Ashwini Gangal
Guest Article

Consuming the Consumer Conundrum

Do consumers consume, buyers buy and users use? Why do we use a word with biological connotations – consume – for a monetary transaction? An analysis.

I’ve always had a problem with the word ‘consumers’, and now even more so in the context of ‘content consumption’ and the ‘consumption’ of things that have lost their erstwhile names and have been uniformly stamped ‘content’ across the forehead. Like books, movies, magazines, reports, comics, any kind of text really, audio like songs, videos of different kind… everything that's fodder for the brain. How long before we say ‘I consumed a conversation with a friend today’?

But, as for the original point, I think we need new nomenclature for ‘people who buy products sold by companies’. Instead of calling them ‘consumers’ – an ingestion or eating related word that makes them sound like gluttons or howrats (that's Marathi) of some kind, know what I mean? – what if we call them buyers? That’s an acknowledgment of the hard-earned money they’ve parted with to get the product.

If buyer is too transactional, how about customers? But wait, that’s weird too; ‘customer’, somehow, fits while they are *at* the point of purchase, in the 'shop', in the seller’s den. When they 'go back home' with the purchased item, do they remain customers or do they transform into – and here’s another suggestion – users? Users sounds good, right? It highlights actual and final usage of the product.

When I posted this short essay on LinkedIn, a lot of media professionals responded and took the discussion forward. Ashwini Deshpande, co-founder, Elephant Design, Pune based design agency, said, in a comment below my post, “The term we have always used in design is ‘users’. Never consumers or customers. Because design is not biased towards the person who pays money. When it comes to the commerce of selling, ‘shopper’ is also a fairly commonly used term.”

Management consultant Nagesh Alai suggests the word ‘experiencers’ in place of ‘consumers', and Ipshita Chowdhury, director marketing, South Asia, Signify Innovations, formerly Philips Lighting India, suggests ‘end-user’, ‘adopter’ or ‘clientele’.

Digitas CEO Unny Radhakrishnan said, “The evolution was 'Buyer' to 'Customer' to 'Consumer'. That's because someone somewhere felt with each word, it became more 'inclusive', and 'elevated' it from a 'transactional' plane. If 'Consumer' has outlived, we need to find a new word, in line with this evolution…”

Shiv Sethuraman, former adman who now runs 'The New Business', a business acquisition firm, reminded us of the FMCG roots of the term ‘consumer’. He said, “...the word consumer is a hangover from the time when FMCG companies dominated marketing thinking and vocabulary. And when consumption indices were used to measure uptake. As practioners, we also made a distinction between consumers and buyers/shoppers (kids versus moms who buy for them, for example). As we have transitioned into the online world, most people ‘use’ a platform or service (I am an Amazon user or an Uber user or even an Apple user), so ‘user’ might well be the most applicable term. Having said that, a Bournvita user still sounds strange… a rose by any other name, I suppose!”

Several other thought leaders from the media industry shared their views on this fascinating lexical subject; see the full discussion here. All quotes have been reproduced from LinkedIn comments.