Andrew Lewis on why we still need big ideas in the age of personalisation

It could be successfully argued that the greatest science fiction films of our time all share a common, scary ability to accurately predict consumer behaviour and marketing trends. From CCTV to Skype, headphones to driverless cars, all were foreshadowed by the dark, geeky arts of sci-fi writing. In fact, a company in California has just started selling hoverboards, like those seen in Back to the Future 2. Which is doubly accurate as a prediction, because the year Marty McFly travels to in the future was 2015. 

But one of my favourite predictions is that of Minority Report around personalised communication. There’s a great scene where our protagonist John Anderton walks through a mall being bombarded with ads communicating directly with him. “Hey John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right about now”, “Get away John Anderton, forget your worries”, “John Anderton, take the road less travelled with Lexus”. They implore, their voices cutting over each other in a disconcerting babble.

This is a great characterisation of where marketing communication is going currently under the data-driven marketing paradigm. Enabled by technology, marketers are now able to effectively communicate directly with individuals in a very tailored way. We now have the ability to know what each customer buys, what they browse, the web pages the visit, where they are and who they are in very specific detail. And that allows us to be much better at talking with them in a way that actually has individual meaning and relevance. A great example of this is Macy’s in the US, which uses data on customers collected via its loyalty programme to develop over 500,000 different versions of its quarterly catalogue, each focusing on different aspects of its range and tailored content, depending on what the customer has shown an interest in via their shopping activities.

All of which is great stuff, right? By giving people more tailored interaction, we enhance relationships, improve product and service offerings and drive better business outcomes. Both the consumer and the business win, and marketing does what it’s meant to do by creating a mutually beneficial value exchange. 

But while data-driven marketing definitely helps businesses tailor the delivery of communications, offers and experience, there is something very concentric in this 1:1 thinking that’s worth considering in how we weight marketing activity towards this space. 

With this model, we take a customer who has a relationship with a brand and we refine and refine our offer to them to make incremental gains in the returns we generate from them. And while we improve their individual experience of us, there lies a nagging wider question that marketing needs to bear in mind, as to how the customer arrived at our door in the first place—and how we keep more of them coming.

There is now a huge, undeniable body of empirical evidence to support the notion that much of a brand’s success in being chosen in the first place comes down to the salience that brands create in the market; that difficult to define sense of ‘bigness’ and ‘rightness’ about a brand. The feeling that the brand really owns the core category attributes people are looking for, and that it can project this using clear and distinctive brand assets. If you look at the evidence gathered by leading marketing academics Andrew Ehrenberg and Byron Sharp over a huge amount of very robust studies, it is this distinctive bigness that ultimately creates brand success.

And herein lies the big question: how do you create this sense of salience in a brand via a data-driven marketing route? Yes, we can effectively target current users with increasingly tailored messaging, but can you build that sense of bigness and rightness for the world more generally? 

Probably not, at least not efficiently and effectively. For brands to truly achieve the sort of universal understanding and category connectedness of a Nike or an Apple, we still need a big, shared idea to connect with. We, as humans, respond well to stories and narratives as a way of imparting information. In fact, it’s the foundation of how we learn and how our cognitive processes work to store facts.  And we are also herd animals so we respond to shared narratives and ideas best of all. We want to know we are making choices that align with those of others who we want to be like.

And this is where data-driven marketing falls a little short, and where the massive pendulum swing of modern marketing away from brand building has potential to create problems for business. It has a massive role to play in refining the execution of an idea for a specific individual, but it shouldn’t be thought of as a replacement for the development of story; of the shared understanding of a brand. 
Interestingly, the current notion is to think mass marketing devices, such as the ‘big brand campaign’, as a sort of anachronism from the age where we simply weren’t smart enough to communicate directly with people individually. But they probably delivered us much more than that. There lies, in their vast reach and ubiquity, the creation of a shared understanding of story that may well have delivered brands more than we ever knew.

The question we should be considering is how we recreate some of this for our more fractured digital age.

  • This story was originally published in the July/August edition of NZ Marketing.    
  • Andrew Lewis is managing director of TRA. [email protected]

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