smartphones and tablets to dynamic content on billboards and interactive TV ads, consumers and marketers are getting to grips with a seemingly endless supply of new technology. This is leading to constant shifts in the way people buy and interact with brands, changes that will only accelerate as media fragmentation continues.

Intrigued to understand how consumers are finding their way around this multichannel landscape, and tasked by marketers who want to know how technology is changing people’s attitudes toward brands, global marketing services and technology provider Acxiom commissioned a study focusing on the relationships between organisations and individuals across several industries.

The result is this report, which includes some vital findings for marketers who want to stay ahead of the curve by understanding how comfortable people are with new technology, and whether it makes consumers feel more in control of their interactions with brands.

In other words, is new media quickening the shift from push to pull marketing?

Executive summary

There is evidence that some long-held marketing beliefs may no longer be true.

This report highlights some huge discrepancies between what marketers think consumers are using new media for and what people’s experience and behaviour really is. We also examine how technology is affecting consumers’ relationships with organisations that attempt to communicate with them:

  • Consumers feel far more in control of their relationship with brands than marketers realised. The era of mass, or push, marketing has unequivocally ended, as the age of pull marketing is advanced by personal media, with consumers choosing what information they want to know, when it suits them.
  • Despite this feeling of control, one in four consumers still feel they receive “inappropriate” marketing communications; marketers generally have a much higher opinion of their industry’s work.
  • Marketers are unsure of the penetration of technology among consumers and have overestimated consumers’ preference for multiple touchpoints compared to more traditional, and personal, contact strategies.
  • Direct mail is reported by both customers and prospects as being in their top two preferences for receiving brand communications, with email the other choice. In counterpoint, marketers overestimated adoption of new technology channels, and in particular marketing via mobile phones.

The report contains detailed insight into consumer attitudes toward key vertical sectors, in-depth analysis of responses to the survey, and advice that marketers cannot afford to ignore.


In response to the ever-changing media landscape, Acxiom commissioned independent research through London-based consultancy fast.MAP. The robust approach of a dual survey allowed us to build a clear picture of consumers’ channel preferences, while at the same time getting marketers’ views on how they think consumers are using technology to interact with brands.

The research was carried out in July 2011 among two pre-qualified online panels. A nationally representative sample of 1,014 consumers was asked 10 questions in a self-completion format. A second panel of 222 professional marketers was then posed similar questions to determine how they thought consumers would respond to the original set of questions.

In this way, we were able to determine how much marketers’ perceptions of consumer attitudes differed to consumers’ actual experiences and behaviour. It should be noted that questions about industry sectors in the business-to-business survey were not restricted solely to marketers working in the specific sectors cited; all the questions were open to responses from marketers generally (for example, questions relating to financial services were asked to the wider marketing panel — not just financial services marketers).

While this report contains information drawn from what are considered the key findings of the survey, further data relating to each of the sections was collected and is available on request.

Report findings

Pulling in the same direction?

The theory that “in spite of the new technology at their disposal, consumers do not feel as in control of brand relationships as the marketing industry assumes they do” was overwhelmingly disproved.

The question relating specifically to this statement made clear that by feeling “in control”, customers of companies in a range of sectors receive relevant communications, when they want them and through their preferred media channels.

On average, across all industries, 82% of customers said they felt in control. This is a massive 52 percentage points more than the figure suggested by all marketers, who thought just 30% of individuals would be comfortable with their brand relationships.

The breakdown of responses by age reveals an unexpected peak among older groups. The proportion of consumers feeling in control actually started quite low in the youngest age group — 28% among 18- to 24-year-olds — and was also less than half (48%) in the 25 to 34 sample. However, the sense of control climbed steadily from 61% among 35- to 44-year-olds, to 68% among those aged 65 or over, which was the highest proportion of any age group.

The findings suggest several factors:

  • Consumers are using the technology available to filter out, or switch off, messages they don’t feel are appropriate or interesting to them personally.
  • Older consumers may feel more in control because they have long-standing relationships with brands, do not feel as bombarded by messages because they do not necessarily experience the non-stop media stimulation of younger generations and have worked out which channels they prefer over many years.
  • We can also infer that some marketers are still working in silos and do not enjoy a 360-degree view of their organisation’s marketing activity; there may be no mechanism by which they can clearly see how joined up communications are where they work.
  • An extension of this is the belief that consumers are suffering from similar “channel anxiety”; but according to their responses, that idea is unfounded.

While marketers underestimated consumer control in all sectors included in the survey, some gaps were particularly wide. The underscoring was highest in the charity sector with marketers thinking only 15% of customers (or donors) were in control; but actually 77% of people said they felt in charge.

At the other end of the scale, marketers were closer to the truth in their assumptions about automotive and supermarket customers, where the gaps were smallest at 32% and 30% respectively. They thought 55% of car brand customers would be in control, against 87% of people who said they were in the driving seat. Meanwhile, marketers assumed the same figure, 55%, for supermarkets, whereas 85% of shoppers reported being in control.

Charity and satellite broadcasting were areas where people feel least in control — 77% in each sector saying they did — closely followed by telecoms, which scored 78%. The responses suggest that these industries may need to look at their contact strategies to see if they are communicating appropriately. In the case of charities, a recent report concluded that poor data leads to a sixth of all complaints against them, and many need to overhaul their databases to cut waste and make communications more effective.

In financial services, however, the situation is better than most marketers thought. They estimated that in each of the insurance, credit card and high-street banking sectors only 25% of customers would feel in control. But in actual fact, at least four out of five customers in all three of those areas gave positive responses (80% for insurance, 84% credit cards and 85% for banks), resulting in some of the biggest perception gaps. Despite (or maybe because of) financial services companies taking a pounding in the media ever since the collapse of Northern Rock in 2007, customers seem at one with their providers. We believe this is due to the popularity of aggregators, which have promoted engagement between consumers and financial companies, and left individuals feeling more in control not only of the “hiring process” but the marketing lifecycle overall. While aggregators have put pressure on pricing strategies, in general they have been a positive force for the industry.

So consumers generally feel in control of the relationships they have with brands; marketers are much less certain about the level of control customers hold over their relationships. This suggests the era of push or mass marketing is truly over. Financial services aggregators are a good example of how technology has changed the rules of marketing. Marketers must now reach the consumer at the moment they are doing something — in this industry’s case, choosing a provider. The customer controls the conversation: the requirement for marketers is to understand how to influence or join these conversations in the right way, with consistent branding, offers and messaging at every touchpoint.

This shift may be as many observers have suspected for a while, but the extent to which pull marketing is now the paradigm has evidently been underestimated.

If you think you know me, speak to me like you do

Even though consumers feel in control of their relationships with brands, large numbers still do not feel brands understand them, or tell them what they want to hear. As an average taken across all sectors:

Only around one in four (27%) people think brands communicate with them appropriately.

As we have seen, many people feel in control in the knowledge they can switch brands on or off at will — and yet a large proportion still consider themselves the victims of being targeted with meaningless marketing messages. Marketers overestimated the level of positive sentiment from consumers — scoring it at 48% as an average across all sectors, a difference of 21 percentage points. The biggest differences were a 48 percentage point perception gap in travel (65% estimate by marketers versus just 17% of consumers saying “travel marketing is appropriate”) and satellite TV providers (a 42 percentage point gap).

Consumers were also scathing of marketing in automotive (only 18% rating car marketing appropriate), charity (21%) and telecoms (22%). However, they again felt more positive towards financial services brands — insurance scored 34%, credit cards 38% and high-street banks 51% — with supermarket marketing (41%) also held in comparatively high regard.

Key points to note here are:

  • Marketers have a much higher opinion of the quality of their communications than consumers do. To provide more relevant marketing, brands need the insight to recognise people across all touchpoints and understand what stage of the customer lifecycle they have reached.
  • The rules of direct marketing now apply to above-the-line as well; technology is making ROI, as well as consumer actions, attributable in every channel.
  • Consumers are most engaged by direct, relevant, one-to-one communications that make them feel they have been communicated with appropriately, and as individuals, when and where they want.

New world disorder

A further gap in marketers’ knowledge was exposed by the question posed around present-day versus past communication methods. Consumers were asked whether they preferred the modern convenience of being able to deal with an organisation through multiple channels or the traditional approach of in-store service. Some 58% of consumers chose the current way of doing things, and the remaining 42% chose the “simpler” landscape of the past.

When marketers were asked to estimate the level of consumer response to each option, the highest proportion chose “past 30%, present 70%”. The marketing community clearly believed there would be a larger preference for all-singing, all-dancing marketing than the consumer responses show. This is likely to be a reaction to inconsistent and inappropriate communications caused by the sheer level of marketing that people are now exposed to; there is no point having a wealth of data if you use it poorly.

Consumers seem sceptical about the appropriate use of new technology for marketing purposes. Marketers could boost the share of people preferring the modern way by bringing the goodwill of the past into the present through the delivery of consistent, personalised experiences across all touchpoints, using deep consumer insight to pinpoint the communication preferences that lead people to act in some way — whether to respond to a call to action, request further information, or make a purchase.

The consumer you are trying to reach is unavailable, please try again later

Penetration of technology in the marketplace is a further area of uncertainty for marketers, as estimations of consumer access to certain channels were wide of the mark. Marketers overestimated consumers’ availability of web and email at work by 64 percentage points: marketing respondents believed 95% of individuals would have access, while just 31% of consumers said they did.

Marketers have a more accurate idea of the penetration of home computers but actually underestimated the figure (89% of consumers have access but marketers thought only 75% did). Marketers were also unaware that nearly half (49%) of consumers have no web and email access via their mobile phones; the industry respondents thought the figure would be significantly lower, estimating 25% would be without the web on their handsets.

It’s crucial that marketers understand consumers’ levels of access to technology as they consider where to spend their budget. Having false impressions can result in wasted allocation as the wrong audiences are targeted through incorrect channels. For example, based on these figures, it might be worth marketers reconsidering how much money they allocate to targeting people via web-based channels during the hours when they are at work, and focusing on other areas instead.

Mail 1.0 makes a comeback

The media, politicians and even some marketers have been sounding the Last Post for direct mail for many years. In contrast, it appears consumers still highly value this form of contact from brands.

Among existing customers of companies, 71% cited post as an appropriate way of reaching them. While this figure dropped to 57% among prospects, mail was still deemed the most appropriate way of reaching potential new customers.

This compares with marketers believing only 35% of prospects would welcome direct mail; yet they were closer with their estimate for customers, thinking 75% would be happy to be contacted by post.

Email, now an established channel, was even more popular among customers with 77% acceptance. This dropped to 52% among prospects, but was still far higher than many channels. In fact, both post and email fared better than newer forms of marketing. In particular, marketers may be overestimating current contact opportunities offered by mobile phones. Only 12% of customers felt mobile advertising was appropriate, while the figure for SMS marketing was 9%. Marketers guessed much higher figures, assuming 45% of customers would welcome mobile-based advertising and a quarter would find text messages appropriate. Both mobile and SMS contact provoked equal concern among prospects (4% acceptance), although marketers seemed aware of this sentiment, predicting 5% for each channel.

As for social networks, despite their burgeoning use3 only 4% of customers approve of contact through Twitter and the same proportion through other social media. Marketers were also cautious about using these channels, estimating 5% of customers would like to be contacted this way. They also believed 5% of prospects would be happy to receive marketing via social media; the actual figure was 6%, revealing a slight preference for “cold” messaging through the likes of Twitter and Facebook compared to contact of existing customers this way.

Learnings here include:

  • Mail is not considered intrusive by a majority of consumers, perhaps because it doesn’t feel like active engagement by the brand.
  • Email is popular because many people have already opted in to receive messages.
  • On the flip side, targeting people via their handset or social network account is deemed invasive and irksome.
  • Understanding more about consumers’ communication preferences, by gaining insight into their habits through data gathered at all touchpoints, will help businesses boost the number of people willing to accept contact through new channels.

Customers and prospects know what they like and like what they know, and marketers are still trying to comprehend these preferences. They need to understand how to communicate with consumers across every touchpoint, old or new, and add value to their world’s not as bad as you think

As a final thought, marketers by and large think consumers take a dimmer view of their industry than is actually the case. When prompted with a list of negative situations they may have experienced during interaction with brands:

An average of just 38% of consumers said they’d had a problem — compared to the 74% who marketers thought would have suffered trouble at a touchpoint.

The biggest differences in perception and reality came in response to the statement “I get unwanted and irrelevant sales calls” (marketers thought 95% of consumers would have had this bad experience; 49% of individuals actually did); “I had to provide information a second time because it was not passed on” (75% compared to 30%); and “They didn’t respond to my email despite asking me to respond to them via email” (65% against 25%).

Consumers had the highest rate of negative experiences with foreign call centres (54%, which the marketers predicted would be the most problematic channel, estimating 95%, the joint highest with sales calls in general), while lack of consistency in communications (24%) and anger at different deals being offered through different channels (19%) were the least common gripes.

Marketers may take some solace from the fact that they thought the situation would be twice as bad as consumers actually reported. Maybe marketers have started to develop a siege mentality because of negative media coverage, or are overreporting on areas they don’t work in. Perhaps consumers are not as irritated because they have got better at ignoring messages that are not correctly targeted at them. Either way, the figures were another illustration of the opposing viewpoints of consumers and marketers that run throughout the survey responses. And as more than a third of people did report bad experiences, there is still significant room for improvement.


Marketers know that the growth in personal technology is changing the way people interact with brands — but they seemingly didn’t realise quite how much the pendulum has swung from push to pull marketing.

In a constantly fragmenting media landscape where consumers now feel in charge and clear ROI is of paramount importance, marketers need to prioritise which channels are right to reach specific individuals. The key to campaign success lies in knowing when and where to connect with each consumer, and the foundation for making those decisions is 360-degree, accurate data.

In a way, the industry has created Frankenstein’s monster. By doing such a good job of marketing technology and digital services, it has breathed life into consumers’ ability to control the relationship between brand and individual. The more people enjoy interacting with the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook, and the experience they provide, the greater their expectation will be that they should have similar relationships with all the other brands they deal with.

It’s ironic that digital channels have quickened the switch to pull marketing — and the urgent need for information that brings — yet consumers do not appear to want marketers to push information to them through these channels; witness the distaste among customers and prospects for contact through social media or their mobile phone at this time. Specialist insight in these areas is urgently required to improve consumers’ perceptions.

Meanwhile, contrary to much of the negative commentary in the media, consumers still value traditional direct mail. The key for marketers is to understand who prefers to receive communication by post, and have the correct data to make sure the right message reaches the right person.

Now more than ever, brands must understand when and where it’s appropriate to join the conversation with consumers — and when they do, to make those communications as relevant, consistent and delightful as possible.

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