In one sense, personalisation represents a simple continuation of marketing’s age-old quest to get closer to the needs of the customer.
Branding, segmentation, line extensions and the menu-based selections of restaurants and supermarkets are just some of the ways marketers have brought their offerings closer to individuals’ needs. Direct marketing is one way of personalising marketing communications.
But in another sense, real personalisation, which depends on an individual being able to say ‘I like it like that’, represents a fundamental discontinuity with profound implications for marketing.
Back in the mists of time, when marketing was first being invented (and the telephone was a revolutionary new device), there was no efficient, effective way for individuals to say to companies: ‘Here I am, this is what I want’.
The entire edifice of marketing as we know it was constructed around this information void: market research to find out what customers want, top-down advertising to create a connection between buyer and seller, and so on.
Today, as interactive digital technologies mature and people get used to using them, that void is finally being filled. A rising tide of rich ‘here I am, this is what I want’ information from individuals increasingly supplements, complements, clashes with or replaces traditional top-down ‘here we are, this is what we have to offer’ messaging, thereby forcing a rethink of the role and effectiveness of the tools and techniques of marketing.
At the same time, ‘add sugar to taste’ personalisation, which focuses on tweaking individual product attributes, can only go so far. The very terms ‘personalisation’ and ‘customisation’ assume we start with a standard offering and then do something extra to it, like taking an off-the-peg garment and adjusting it to fit.
By definition, this involves extra activity and cost. In contrast, companies such as Dell are showing how the modern equivalent of tailoring (using personal information as a starting point) can transform the economics of entire industries.
But there’s more. The leap from choice to specification does not just reverse the flow of marketing from ‘top-down’ to ‘bottom-up’. It also shifts the spotlight from the attributes of the product to the attributes of the individual; from organising an array of different individuals around the same offering to organising the right array of different offerings around the same individual – adding value in ways that couldn’t be offered before.
Thus, in a new book out this month, Shoshana Zuboff and Jim Maxmin point to the rise of a ‘Support Economy’, where professional consumer ‘advocates’ elicit and process ‘here I am, this is what I want’ information and select, configure and integrate products and services accordingly, on consumers’ behalf: where the marketer becomes the consumer’s, rather than the seller’s, agent.
This sort of personalisation cuts across traditional market, corporate and industrial boundaries. It demands different types of relationship, higher levels of trust and different business models. So don’t hold your breath.
But, if marketing is really about getting closer to consumers’ needs, it’s an obvious next step.
Alan Mitchell’s new book, The New Bottom Line, will be published next month by Capstone, priced at £20