What surprised us most wasn't that the biggest and savviest marketers in the world are still asking that question -- it was how they ultimately answered it. Actually, it was the pronoun they chose to answer it with: she.
"She's more demanding and more powerful," noted Lafley, updating his 2002 speech in which he androgynously dubbed the consumer "boss."
"The power is with the consumer and the retailers and the manufacturers are scrambling to keep up with her," he said, tipping his gender hand.
Wal-mart's Quinn concurred: "Remember, who is the customer and what did she hire us to do?"
Okay, we get it. If you have to select a pronoun "she" is as good as any. For one thing, it covers at least half the world's population. And it sure beats "it" or "them" at a time when marketers are supposed to be connecting with consumers on a personal level. It's not that we're necessarily advocating "he," but there may be an even better way of referring to consumers. How about "people?"
Whatever marketers are referring to them as, they clearly have given up on old world marketing notions of managing them. More often than not, the marketing chieftains said consumers are managing the marketers, or at the very least, are helping them to "co-create" their brands. And they offered plenty of examples from P&G and Wal-mart to BMW's Mini and Burger King. Though BK President-Global Marketing, Strategy and Innovation Russ Klein didn't offer any of the feminine pretenses of his peers. He made it clear that the fast-food marketer is not yet ready to become a Burger Queen, and that it's aiming dead center at guys - and some juvenile-minded ones at that. In fact, he revealed that the King's own market research shows that his brand is not a "she" but is "everything that's good about adolescence."
Gender aside, the marketers all had one thing in common: Great turnaround stories that involved letting the consumer set their brand's agenda.
"The consumer is clearly in control, but occasionally, the consumer let's us in," P&G's Lafley said in one of his few gender-neutral references. Then he offered some advice - and perhaps the best sound bite of the day: "We need to learn to let go and to stop thinking of brands from our on point of view," he declared, adding. "This is very much a let-go world."