Middleman Marketing & the Ukraine Trend

I booked an Airbnb in Ukraine yesterday. The host was so grateful, she began to communicate with me. She is a single mom who has rented out two rooms in her home. In my fantasy, I can support her more in the coming weeks via my friends and associates, and five years from now, she and I will share a meal and talk about these terrible times in which we live.

As I watch the situation in Ukraine unfold, I can’t help but think of my theory on the death of the middleman.


The middleman. (This is the first time I haven’t wanted to trade the word man for woman.) Historically, in my opinion, the middleman had a place in sales because getting the pitch for a product or service to customers was a difficult journey. The middleman did that job. The seller used the middleman to get the pitch out, and we were willing to pay for it.


PP (as I refer to the post-pandemic period) has changed that. Actually, it started earlier, but I think the new COVID-centric world has turned trends into megatrends. A trend is something that comes and goes, like the Hula-Hoop. A megatrend is something that changes the way we live our lives. Birth control was a megatrend. Upon its invention, people could have sex without fear of becoming pregnant, and they began marrying later in life. Women started demanding control of more things, including the ability to have a credit card in their own name, and even a mortgage.


Once we were all locked down, we spent a considerable amount of time going direct. Everything became direct to purchase, from shirts to chocolate, we bought directly from each vendor.


Influencers have also contributed to the demise of the middleman. They tout products, one at a time, and the click to purchase is for that one product, generally sold by the original manufacturer. Many of these recommended products are made by women entrepreneurs (hooray!), who no longer need to beg Bloomies to carry their products and fret over Bloomies’ net 90 payment policy. And there will be no return of incidents like that experienced by Kwigy-Bo dog carriers, which failed to sell at Kmart after the national chain put them so far on the bottom shelf that no one saw them. It almost did the company in.


The “An educated consumer is our best customer” 1980s ad campaign by Sy Syms (who sold discounted clothing) was nothing compared to today's consumers, who can locate the products that best meet their needs, reviews of those products, and the least expensive way to buy them, all with fewer clicks than commas in this sentence. Amazing.


In the past, we all donated to organizations that serve communities in crisis, and we still do. But there is a new player emerging, one that I believe over time will replace many of those organizations. As a former vice president of the United Way of Tri-State Inc. in the mid-1970s, I can tell you that this might be a good thing — no, a great thing.


Back to Airbnb. They have waived their fees in Ukraine. You can visit their website to rent a room/house/apartment in Ukraine and send a note to the host that you will not be using the rental space, but simply want them to have the income, and voilà, that person/family will instantly receive payment for the rental. Maybe the host is in Poland or a neighboring country now and can really use the money. Something I think is compelling is that because you can read about the host and how they have done their Airbnb lodging, as well as the comments and recommendations past customers of theirs have written, you can get an idea of whether or not you want to help that particular host.


It’s a win-win situation. It’s a win for Airbnb, who is using their brand for good (at least in this instance), and the goodwill they are generating will help them everywhere. It’s also a win for those wanting to give money to Ukrainians, but who also want to know where exactly their money is going and that 20% of it isn’t going toward administrative costs. Perhaps most importantly, there exists the ability for the giver and the receiver to see each other’s face, which personalizes the transaction. Personalization is very, very good in today's selling marketplace. People do not buy from companies; they buy from people.


Companies are now doing more than just donating money. Google shut down their live traffic data feature in Ukraine. Sorry Russian tanks, you will have to find another way to get where you are going. Yelp’s comments section has enabled people to communicate with their friends and family members about their current location, and because there are so many comments to sift through, there is no way Russia can track each comment in real time. MasterCard, VISA, American Express shut down their services as well. God, I love this ingenuity! The president of IBM has a forum in which employees can ask him questions. That forum has been clogged this week, with individual employees demanding an explanation as to why IBM is not halting their sales in Russia, the way Apple did.


All this adds up to something Blue Shoe has touted for awhile. People do not just buy your goods and services; they are loyal customers when you behave in a way that mirrors their own core value system. Corporations have to start behaving this way. (Yes, we can hope that it is all about doing what's right, but I think that ship has sailed. Corporations are always weighing customer approval, which is no longer just a recommendation about their product, but also about how they behave.)


The bottom line is that we, on an individual level, can do things today, that we didn’t have the ability to do in the past to participate on a personal level. I believe this will become a game changer for how marketers approach the future.


--Christine Merser, Managing Partner, Blue Shoe Content