The paradox of marketing personalisation (a long post)

A lot’s already been said about personalisation in marketing.  To be honest, despite all the talk, I’ve so far seen very little of any marketing that’s truly personal, relevant, useful and interests me on a personal level.  But it’s clear as an industry that’s where we’re headed so we need to be prepared for it.

But what strikes me about the current discourse, is that it doesn’t feel properly thought through.  It’s as if, because it’s possible, we should just go ahead and do it and think about the objective later.  And what if, the outcomes don’t meet expectations or even worse, personalisation is having the opposite effect and leaving people feeling isolated, driving even more distance between people and brands?  I think that’s worth exploring.

Before the digital era, mass marketing was quite unsympathetic to the individual.  Audiences were lumped together and traded as commodities through blunt broadcast media.  Everyone was largely the same, distinguished mainly by age, gender and income. But digital media should now allow us to identify and empathise with the real people, the real individuals that actually buy our products.  The algorithmic systems, artificial intelligence and programmatic ad technologies that can fire laser-targeted messaging missiles at individual customers are pretty powerful weapons.

But ‘with great power’ as Uncle Ben once famously said to his future superhero nephew, ‘comes great responsibility’.

The ‘great responsibility’ for marketing is to stay true to Ted Levitt’s maxim that marketing ‘is an integrated effort to discover, create, arouse and satisfy customer needs’.

The real danger we face today is in wielding the power of personalisation to satisfy the needs of marketing, and not the customer’s.  And the damage has already begun to show.  The personalisation paradox is upon us.

Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori is often credited with coining the term ‘Uncanny Valley’ in the 1970s.  It describes the revulsion people feel when they experience robots behaving almost, but not exactly, like humans.

In marketing, this happens when digital experiences present a likeness to our needs and wants that’s somewhere between being too close and not quite close enough to what we already know about ourselves. When we know we’re being targeted personally but the content or the data that feeds it doesn’t match our understanding of ourselves, the uncanny emerges.

We’ve reached the point people are now quite literally taking out restraining orders against marketers in the form of ad blockers. It’s really no wonder 99% of consumers don’t trust advertisers with their data[1]. These warning signals are all completely of our own making.

Is there a possibility that personalised marketing’s clinical, reflective and intimate delivery leaving people feeling cold and alienated is creating a relatively less human and therefore less personal form of connection?

This is the personalisation paradox: personalisation that fails to arouse and satisfy the human condition, which as a result becomes even more impersonal.

As Levitt said, marketing needs to start with the human.  Humans are irrational, social creatures carried by emotions and feelings that need to be understood, aroused and satisfied. Too many examples in this new era of personalisation are self-serving to marketing, not the needs of the human.

OK, with more data and more time, personalised marketing and people will eventually learn to get along.  But this is a simplistic, convenient notion.  Instead, personalised marketing must overcome neglect for the human condition by using marketing in a much more, well, human fashion that matches our understanding of ourselves.  How can personalised marketing avoid the the pitfalls of becoming impersonal and dehumanising and actually gratify our most human motives?

Connecting the individual to social contexts

Personalised marketing’s foundations are built upon the belief that we are independent, conscious decision-making creatures.  This belief that the individual has primary agency of behaviour is what Mark Earls calls ‘the illusion of I’[2].  The truth is that we are social animals influenced by the tribes we move in.

Marketing, whether personal or otherwise should be effective in the social contexts we live in and interact with. We have evolved to develop complex social behaviours and we are endowed with a social brain that understands, empathises and mimics other humans.  Feeling connected to and being influenced by others is an inherently human condition.  We are an ultra-social species for whom other people are the most important part of our environment.  Earls also says that consumption is also a social act.  What we buy and consume is influenced mostly by what other people do and think.  This idea has served marketing well.  Brand logos tend to face outwards for a reason and as proven by Binet & Field, Fame, or people talking to each about your brand, is a key principal of marketing effectiveness [3] .

So can personalised marketing reconcile with the hard-wired social identities of the ‘we-species’?

Yes, by personalising connections to others.

Data from activity on social platforms can provide insights into our interests, social circle, life events, family members, where we eat or hang out, (when and who with) and much more about our social lives.  There are obvious opportunities to target within these contexts.  For example targeting new mothers identified through their social footprint with baby products is an obvious easy, zero-wastage win for marketers.  But this misses a much bigger opportunity to connect the individual to other people or to a more human, social context.

Facebook data suggests that new mothers are most active between the hours of 04.00 and 07.00 as they nurse their restless babies at unsociable hours through the night.  But rather than simply serve product messaging at them at this time (which in itself is implicitly isolating), why not connect these mothers to others who are online at the same time to share their concerns, help and advice?  Brands have the opportunity to use personal data to unite people and create a sense of belonging to benefit the customer and the business.

Nike+ tracks users’ personal running data, creating personal goals to beat and dashboards to track progress.  But crucially, the individual’s performance is benchmarked against the entire Nike+ community and friends identified through the user’s social graph.

Personalised marketing can also have much greater effect if counter-intuitively; we look beyond the individual and apply its benefits in the wider social context to create a collective sense of value and ownership to customers or citizens.

Waze is a good example of scaling individual driving data to offer intelligent real time driving instructions to beat the traffic for everyone, not just the individual driver. The significance of apps such as Waze to marketing goes beyond the opportunistic temptation to sell more stuff to people based upon location.  Waze owns huge amounts of personal data that could improve the way cities and transport infrastructures are built.  Nest is another example of a business that can scale individual behavioural user data to influence local community and government energy policy.

A customer’s personal data could be used by brands willing to step into spaces the state is increasingly struggling to fill by offering solutions to wider social issues.

Leading with emotion and the gratifying the storytelling self

Behavioural targeting and the ability to retarget customers along their purchase journeys has served the marketing industry well.

That’s not to deny all the consumer benefits to behavioural retargeting too (being served relevant, useful messages often with the ability to refine or opt-out), but outside of marketing circles, being chased across the web to ‘buy now’ is often considered at best intrusive and a bit of a nuisance.

More importantly to marketers wishing to overcome the personalisation paradox, persistent cold and clinical ‘buy now’ messaging is not only a wasted opportunity to respond to human emotion beyond interest and action signals, it also fails to satisfy the human desire for storytelling.

Humans make decisions based on feelings, emotions and context.  It’s Kahneman’s System 1 brain that predominantly decides what we spend our money on[4].  New technologies now enable us to read individual human emotion and react to it in real time to offer increased relevance to the customer, specifically deep learning systems and biometric technology.

Deep learning systems are designed to understand the sorts of things computers have traditionally struggled with but humans find easy.  Emotions, facial expressions, language and speech for example are all things that humans process intuitively but can’t really define how (could you explain how you recognise yourself in the mirror?).  Deep learning systems effectively teach themselves the rules their programmers can’t.

In 2015 Google bought DeepMind for $400m to better understand human emotions, speech, language and thoughts and Google’s Deep Dream project is aiming to teach computers to see, understand and appreciate the world the way humans do through image recognition.  Facebook’s DeepFace technology can recognise specific human faces in images around 97% of the time, around the same level as humans.

And natural spoken language is already a prevalent feature of the technology powering Amazon Alexa, Google search, Apple Siri and Baidu’s Duer to assist us in everyday life.

Developments in voice and image recognition is significant for marketing personalisation because we will start to understand more specific, nuanced, conversational, contextual and emotionally driven needs and wants, instead of following people around the web based on historical web browsing behaviour.

To truly understand what customers are feeling or what they want instantly and consensually, perhaps the future is in biometric data.  Biometric data through wearable technology or through personal devices are already being successfully used in other industries from healthcare to gaming.

Mood, location, presence of others, physiological responses, movement, temperature, facial expression – the list of data points and the combination of these data points is endless, opening up real-time activated marketing opportunities that could be based on future behaviour rather than historic.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity to overcome the personalisation paradox in the area of programmatic ad-serving is in rewarding the human thirst for storytelling.  Stories are the way we humans make sense of the world, they provide us with a sense of belonging and help establish our identities. Just like our language instinct, we possess a natural born ‘story drive’ which every culture tends to in order to explain how the world works and to engage emotions. It’s fundamentally in our nature to need and tell stories.

Universally, stories commonly share a theme of a protagonist overcoming a problem or challenge.  What if personalised marketing could make the customer the protagonist in her own brand story?

Programmatic delivery offers marketers the opportunity to tell a personally relevant brand narrative across multiple platforms, devices and touch-points, yet examples of creative programmatically served storytelling are scarce.

Can brands not only play out personalised narrative across time and devices, they could also create stories with multiple protagonists, stories to be pieced together by friends, thereby once again using personalised marketing to better connect to other people in our social environments.

Surprise! Serendipity and discovery feed the human spirit

The human brain is inherently lazy.

We like to follow the path of least resistance to preserve precious energy.  Cognitive decision-making is an energy-sapping endeavour so it’s a good thing that technology is continuously making choices for us.

The way we search, shop and consume is increasingly algorithmically pre-determined by technology that works out what we want often before we do ourselves. Amazon recommendations, Spotify playlists, friends Facebook posts and even your potential Tinder matches have been personally and intelligently calculated based on your previous interactions and behaviours.

Programmatic ad technology, the power of the cloud and ubiquitous access to it, are ensuring the world we experience is ever more relevant to our wants and needs.

But does this increasing control and predictability in our lives come at a price?

Whilst the brain is indeed lazy, it also thrives off surprises.  Surprise is an incredibly addictive drug that when confronted by a pleasant, serendipitous discovery, our brain’s reward pathways fire up.  Surprises also amplify our emotions, so if we’re feeling happy and surprised we feel delighted, creating positive neural associations with the stimulus, or the brand.

Surprise or a new discovery also has the ability to change behaviour.  Surprise introduces us to new information, new ideas and brands that force us reconcile against our existing beliefs and behaviours, creating cognitive dissonance.

Rather than continually reinforcing existing beliefs and predicted behaviours through the algorithms that power our digital experiences, perhaps we should be personalising the surprise to trigger a reappraisal amongst non-buyers.

Which follows onto the marketing case for providing customers with personalised serendipitous experiences.

Of course, identifying hand raisers and audiences most likely to convert makes complete sense in the short-term, but as we know brands grow by extending reach and attracting more people into them.  If our digital experiences are increasingly trapping us in to our personal filter bubbles, the ability for marketers to expand their customer base diminishes.

Algorithmically curated personal recommendations presuppose the machine knows what the customer wants.  But technology also gives control back to people to allow them to curate their own choices like never before.  Pinterest, for example is based entirely upon human curation. And Apple has put its faith in human editors for its new music streaming service and Beats 1 radio station to help people discover new music that computer programs can’t.

Automation of choice has its place.  But serendipity; surprise and discovery feed the human spirit.  Brands that are able to balance the short-term gains from satisfying our immediate and most relevant needs with the desire to challenge our pre-existing beliefs and behaviours will find its way into the lives of existing and new customers.

If this truly is the era of personalisation, then marketing needs to adapt to put the needs of the human before the needs of marketing.  We’re already witnessing the effect of super-charged personalisation that fails to connect on a personal, human level.

To overcome the personalisation paradox we need to recognise customers as humans, as social creatures; driven by emotions with a brain hardwired for stories and surprises.  Only then will marketing discover, create, arouse and satisfy customer needs, which after all, is what marketing’s supposed to do.


[2] Herd, Mark Earls

[3] Marketing in the era of accountability, Binet & Field

[4] Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Marketing as Software: a short ramble

I’ve recently been loosely thinking about what the future of marketing might look like.  It seems that with all the new possibilities at our finger tips, much of the discussion in the industry has been about how innovation can improve advertising as we currently know it – programmatic for tighter targeting and greater efficiency, new delivery mechanisms for richer, native content, or technology to beat the ad blockers so we can still serve our ads the old way.

These ad serving technologies are breathing new life into traditional media channels carrying traditional advertising but it doesn’t feel like we’re making the most of the potential of new technology to improve the value of marketing to both consumers and business.  To paraphrase Henry Ford, we’re just creating faster horses.

Something I’ve been considering is whether marketing will increasingly become more like software.  Marketing will have a role within a wider media ecosystem, will connect us to people, objects and platforms, will be more closely aligned to consumption and will offer greater utility and relevance to consumers than advertising ever could.  Marketing as software will ensure brands are more fully understood and valued not by what they say (through advertising) but by what they actually do for people.

For marketers, this makes complete sense.  Creating meaningful connections with consumers by being useful means more first party data collection, more time spent with the brand and more opportunity to convert to purchase.  For consumers, it provides more opportunity to improve their interactions with the world through the now ubiquitous technologies we possess, chiefly mobile.

So what do I mean by software?  We’re already starting to see increasing interactions between objects and the benefits this provides to the user.  The object itself, for example mobile is the hardware, the network they open up, the interactions and ecosystems that it gives access to is the software.  This is where the value for marketing lies – the connectivity to objects, people and platforms and the experience this creates.  Software are the apps, tools, games and coding that do things for us.  This is what advertising in its current guise struggles at, yet this is what people truly care about.  Advertising provides little utility in a world where information and entertainment is instantly abundant.  Clearly brands are already in the software space when it comes to product development.  Nest, Sonos, finance companies etc. all rely on software for product experiences and service delivery, but I mean marketing as software which isn’t quite the same thing.

Four days in to 2016 and we’ve already seen some great examples of this.  Virgin Active have just created 33 new fitness emojis to help people talk about their new year fitness achievements.  Public Health England have just launched their Sugar Swaps App which enables parents to monitor how much sugar their kids are consuming by scanning bar codes of 75,000 products to reveal the sugar content and suggest alternatives.

The EA Sports Gifferator for Madden NFL 15 is another great example of marketing as software.  During the game, the Gifferator created a stream of GIFs highlights which fans could edit with their own headlines to share with rival fans to taunt them with in real time.  Marketing is providing connectivity, entertainment and utility through a piece of software.

Nike have been doing this for some time through their Nike Plus apps and product ecosystem, giving users a much richer brand experience than through advertising alone and providing Nike first party CRM data with which to build deeper relationships.

One further advantage of marketing as software is that like software, marketing can improve iteratively based on data and live feedback loops, constantly learning and improving in real time to improve the user experience.

Thinking about marketing as software puts the user experience at the heart of marketing, rather than seeing marketing as something we do to people.  It places the brand within the wider ecosystem that people navigate their worlds in.  It creates brand experiences people actually want to have and it provides meaning for consumers based on what brands are doing rather than saying, creating value for people and business alike.

For now I guess this is just a seed of an idea  I’ve not yet given a huge amount of thought to, but perhaps a thought to develop into something more meaningful in 2016.  Maybe.

Oh, and happy new year!



Pressing Restart

It’s been a while since I last blogged.  There’s not a single reason for this, just a collective of stuff I’ll creatively label ‘life’.

Moving from Hong Kong back to London, changing jobs, living somewhere new, travelling to for work, buying a new house and impending fatherhood keeps things relatively busy.

Not only that, I’ve also questioned whether in fact there’s anything left to be said in the marketing industry that hasn’t already been said in the Twitter echo chamber, or whether another voice further muddies what should be embarrassingly simple waters.

But I’m going to sod all that and start again anyway.  I’m lucky enough to be  exposed to some brilliant thinking, ideas and creativity (as well as a lot of frankly rubbish stuff too) that I want to share, consider and build upon without over complicating the way we think about building brands.

It’s difficult to know where to start after such a long time of not writing anything.  But I guess I should just start by starting.

Now the question is as I’ve ‘publicly’ announced my attention to blog more, am I more likely to do it?  Research would suggest not, but as hardly anyone would take any notice if I did anyway I’m not sure it really matters either way.  Read more about that here:

Memories of Christmas Past

‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year’.

Even here in Hong Kong where I’m now living, there’s a very special, tangible feeling at Xmas time unlike no other.

This year, I’ve been observing from afar Xmas advertising from brands in the US and UK.  I have to say, generally I think it’s getting better and better each year, and for me, the outstanding highlights have been Lego, Tesco and John Lewis.


Nothing controversial about those choices, I think most people would agree they’re outstanding pieces of work.  But I’ve been thinking about what makes them great and I think they all have one thing in common.

That’s that they all understand that Xmas is really about memories of Xmas’ past, and these ads all brilliantly tap into the existing memory structures, associations and stories we already have about Xmas.

We make sense of the world around us only through our memories and stories from our past.  It’s how we know who we are when we wake up in the morning and how we know what brand to choose from in what would otherwise be an utterly confusing supermarket (actually my first few experiences of Hong Kong supermarkets were a bit like this, like having brand amnesia from not knowing anything about the products on shelf!).

As Daniel Kahneman has written, we have two selves.  The remembering, storytelling self and the experiencing self.  The remembering self maintains the story of our lives, while the experiencing self who lives, feels and knows the present.

But what he also suggests is that the remembering self is the one that holds sway over us. The remembering, storytelling self actually makes future decisions for us, not the experiencing self.  We even think of our future as anticipated memories.

So what these ads have in common, whether it’s a father building dreams together with his son made of Lego bricks, or reminiscing of Xmas’ past with the family through the generations or a throwback to animated Disney classics, they  all appeal to the memories and stories that define who we are and what we understand Xmas to be all about.  We all have stories similar to these, and when we see them played out in front of us, we’re reinforcing those happy memories and encoding new ones with these brands forming new associations with them.

So when it comes to decision making about where to shop or what to buy, when our remembering self cranks up into decision-making mode, it will call upon the strongest; most salient memories forged in out brains and the brands most intrinsically, creatively and emotionally associated with them.

Just as a footnote, Xmas brilliantly demonstrates Kahneman’s theory of the two selves. There’s something very special about Xmas, in that our memories of experience are often much fonder than the experiences themselves! It’s these memories we wish to treasure and the things we do at this time of year are often to form new anticipated memories.  That for me is what makes the new Apple spot so great.  Xmas is all about these memories, and they just really get it.

Irrational Persuasion

Much of marketing is about communicating a brand’s superiority relative to other brands. It makes sense – the reason for building a brand is to make it price inelastic, for people to have the belief that it offers something worth paying more for.  Superiority is a common objective found in briefs and it’s often a metric chased after in tracking reports.

We want people to believe our brand is better than others.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that.  A strong value perception is what makes a brand, well, valuable.

But there’s still a widely held belief in marketing that superiority is a function of rational persuasion.  A simple assumption that if you can convince people with logic why brand x is better than brand y, they won’t dispute the logic and purchase it next time round.

For decades now we’ve known this isn’t the way the human brain decodes (advertising) information.

We know we don’t rationally evaluate every single choice we make.

We know the brain’s System 1 processes and contexts are the driving force behind decision-making

We know most communication is implicit appealing to the emotional, sub-conscious brain

We know that distinctiveness is more effective than product differentiation

And we know that at the end of the day, brands get bought because of mental and physical availability – fame and ease of purchase are what count.

And yet, the industry still tries to convince itself that people sit at home logically evaluating advertising messages.  Inexplicably, so much of marketing is still geared towards providing rational reasons as to why one brand outperforms another with the kind of cognitively processed messaging that our brains try to filter out as much as possible to conserve energy.

There’s no denying great brands start with a great product.  And by all means communicate the product’s core functionality in order to increase saliency- to make the brand mentally available when it’s most needed to be recalled.

Superiority derives from the feeling people have about the brand, the meaning, relevance and ideas they attach to the brand beyond the product’s physical attributes.

Those emotions and memory associations are buried deep inside the brain, they’re not stored in the effortful, slow and calculating working memory part that rational and persuasion based advertising appeals to. And given an opportunity to conserve it’s energy from cognitively processing things it couldn’t care less about, our brains ignore this kind of rationally persuasive stimulus.  

The intangibles, the memory associations and emotions one has towards a brand are the what makes a brand mentally available when it needs to be recalled from deep within our sub-conscious brain.

Effectiveness studies continually show that we best achieve price inelasticity through creating intangible feelings, emotions, meanings, ideas and associations attached to the brand held in people’s minds. Attempting to rationally persuade people of the product’s physical features relative to other brands will at best be quickly forgotten in the over-worked cognitive part of our system 1 brain, or at worst completely ignored.

Thinking in Context, Part 2

Where were we?

Just to recap, in the previous post I was reflecting that context should be given the same attention in our industry as content is undoubtedly receiving (and an excellent recent post by Karen Nelson-Field asks some necessary challenging questions about the effectiveness of social video here).

The power of context to change behaviour is immense.  Brands should be finding ways in which to harness it more effectively.

However, we’re now less able to control message delivery in the way we once were through, for the want of a better term, old school media planning.  We now have less control over the ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ that ensured a message was delivered in a tightly controlled medium.

But new technologies and platforms are allowing us to think less about channels and become more aware of the context of communication; to leverage the contextual opportunities presented for system 1, impulsive behaviour.

Google Now is an intelligent little app that sends contextually relevant information to your mobile dependent on time and location.  For example, the app’s alarm doesn’t just remind you to attend your lunch date.  The time it chimes depends on how far away you are from the restaurant and how much traffic there is on the way, offering alternative directions if necessary.  As Google describe it, ‘The right information at just the right time’.  This perhaps could be great for retailers with time sensitive promotions for example.


But what if we could go further and start to link data sets?  For instance, somebody searching Google for dining tables on their home desktop then gets in their car 10 minutes later.  A Google Now enabled device would recognise this from their geo-location data and serve an offer from Ikea straight to your mobile, with directions of their nearest store and how to get there.

A new context aware mobile platform called Gimbal does link people’s online and mobile behaviours with physical location awareness using geo-fencing technology (there’s a great video about it here).  So we can actually now deliver context aware, personalised, relevant content at precisely the right time.

Let me try and explain further…

My phone might recognise me as a Cappuccino loving Hong Kong resident working in the marketing industry with an interest in 1980’s comedy sci-fi films just from my online behaviour (Searches, cookie data and social activity leave some pretty large digital footprints!).  On my way home from work, my phone’s geo-fencing technology would identify when I’m within 2 minutes of a new Starbucks I’ve not been to before (it knows my regular haunt is Java Java) and sends me a notification of a new coffee blend on the menu and an offer to redeem.  Great, I think.  I’ll try that.  When I get home, the cup has a QR code of a free rental of Back to the Future which by taking a photo of enables me to download the film for free through their promotional tie-in with Netflix.  I download the film with my Facebook log-in, in the process telling my friends in a 5km radius of the new Starbucks about the store and the free film download, driving more footfall.

The opportunity to combine this contextually aware technology with the predictive power of Google Now, the purchase behaviour data of the likes of Amazon or a Taobao and the social behaviour data of Facebook or Weibo, could obviously open up countless new revenue streams for brands.

All of this essentially means new technologies, particularly mobile, are making it easier for brands to identify contexts and leverage their power through physical and mental availability.

The right information at just the right time.

Thinking in Context, Part 1

We hear a lot in our industry about branded content.  It can sometimes be effective. People do sometimes want to watch a brilliantly crafted piece of film from a brand, or a water-cooler moment (I’m thinking Red Bull Stratos here) or other forms of great branded content that makes brands famous.  But content of any sort is only consumed or interacted with if it’s either entertaining, useful or relevant, not because of the popular myth in our industry that ‘people are demanding more from brands’.  It’s simply not true. Marketing is still largely the uninvited guest to the party and as such has to work bloody hard to even get noticed, let alone be demanded to return.

As the industry continues to loudly bang the content drum, one thing we’d do well to remember is the critical importance of context in communication.  And for good reason.

Context drives so much of our decision making, our choice of brands.  It’s in context that communication derives meaning.  Contexts change behaviour.

But context isn’t just a matter of channel selection.  In the traditional communications model, brands could simply plan and control which channels messaging (content) would be received in, almost guaranteeing the ‘who, when and where’ of communication .  But in an increasingly fluid media landscape where brands tell their story across multiple touch-points, the channel is less relevant than the context it’s received in.

And in purchasing scenarios, it’s often our unconscious mind (driven by emotional responses we’re rarely aware of) that makes decisions for us, such as deciding between brands.

Nowhere will you find this more eloquently explained than in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.  In it, he makes the distinction between the two systems of human thought.


‘System 1’ is the kind of intuitive, effort-free thinking we do without realising we’re doing it and drives most decision making in our day to day lives.  For example, just reaching out for the bottle of Evian on the shelf rather than cognitively evaluating each and every bottled water brand on offer.

‘System 2’ is the conscious, effortful decision making that’s laborious and slow.  We’re fully aware we’re doing this kind of thinking, such as solving a complex maths problem.

We’re rarely engaged in System 2 thinking as it expensively drains the brain’s energy mentally and physically – ‘one if its main characteristics is its laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary’.

Impulse purchases or purchases made on ‘autopilot’ are characterised by this.  These types of purchases aren’t made with prior intention or through system 2 processing. They’re made on impulse based on emotions stored about the brand and because of the context of the environment – a gentle nudge at the till, the weather outside or what other people next you at the table have ordered.

People’s behaviours are often modified by what’s close to them, what’s available – stimuli in the immediate context.  In How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp explains how brands that are easier to buy through mental and physical availability tend to be bought more often by more people.  Although this sounds simplistic, his theory of ‘availability’ suggests that just being thought about at all in a buying situation increases the chance of purchase.

So it’s imperative for brands to identify, understand and leverage the contextual opportunities for system 1; impulsive thinking.

The role of content in all of this is obviously to generate the sort of emotions and salience to make the brand thought about in these buying situations.  It’s importance shouldn’t be undermined.  My argument is more that context is being more overlooked than perhaps it should.
In Part 2, I’ll look more at how brands can apply technology to go about identifying, understanding and leveraging contextual opportunities for System 1; impulsive thinking.

Curios Court

I went for a walk around my neighbourhood today. Just a mundane, time-killing Sunday stroll in-between today’s thunderstorms.

But I noticed things today I hadn’t seen before. I mean, I probably have previously seen the sculpture above the gallery; the juxtaposition of the decrepit 1960’s tenement buildings against the futuristic sky-rises; or the old, faded Curios Court sign above the new Gourmet Burger Union shop. I’d just never actually taken any notice of them until now.


DSCF8466 DSCF8464

But why would anyone if you weren’t actively seeking to find anything out of the ordinary?

Only by being exploring and being curious about the things I’d normally wouldn’t pay any attention to did I notice anything interesting or thought-provoking.

This seems true of planning also. As planners, it’s our job to find something different about the brand, or to look at it from a different perspective to everyone else, to try to make the brand more apparent, tangible and palpable. In other words, to rescue it from a fate worse than being unpopular: being unnoticed.

Most brands happily fade into the background. But disguised by the camouflage of everyday life, we can’t expect people to go out of their way to take any notice. There are frankly more important things to be getting on with.

So only by exploring; being curious; looking for alternative view-points; noticing the extraordinary in the ordinary, can planners and creatives ever possibly hope for people to take any notice of brands that would normally pass them by.

Joan Miro and the art of ‘brand engagement’

I recently attended Art Basel here in Hong Kong.  It was a fantastic show, featuring the very best museum art pieces from past masters to emerging new talent, from right across the globe.  I wish I could have spent an entire day there but I had to make do with just a post-work evening visit.

During my visit, I spent a disproportionate amount of time admiring the work of Miro. I’ve always been a fan of his surrealist paintings but not since I visited the Fundacio Joan Miro in Barcelona some 10 years ago have I seen so many pieces of his brilliantly distinctively Catalonian influenced artwork together in one place.


I love how Miro’s work, and I guess surrealism in general, makes me feel.  It doesn’t appear to have a rational, logical message.  Interpretation is dependent on the receiver.  Looking at some of his work, I feel slightly awkward.  There are splashes of colour, jagged lines, irregular curves, distorted perspectives; it’s as if he’s paradoxically skilfully creating random creative accidents on his canvas.  I also feel a certain warmth though too.  I often don’t know why I like it, I just know I do.

But isn’t that a lot about what creativity is?  Giving life to new creative accidents?  To make people feel something?  With Miro, I don’t know what the logic of his work is a lot of the time, but it captured my imagination to the extent it  made me feel different things.

And so it should be with brands.  We are in the business of making people feel something through creativity.  Yet so often, we lose sight of this clear and simple objective.  Firstly, we obsess over the rational message we think ‘consumers’ (I hate that word, what exactly makes a consumer different to an everyday person?) will remember.  Quite possibly the most seminal paper to ever be written about how advertising actually works makes this case far more powerfully than I’ll attempt to.  Fifty Years of the Wrong Model of TV Advertising by Heath & Feldwick argues that the benefit-led ‘information processing’ model of advertising where we expect people to recite back key messages we hit them over the head with goes against what we understand about human psychology.  Just like with Miro, the ‘message’ is of little importance.  Far more for critical for advertising to be effective is the relationship we create and associations we can forge at a low attention level, powered by feeling rather than thinking.  We all too often forget that the thing people remember is not what you said but how you made them feel.


“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou

Secondly, we all too often believe that engagement is a thing you can build through active participation rather than earn through being genuinely interesting and creative.  I was, for want of a better word, engaged by the work of Miro.  Not because it offered me the chance to interact with it, or because I could share it by clicking somewhere, or because there was some more content for me to find elsewhere.  But because it was brilliant, creative, inspiring work.  The lesson for brands is blindingly obvious so I’ll resist the temptation to labour the point.

However, this week I was not entirely surprised by another digital company getting in a muddle about the effectiveness of another type of engagement, the one that demands people’s time to create some sort of active participation. My only surprise is that it came from Google, who generally know better about these things.

The title alone, ‘The Engagement Project: Connecting with Your Consumer in the Participation Age’ is enough to drive me to write a separate sceptical blog post about it. Anyway, it states that engagement is critical.  With mountains of empirical data, Ehrenberg Bass and Byron Sharp in How Brands Grow would beg to differ.  At the risk of contradicting myself, I’m not saying engagement is not important, but maybe we need to take a step back and redefine what we mean by engagement.  Ehrenberg Bass and Sharp would argue that people don’t have deep, meaningful relationships with brands.  They just need to be salient to be bought.  Which is where creativity plays a huge part.  They need to remembered, and they’re more readily recalled if we create favourable memory paths in the brain which as we know happens more easily if we feel something at an emotional level.  Therefore engagement is important if we’re talking about it in the context of forging associations in the mind to develop a relationship with your brand.  The Google context is the time consuming, deep involvement kind of engagement.

In the Google article, it states ‘brands that will win’ will prioritise engagement over exposure.  This is wrong.  Reach conquers engagement, every time.  Think about it, compare reaching 100 people of which 20% purchase, versus ‘engaging’ 20 people where 50% purchase.  This theory (which they support with zero evidence) of engagement > exposure is again taken apart by Sharp with empirical data in How Brands Grow.

They also say ‘consumers’ want to be invited into the discussion.  Do they (sorry, I mean we) really? When the discussion is about brands, we have to accept that there are very few brands people want to talk about them in their everyday lives.  There are more important and interesting things out there.

Finally, the most concerning recommendation Google make is to turn the reach-driven funnel upside down and prioritise communicating with the 5% of your biggest advocates.  Evidence actually shows that ‘brand loyalty’ is largely a myth.  72% of Coke buyers also buy Pepsi. People are ‘brand promiscuous’.  Brand growth is driven by penetration, by recruiting ever more new brand users in habitual purchase. The truth is, most sales growth comes from light and infrequent purchasers buying into your brand very occasionally or never again.

So what this all comes back to is that original, simple objective of brand communication.  To make people feel something positive towards your brand.  That’s true engagement.  It’s not just about the message or the benefit you want people to play back to you in tracking, it’s not even about the conversations and interactions you have online with the 5% of your hardcore fans.

True engagement is about making people who wouldn’t normally think about you remember you as close to purchase as possible.  By making the memory paths as accessible as possible.  And that’s the hardest part.  Like the work of Miro, it requires creativity, distinctiveness, often courage too, and most of all it means making people remember how you made them feel.