It’s tempting to see people who buy from brands as consumers, and not customers.

Whilst you may argue that these describe the same person, they do not. In fact, the difference between understanding these two is essential for creating a superior user experience.

In this article, I’ll explain this in more detail:

  • what the difference is between a consumer and a customer and why it’s important
  • examples of brands doing this well online
  • one action you can take today

What’s the difference between a consumer and a customer?

Today, the words ‘consumer’ and ‘customer’ are interchangeable. But in 1950, Walt Disney thought otherwise when he opened Disney World in Florida. The park was not designed around funnelling visitors to a gift shop, or to force them to pay per ride. Instead, Walt designed the park and the zones to make the fans of his films feel part of them. He treated visitors as customers, not consumers.

The word ‘consumer’ suggests a person who’ll buy once from a brand: they’ll simply buy and use what you sell then get on with their life. The word ‘consumer’ is transactional, cold and lends itself to single customer journeys with singular purchase goals and funnels.

On the other hand, the word ‘customer’ suggests a 360 view of an individual who has more complex needs. It suggests that the person buying is a person with a pulse, emotions and needs to be nurtured beyond a single purchase. The word ‘customer’ recognises multiple user journeys and a non-linear path to purchase.

Coming from the Latin meaning ‘become accustomed’, the word ‘customer’ means a person who needs time to trust a brand first if they are to buy into you repeatedly.

Why is a customer-first experience important to any business?

The answer is simple: sustained growth. A user experience that lets users explore your brand online, feel delighted and be treated like a customer is central to sustained digital growth strategy.

Walt Disney wanted customers to be part of the Disney experience when he created Disney World. He invested in a user experience that made people come back consistently over many years. An experience that they told their friends and family about.

So, it’s no surprise that Disney accounts for 21% of box office profits globally and the Magic Kingdom is the world’s most attended theme park. All being driven by Walt’s focus on a user experience that creates returning customers, not single-use consumers.

Let’s look at three brands treating people as customers (not consumers) 

1) Etsy

Etsy has a clear target audience: ‘creative people everywhere’. Etsy allows users to explore the site and be inspired by ‘what’s popular’, by category, by collections or by gifts (see Econsultancy's UX review). And it goes out of its way to communicate trust. On the homepage it dedicates space to ‘Trustworthy sellers’, extensive user reviews, world class data security promise and a money-back guarantee on all purchases.

Etsy's values are human and community focused and the site is littered with people-friendly images. The brand goes out of its way to not make users feel like customers.


2) Giffgaff

Giffgaff is a case study in superior user experiences because it’s all about the customer. As soon as you land on the gifffaff community page you are welcomed with friendly copy, that celebrates you as a new community member. An upbeat welcome video starts off with the words “Welcome to the fold, you lovely GiffGaff member you.”


Within the community, members feel rewarded. Phrases like “You lovely lot, our members, constantly help us shape our future and make us a better network” and rewards for best answers to members’ questions make the community personable.

The site layout also has lots of friendly imagery, an equally friendly tone of voice written and sans serif font — all showing a brand thinking of its users as customers (not a mass of consumers needing to be herded like sheep).

3) 5000BC

It’s unlikely that you’ve heard of this small business community site that costs about $200 dollars a year to join. But it’s a special one that justifies a mention. On 5000BC, the user gets extensive 1:1 daily personal Q&As answered four to five times a day by the owner (who is a entrepreneur and owner).

The same owner writes articles every week for the community, free reports, hosts webinars, gives members early access to new products and courses, critiques on sales copy, articles and web design. The main forum is called  ‘The Cave’ and members hold their hands up to become ‘Cave Elves’ to help run the community for free. The community is positioned as a safe place for introverts. Every member, all 600 of them, are treated like customers, not consumers.


Yet, isn’t there a risk in trusted customers?

Isn’t there a risk in not shepherding customers down a guaranteed funnel from the start? Google Analytics and modern, prefabricated digital platforms are trying to teach us otherwise. And, yes, it is true that there is a risk. But only if you don’t put in the work upfront to understand the needs and likely journeys of your customers.

So for designing a superior user experience, it’s about getting the fundamentals right first: start with your customer (not with a cleverly designed funnel).

Walt Disney understood what a superior user experience creates

And so does 5000BC, giifgaff and Etsy. Their user experiences orientate around inspiring customers to come back repeatedly and become advocates. The opposite of a ‘consumer’ based user experience. 

What one thing can you do today?

Think about how you can build a superior user experience that appeals to customers’ personal situations, to their emotions and to their desire to explore online (without forcing them into a funnel). It’s an investment of time and money that will build trust, affiliation and make long term customers.

Why not try Econsultancy's 3-day Mastering Customer Experiences training?

Mark Thomson

Published 26 March, 2018 by Mark Thomson

Mark Thomson is Experience Designer at Yoyo Design.

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Comments (5)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

Re your example of Disneyland. I've been there of course (courtesy of Microsoft who booked it for the evening - thank's guys!), and the set designs are stunning, but it's *totally* about funnelling visitors and forcing them to pay per ride.

As an extreme example of funnelling visitors my most vivid memory was of being literally trapped when the doors to a building all closed and we could only escape by shuffling in line past Minnie Mouse and individually shaking her hand. Would make for the weirdest phobia.

And as for forcing visitors to pay per ride - what do you think the lines are?

I think the best approach to website design is to treat shoppers as shoppers. Help them find what they want quickly, using techniques such as personalization, and keep the experience engaging and fun.

4 months ago


Simon Lamey, Director at Big Apricot Ltd

The point being made Pete is that people go from one funnel (or ride or line) to another in Disneyland. They are free to choose and explore different kingdoms with multiple funnels (or rides) in each one.

TBH, Disneyland could do better to make it quick for them once they get into that funnel (or ride)!

4 months ago

Chris Miles

Chris Miles, Senior Manager - Digital at British Telecommunications plcEnterprise

Mark, a good piece. I'm already a big advocate of the sentiments you're arguing here, but the struggle I encounter on a daily basis [as the owner of a digital service strategy, which cannot so easily be defined by a funnel] is convincing senior stakeholders that have deep-rooted obsessions with the bottom-line - a view that often leads to short-termism and a stunted CX - that thinking just one step further, by building brand advocates and loyalty, we will ultimately see customer lifetime value go up and with it, our revenue. Any thoughts on this struggle?!

4 months ago

Mark Thomson

Mark Thomson, Experience Designer at Yoyo Design Ltd.

Yep, you're right, it's not easy. Every business is different.

The most compelling research was done by the IPA (called The Long & The Short Of It) which showed that an investment in brand should be weighted 40% on short-term measures. If the balance is tipped the other way, then brands aren't built and it's harder for brands to justify a price premium. Helping stakeholders feel part of this balancing act is key to helping CX in the other 60% - the big ideas. Framing CX in relation to concerns stakeholders are already convinced of such as increasing revenue, decreasing costs etc, is what I find is key.

4 months ago

Chris Miles

Chris Miles, Senior Manager - Digital at British Telecommunications plcEnterprise

Thanks Mark - I'll try and get my hands on that paper, great to have a stick [like that weighting] when the carrot isn't working!

4 months ago

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