Personalization, the holy grail of marketing! Your masterful command of data helps you know each individual, understand their traits and see that they are in-market for your product. So, you deliver the perfect creative, that right message, to that right person, at that right time—or so the modern marketing moniker would have you believe.

It’s the perfect pitch. Perfect because it’s never realized and so provides cover to sell increasingly sophisticated data products, handily making up for plummeting CPMs. That’s great if you’re selling the latest ad tech, but if you’re a brand it’s a trap that could cost you dearly.

Endless Data Mining Is a Trap: A Keynesian Marketing Task That Never Ends

Marketers preaching the value and efficacy of personalization are either misinformed or being deceitful. Personalization in marketing is a myth, and frankly, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.

Let’s break down the situation – 

1. You’re able to identify active in-market prospects for your brand
2. Those prospects know everything there is to know about your brand
3. By serving them this “right” message, you’ll convince them right there and then that they must have your product and immediately close the purchase gap
4. You now have a customer for life, and they will share their joy with everyone they know, expanding your prospecting pool immediately

Brands Are Forgetting the Role of Branding

Byron Sharp got it right—loyalty is a myth, and the subsequent marketing model focused on scaling your message was a smart approach to driving growth. But, what Mr. Sharp didn’t really dig into was the role of developing your brand. McDonald’s didn’t win simply because it had the largest retail footprint and it delivered the most messages in the media marketplace; it won because of that, plus the clear definition it created for its brand. McDonald’s created a brand focused on speed, value and quality. It was a logistics company before anyone really understood the role of logistics, and its branding reflected the emotional interpretation of that promise.

The reality is that personalization only works when you’ve already established the premise of your brand. If you have 99% market brand awareness, you can afford to integrate personalization into your marketing strategy. People already know who you are and what your purpose is—now they need to see themselves in that promise.

For brands that aren’t that well-established, they need to build that purpose, that credibility. This cannot be done by being something for everyone. A brand must be clear in what it is, and it must understand that it cannot be the solution for everyone—even those who are in-market for its product.

Don’t Forget to Shout

With the advent of data, brands have been very focused on building data-led consumer segments, highly detailed definitions of their prospective buyers that they then, in turn, use as targeting parameters as the foundation of their media plan. Because we know everything about everyone, brands have started to believe that the more granular they can get in their targeting strategies, the more effective their marketing will be.

The reality is just the opposite. Digital is a truly powerful media channel, but let’s not forget that the cheapest way to build reach is still TV, within reason. Yes, the cost of entry into television is high, but it scales much more efficiently than any other medium.

But looking at it another way, the most successful brands of today use mass-reach media vehicles to establish their point of view. Apple wasn’t able to become the most valuable company because they had something for everyone. In fact, just the opposite. They narrowed their product footprint but presented those products as the best in their category, and they used mass-reach vehicles to tell that to the world. Remember the outdoor campaign for iPod featuring the fluorescent silhouetted dancers with their white headphones? Outdoor advertising is the least targeted channel—it’s really just a numbers game. It’s my opinion that Apple built its modern-day brand off that single campaign (though they have had many memorable campaigns).

The point? Apple shouted. It was a wild posting campaign that was literally featured everywhere, all over the globe. You couldn’t miss it. It was the equivalent of the ABSOLUT vodka magazine campaign from the 90s. These brands shouted their message, their value proposition, everywhere. They established who and what they were with anybody that was paying attention.

Get Smart About Data: Command Attention

Attention is the key word. In the 90s and 00s, there was less content. There weren’t as many social platforms. Consumers had more time. It’s 2020, and we cannot slow down the proliferation of content, but we can get smarter about our communication. This is where data should serve as a tool.

Data should be our gateway to understanding attention propensity. How likely is this person to be able to see my ad and potentially digest it, even if it is a fleeting moment? And, as we learn more, what is the scale of that opportunity, knowing that not every impression served, regardless of the screen, will be that opportune moment?

Understanding who people are, how they behave, where they are at any given moment doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to engage with them and convince them to buy our stuff. What it does mean is that we have the availability of another touchpoint along the journey we hope will conclude in their acquisition as a first-time customer.

Personalization Is Really Valuable to Existing Customers

Something not to be overlooked is the role that personalization plays to existing customers. As Netflix subscribers, we like it when they make suggestions for shows we might like based on our viewing behavior. Spotify built its leadership on the fact that it could create unbelievable, customized playlists based on your listening behavior. And let’s not forget Amazon, the ultimate personalization brand: “Customers who shopped for this thing often shopped for this other thing.”

Personalization does matter, and it is truly a success-making market differentiator, but all of these examples are relevant once you are already a customer. Netflix had to get you to watch something before it could recommend something new. Spotify needs almost an entire month of listening before it can tune a personalized playlist. And with Amazon, you become a “customer” the second you search for something on their platform.

So, What’s Next?

Over time, we will get smarter about how we deliver our messages, but that will never detract from the responsibility we have to assert our brand purpose broadly. For now, it’s important that brands understand the balance between their message and the data that’s available to them and learn to maximize the value of both pertaining to their objectives. Marketing is a game of trade-offs, and today’s depth in data simply allows us to make those trade-off decisions from a more informed vantage point.

— Scott Marsden

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