It has been said that marketing is dead.

Let us be perfectly clear: that is patently false. That very statement is, after all, just another form of marketing, a form of manipulation, the kind of provocative, over-the-top claim designed specifically to attract clicks and drive SEO traffic (which, by the way, has also been declared dead). It is certainly true that traditional marketing techniques — including advertising, public relations, branding and corporate communications — are experiencing a steep decline in efficacy. But that’s hardly news. People have been declaring print media dead for decades, with syndicated television and radio soon to follow. But even these mediums for advertising compose but a small part of what marketing entails. The bombastic claim that “marketing is dead” is, in itself, pure marketing.

It is a ploy.

In the world of marketing, ploys work – to a limited extent. Unfortunately, when it comes to consumers of the modern era, that limit was reached long ago. People simply aren’t paying attention anymore to ploys. Audiences have developed the ability to see through the doublespeak traditionally employed to garner their limited attention. They have evolved a resistance to traditional means of disruptive marketing.

Consider the current paradigm prevalent in the marketing sphere: companies expend enormous financial resources on advertising campaigns in an effort to inform consumer behavior. But why should consumers listen? In a low-trust world, traditional means of advertising simply do not, cannot stick. They lack credibility, and without credibility, they lack the power to inform consumer choice.

The problem here is trust.

The solution is people.

Trust In A Low-Trust World, Loyalty In A Disloyal World

Atul Gawande’s recent New Yorker article on the spread of ideas, Slow Ideas, explores the social mechanics behind what helps great ideas spread. One of his key findings suggests that simply creating a strong idea, a superior product, a slick presentation does little to speed actual adoption. Rather, the key facilitator of adoption is quite simply: other people. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote the great scholar Everett Rogers.

Of course, mass media can introduce people to new ideas, new products, and new ways of living. But, as Rogers posited, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they make decisions. Gawande goes on to write, “Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.” In other words, like any healthy social relationship, the relationship between a brand and a consumer must start from a datum of mutual trust.

People could care less about what marketers have to say. After all, marketers have interests that don’t necessarily align with theirs. Marketers can’t be trusted. But if someone they do trust, someone they know and care about recommends a product, they would be inclined to check it out. Furthermore, by making a recommendation, the recommender puts his reputations on the line. A Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey found that 90% of consumers trusted the recommendation of friends.

As an individual within the consumer’s personal sphere of influence, a friend is credible in a way that no slick, well-executed marketing campaign could ever hope to be from the outside. They are the coveted and elusive brand advocates, the holy grails of brand loyalty sought by marketers (and the companies that pay them). Customers are good. Repeat customers are better. But what you really want are customers who not only come back time and time again for more, but encourage others to do the same. These are the customers who have bought in literally and figuratively, and they willingly share a brand with their friends and family. And, they do it for free.

Unfortunately, today’s consumers, particularly young consumers, are notoriously disloyal and prone to jumping ship in search of greener pastures and better value. Forum Corporation reports that up to 40 percent of the customers in its study who claimed to be satisfied switched suppliers without hesitation (Stum, D.,and Thirty, A. “Building Customer Loyalty.” Training And Development Journal, Apr. 1991, pg. 34.). Clearly there is a massive deficit in customer loyalty currently affecting the marketplace.

Building Fandom, Building Trust

In such a low-trust environment, how might a business go about establishing not only a customer base, but a base of repeat customers and, more importantly, brand advocates?

First, by engaging and empowering the customer base, and helping them navigate the Consumer Decision Journey along the way. If the key to successful dissemination of an idea is peer to peer communication, then the heart of marketing success is relational. More specifically, the relationship between brand and customer must be more than just transactional. Consumers don’t want to be just another target statistic, just another market segment. Heck, no one wants to be just another number in line, another cog in the grinding machinery of global capitalism. Countering this all too common narrative of grinding capitalism with one that consumers can actually believe in and get behind, is absolutely critical for success in any venture.

Take a look at the world’s most admired companies in recent times. Chances are, the old-school blue chip stock favorites, like GE or Ford, aren’t topping that list. Don’t get me wrong, GE and Ford are, and will remain, ridiculously profitable. But the real success stories are the ones that have emerged from the internet revolution, the true scions of our age, and more importantly, often have a fanatical fan following. It is no accident that tech companies are more trusted in general than any other market sector, and that the three businesses that top the list include Apple, Google, and Amazon are tech firms.

Companies such as Apple have built stunning success on delivering not just an excellent product, but also weaving a compelling narrative through unique design as well as through front line pioneering. Apple’s “geniuses” employed in their specially-designed stores across the world are no more than loyal, Apple advocates who are given the chance give sincere, trustworthy advice to other customers. After all, Apple isn’t just another tech company, it is the pursuit of product perfection.

Likewise, Amazon isn’t just “a website that sells stuff at a good price”. Rather, Amazon’s mission statement is simply to be Earth’s most customer centric company. More importantly, they follow through with hassle-free returns and an almost neurotic attention to customer trust-building measures such as personalized buying suggestions.

Google, approaches trust-building by first building staff loyalty. The tech giant, often named the best place in America to work, is legendary for the benefits they lavish on their employees. After all, happy, empowered employees are very much loyal advocates in and of themselves.

Other firms that topped the list include Southwest, known for their renowned friendliness, happy employees, and a mission statement that has nothing to do with airplanes, but everything to do with freedom.

These companies don’t simply enact customer loyalty programs and then sit and wait. Rather, these companies constantly innovate salient ways of keeping the customer engaged in every conceivable way, all in the pursuit of credibility. As their balance sheets can attest, that pursuit has paid off in spades.

Welcome to the new age. The old ways of marketing have died, and good riddance. With the passing of gimmicky marketing ploys, companies can get back to creating real value and giving customers real social capital. In fact, marketing is not really dead – it has been made more alive and potent than ever. With the rise of the internet, businesses both large and small are now being held accountable for the marketing content they produce and the messages contained there within. With so many customers ready to tune out or switch to the competition at the click of a button, that message had better be worth something. Loyalty, after all, must be earned.