Are we personalising brands to death? | M&M Global

Are we personalising brands to death?

By obsessing over creating increasingly tailored experiences for consumers, are we overlooking people’s basic need to belong, asks J. Walker Smith (pictured below), executive chairman at The Futures Company.

J Walker Smith

We live in turbulent times.

From the constant threat of terrorism pervading countries across the globe and the uncertainty rattling world economies, to concerns over the increasing polarisation of politics and rising societal inequalities, there is a lot to make consumers anxious.

It’s not surprising, then, that people look for comfort in numbers. As many as 10 million people have been chasing Adele tickets. Star Wars: The Force Awakens grossed $238m in a single weekend, and movie fans continue to flock to see it. Meanwhile, music festivals have never been so popular. People want to belong. They crave community. They want to share experiences.

This is, of course, reflected in the unstoppable rise of social media. Facebook, to pick the most obvious example, is essentially a way to share your thoughts and experiences with your group of ‘friends’, which includes people as far-flung as former colleagues and a not insignificant number of passing acquaintances.

Longing for belonging

This longing for belonging seems at odds with the growing trend of personalisation. Contemporary marketing strategies are all about zeroing in on the individual. The promise we see in Big Data and the uses we make of programmatic advertising are to deliver highly individualised, highly personalised, singularly crafted offers and messages to distinct individuals – every person gets something unique, something tailored to him or her.

We all want to feel special. We reward brands that care about us personally as individuals by tailoring their products and services to suit just us. In fact, personalisation has become the watchword for building loyalty. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong this, and we celebrate customisation these days because we finally have the tools to really do it.

But in this race to create the most personalised, bespoke experience, do we overlook, at our peril, consumers’ – and that includes you and me – need to belong?

Renowned American music industry analyst and critic, Bob Lefsetz, certainly thinks so. With tens of thousands of subscribers to his newsletter, The Lefsetz Letter, he himself is proof of people’s desire to follow what others do.

“Of course we want to dig down deep into our personal interests, but don’t confuse that with what we desire to consume as a community,” he warns. “Everybody wants to go where everybody else does.”

Individuality and community

But before you go off to terminate your personalisation strategy, just wait a second. Don’t drop it. Just realise that it’s not all there is.

Consumers are in a tug of war between individuality and community. In our contemporary marketplace offering too little community and focusing too much on dissociated hyper-individuality leaves people longing for belonging even more.

The answer is not to dump personalisation, but to remember that even steeped in uniqueness people still want to belong. People are searching for ways to attach themselves to something. They want it for reassurance. They want it because belonging is a matter of identity.

“What’s the answer? Let’s call it the ‘Big Tent’ – building a franchise that is expansive, not exclusive”

The kind of belonging people want is connection with an overarching, shared narrative of meaning. In a marketing context, that means a platform shared with others that operates as an integrated ecosystem tied together by an overarching story. It is, within this that people can embed their individual identity. This is what marketing should be chasing.

What’s the answer? Let’s call it the ‘Big Tent’ – building a franchise that is expansive, not exclusive. Essentially, gathering everyone together under the same roof. Remember that, first, people want to indulge their individual identities, but in doing so they don’t want to lose connection with a broader body of belonging. Big Tent is not one size fits all. Rather, it is the 21st century challenge of fashioning unity from division.

Unilever achieved this with Dove Real Beauty – diversity in all its glory, unified by the Big Tent of ‘real’ beauty. Airbnb positions itself in this way, too, with its Big Tent brand concept of ‘Belong Anywhere.’

The big story matters

The key idea is that the big story matters as much as the focused story. Big Data and the digital tools of one-to-one customisation work better under the Big Tent. This is the avenue for growth in a weak macroeconomy riven by volatility and spiked with divisiveness and mistrust.

The imperative of the Big Tent is seen in the data, too. There is a fundamental law of brand size: big brands have markedly larger customer bases, according to Bryon Sharp, director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute at the University of South Australia, in his book How Brands Grow. The fundamental requirement for growth is an inclusive Big Tent appeal that can bring together as many people as possible.

Indeed, what Sharp finds is basic math. Category dominance, not to mention, brand survival requires more than can be added up in a small niche. Sharp reminds us a true niche brand is a rare bird, when he says: “There are far fewer niche brands than people expect, and they are far less niche than we think.”

Successful brands offer a narrative of meaning that is expansive, not exclusive. They bring together people with a diversity of identities under a Big Tent that enables everybody to belong.

In a world where the traditional narratives of inclusion and togetherness have lost allegiance and devotion, there is a big opportunity for brands to step in and step up.

J. Walker Smith

Executive chairman, Kantar Futures

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