King customer

After years of mass marketing and mass production, marketers are now trying to tempt us with personalisation, by offering multiple versions of basic products or by offering new items altogether. Unfortunately, consumers often find it easier to remain part of the herd. David Benady reports

Marketers, always looking for the next big trend, are coming to believe that the future lies in personalised products, tailored to individual customers’ needs. Whether it is BMW offering thousands of permutations of its vehicles; personal video recorders (PVRs) that tailor TV schedules to viewers’ tastes; or credit card providers allowing people to “set” their own interest rates, giving consumers the ability to create their own products is seen as the future of marketing.

Upmarket motor manufacturers have been offering customisation for decades and, at the top end of the income scale, there is a move to offer “life editors” who edit out the torrent of information and choices consumers face – many top stores, for instance, provide personal shoppers to those rich enough to pay. The quest is now on to bring such services to the masses. Websites, mobile phone companies, holiday operators and clothes manufacturers are all looking for ways to give consumers more power over the products they buy.

Nike makes trainers to order through its Nike ID service, which hit the headlines when one customer asked for his trainers to have the word “sweatshop” stitched on them and the company refused. Adidas has launched a similar customising service and Levi-Strauss ran its own (short-lived) bespoke jeans-tailoring service. The Accucard credit card allows customers to select from many permutations to construct their ideal credit card, with a mix of interest rates, repayment dates and annual fees. Customers can even choose their own card design. Lloyds TSB, More Than and Virgin run similar schemes.

No more imposition

The trend towards personalisation is seen as a response to criticisms that brand owners have attempted to “impose” their identikit products on consumers through hard selling and high-pressure persuasion techniques, homogenising consumer culture in the process. With consumers in the driving seat, marketers argue, people will be able to realise their own personalities through the products they create, an individuality of expression denied to them in the “Fordist” age, where one size fitted all.

But the revolution has got off to a shaky start. Last week, Vodafone announced it was creating Perfect Fit, a new “bespoke” payment method for talk-time, text and additional services, aimed at cutting out the confusion in the market (MW last week). The scheme mimicked rival Orange’s Your Plan service, launched last September, which “was conceived to give customers the ability to customise the plan for their own requirements”, according to Orange.

However, the whole idea has been attacked by a senior marketer from a rival network, who says: “Customers have neither the interest nor the time to think about individual or specialist payment contracts.” And Orange’s results last week showed that in the first quarter of this year, it attracted just 1,000 net additional customers. It seems Your Plan did little to draw people to the Orange network. These plans may be simpler, but they still require considerable input from consumers.

‘I don’t want to be an individual’

Personalisation can even turn customers off. Virtual Music Stores has tried out a system of booths in Sainsbury’s, Tesco and WH Smith stores, where people can burn their favourite tracks on to one CD and print their own sleeve. The trial has met with limited success, according to VMS managing director Adam Turner: in some stores, only about 50 CDs have been burned each week rather than the hundreds that were envisaged. “We have offered a high degree of personalisation, and people find that very interesting, but you have be careful how you approach personalisation. If you say to customers: ‘What do you want?’, they ask for fairly mundane things,” he says.

The booths have now been converted to offer famous chart albums and singles. Turner sees scope in personalising the sleeve notes of chart releases – which are printed out with the CDs – offering customised information about bands and performers. The booths could become a space-saving device for stores, since they won’t have to stock so many CDs on shelves, freeing valuable space for higher-margin DVDs. However, this is a benefit for the retailer rather than the customer.

Another personalised entertainment development which has so far failed to grab the public’s imagination is the personal video recorder. With a disc that can record 20 hours of programming, these promise to note what people watch and automatically record similar programmes and films: if, for instance, someone watches Coronation Street a couple of times, the recorder will then record the soap every time it is on. This can have unexpected consequences, provoking newspaper headlines such as “My video recorder thinks I’m gay”. TiVo, which launched its PVR with much fanfare in the UK in 2000, stopped selling new hardware here earlier this year, and is thought to have sold less than 1 million boxes around the world. BSkyB is to push its own Sky+ PVR later this year, with an &£8m ad campaign through HHCL/Red Cell.

The promoters of Sky+ predict that total sales will have reached 100,000 by August, two years after launch. They say the technology can “change people’s lives” and that TiVo may have failed because its marketers did not emphasise the benefits of PVRs in the right way. But it may be that consumers simply don’t want this level of personalised service. HomeChoice, which offers video on demand, has also met with limited success.

Still, IBM Business Consulting partner Chris Mole says: “Personalisation is already a big thing, but any major trend brings with it a wave of failure.” He attributes the success of websites such as Amazon and Tesco.com to their ability to personalise their offers, making it quicker and easier for people to pick out the things they want from the bombardment of commercial messages. “There are compelling arguments for personalisation – modern consumers have a lot of complexity to manage, but still only have 24 hours in the day. They need people to help them,” he says.

Tailoring the brand

Gary Davies, professor of corporate reputation at Manchester Business School, says personalisation is not new – there was great interest in it in the Seventies and Eighties. He recalls Burton measuring people for bespoke suits by putting them into a cage and poking rods at them to measure their size.

Service providers have come full circle, says Davies, and are going back to personalised service after opting for economies of scale. Burger chain Wendy’s offered a high degree of personalisation, with many different toppings for burgers, but was overtaken by the simpler offer of McDonald’s, which has itself now run into well-publicised difficulties. “Personalisation is partly public relations: if you customise products, customers become less price-sensitive, because they can’t compare prices effectively,” he says.

Personalisation is supposed to offer consumers freedom from the mass-market straitjacket and help them to steer through the cascade of information, cutting out the irrelevancies. But many brand owners are struggling to sell this concept to consumers, who remain unconvinced that it is worth paying more for a customised service. In many cases, perhaps, people prefer being told what to buy, rather than being forced to make too many choices. As Turner says: “We all like to be individuals, but we also like to belong. People want to be different, but they don’t want to seem too far out.”

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