Jed Hallam

Why marketers need to embrace brand elasticity in the era of personalisation

A few colleagues and I entered the WARC / AdMap 2016 Essay competition this year. We didn’t win, but we did get shortlisted, so that’s something, I suppose. The question was “How should marketing adapt to the era of personalisation?”, and I was lucky enough to work with two proper brains; Ruth Zohrer (our head of programmatic marketing), Jeremy Pounder (our head of media futures). Our entry was below.

The era of personalisation represents an opportunity for marketers to return to the roots of marketing – to rediscover what it means to connect the right product to the right person, and to rescue the broken relationship between both parties.  In a world where technology demands new approaches to product, price, promotion and placement, delivering successfully in this new paradigm will require that we develop ‘brand elasticity’ – a brand’s ability to have a clearly defined core meaning while flexing its interpretation in different circumstances for different people.

The past ten years have seen an explosive growth in marketing technologies. One need only look at the marketing technology landscape year-on-year to realize how many new players are entering the space[1]. This trend exemplifies the increasing desire of marketers to be more advanced, to be “fitter, happier, more productive” (to steal a phrase from Radiohead).

Yet technology has become a double-edge sword.  On the one hand it is seen as the solution to a gamut of issues that face the modern marketer – ad blocking, cookie clearing, skipping and ignoring content – yet in many instances, it is precisely this poor application of technology that has caused them. By the same token, consumers are now armed with just as much technology as the marketer, and similarly, technology is seen as the solution to a gamut of issues they face, such as preserving privacy and enforcing anonymity.  Marketing sometime feels like a battlefield.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

If we go back to the roots of marketing, its core purpose has always been about connecting the right consumer to the right product.  Applying Jerome McCarthy’s 4 Ps framework: to produce a product or service that consumers will want, to price it at a level that corresponds to its perceived value, to promote it amongst consumers who will have a use or need for it, and to place it where it is easily accessible to those groups of pre-qualified people.

The first half of the twentieth century started to fray the edges of that definition through mass distribution of products, with little differentiation, at roughly similar prices. The boom in mass media platforms from the late 1960s, coupled with a change in consumption habits – less connected with utilitarian needs, and more to do with status and comfort[2] – meant that ‘broadcast’ advertising, at large groups of people who might be interested in the product or service, was possible.

Promotion, hence, became the defining P in the 4Ps framework leading to a golden era in advertising.  Yet this did not come without a trade-off.  The term ‘media wastage’ was born, and with it we shredded the original definition of marketing.  At its best, marketing became a game of selling an aspiration or an identity… and at its worst, it became a ‘throw enough at the wall and something will stick’ game.

Then came AOL. Then Google. Then YouTube. Then Facebook. And now, through advertising technology we can finally realise our dream of reaching the right person, with the right message, at the right time, and on the right screen. Most importantly, our production capabilities are also catching up.  The advent of 3D printing offers opportunities to not only promote the right product to the right person, with the right message, at the right time and on the right screen, but also to produce something that is much more bespoke and relevant to the consumer[3].  We’ve gone full circle, and we’re now back at a place where we can truly connect the right consumer to the right product, in ways we never before imagined.

Yet while technology has gone full circle, our thinking hasn’t and few are taking advantage or these new opportunities.

We need not despair as there are green shoots of positivity. Personalisation, at its core, gives marketers the opportunity to design or create a product that meets someone’s individual requirements – it is the purest definition of marketing. This exposes an interesting tension. It’s a tension between what the brand wants to collectively ‘mean’ and what an individual consumer’s interpretation of that meaning is.

This presents the modern marketer with a challenge: in a world where your brand could have a myriad of meanings, the risk is that it ends up meaning nothing. We believe that this is where ‘brand elasticity’ becomes a critical part of the marketing toolkit. Brand identity and values need to be clearly defined (if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything), yet there needs to be enough room and understanding for a marketer to accept that their brand’s identity may be open to many interpretations from different cultural groups.  The role of marketing in this new context becomes about constant evolution, and constant redefinition of the edges (based on cultural insights), but never straying too far from the core values of your brand.

So brand elasticity becomes a new measure of the strength of a brand, and its ability to stretch the edges of its values and meaning in order to adapt to different cultural groups. Too much stretch and its meaning warps, too little stretch and it means too little to too few people.

Having the correct balance of brand elasticity affords a brand a clear identity in the marketplace, but allows it to harness different interpretations with different cultural groups, to build relationships and connections, at scale.

It is what separates the HP’s and Lenovo’s of this world from the Apple’s and Google’s. It moves a brand from competing on price and product, to competing on cultural currency and credibility.

Brand elasticity has been a crucial part of many brands for at least half of the last century – what we’re talking about is not new – but as technology enables us to return to the core principles of marketing, it has never been more important for brands and marketers to think about their brand elasticity. The brands that have the best elasticity are likely to be those that see relationships as the goal, rather than share of voice and reach. Those that value their customers, and see them as people, not cookies. Those that truly deliver on the opportunity that personalisation has brought to the table.

For this to become a reality, marketing needs to fundamentally change.

The marketer of the future will need to go beyond demographics and focus groups filled with biscuits and warm beer. They will need to understand behaviours, interests, and reactions. They will need to understand how those behaviours are represented by data points, and how best to bring differing datasets together to create insights. Most importantly, they will understand the commonalities between different segments of people – they won’t be seduced by the overly idealistic idea of one-to-one communication – they’ll find a balance between individuals and segments.

As new technology begins to infiltrate the rest of the marketing toolkit, analytical and technical skills in marketers will become a ‘must have’, rather than a ‘nice to have’.

The increasingly blurred line between Chief Marketing Officers and Chief Information Officers will give rise to CDO – not Digital, but Data. They will be conversant in data management platforms and data flows, but also connected consumer journeys and programmatic advertising.

It will be data (both fast and slow) that will allow us to measure brand elasticity – the days of quarterly trackers will be numbered, as data gives rise to segment-level tracking, allowing brand elasticity to be measured, tested, and refined on a daily, if not hourly basis.

Market making and breaking decisions have never before depended so heavily on the marketer’s ability to understand the convergence of data, content, and technology. Their ability to harmonise data to elucidate multiple truths that inform that broader marketing plan will be the mark of the marketing rising star.

If we are to leverage the opportunities that technology and personalisation bring, the annual marketing plan must become a thing of the past. Its static nature and rigidity will not meet the needs of the marketer in the era of personalisation.

In its place we will need to develop living and breathing marketing systems: a set of parameters (logic-like rules) that will enable complex parts to work together seamlessly, and allow the marketer to learn and adapt constantly as data brings further knowledge. It may sound complicated, but in reality the infrastructure is already in place. Most marketing technology today requires human input into simple systems to create these sets of rules. In some cases this is represented by targeting parameters; in others as basic segmentation information and campaign objectives.

The role of the marketer will be to understand both the short and long term impact of advertising, and the effect that they have on brand elasticity. They will come to put lots of different segments at the heart of their brand, and become masters of systems thinking – ultimately, they’ll become skilled practitioners of unpicking complexity to drive incremental gains, and build stronger relationships with people than ever before. They will become gatekeepers to brands that truly matter.

It’s important to note, however, that technology won’t replace the marketer. A popular misconception is that in the not-so-distant future, marketers’ jobs will be automated, “all looked over by machines of loving grace” as Adam Curtis would put it, but people are nuanced, and meaning comes from understanding culture. If we were to allow machines to run brands, the world would be full of the most efficient brand messaging you could imagine – and that’s exactly how brands degenerate into oblivion, rather than reinvent themselves into perpetuity.

Finally, the marketer’s partners (agencies, technology companies) will need to adapt their roles as well.  Gone are the days when a marketer would provide a brief, leave it to a partner to execute, and come back to it six months later once the campaign had ended to view results. People come into contact with brands 24 hours a day. They’re forming and reforming perceptions, and building and ending relationships constantly. The shape of these partnerships needs to reflect that: marketers, their agencies, and technology providers need to become a unified team, a perfect triumvirate that leverages specialist skillsets at different points of the process.

Considering the core principles of marketing or the 4Ps can help illustrate the above in:

  • Product: For intangible products or services, we can already see the brand elasticity concept in action. For example, financial service products are put together within the parameters of what the brand stands for.  Different customers may be offered different products, all of which will be consistent with the brand’s values.  For physical products this has been more challenging due to production and distribution costs, but we have seen some customisation of fashion (eg Nike ID) within the parameters of the master brand.  In the long term, the prospect of 3D printing may make much greater product personalisation a reality.
  • Price: Marketers will determine pricing parameters for their products that will then be adapted to maximise the likelihood of an individual buying. This has already been a reality for many e-commerce sectors (e.g. hotel rooms, airlines) but we are likely to see it stretch to the real world as ‘smart shelves’ connect individuals in store to CRM databases and deliver personalised pricing, triggered by mobile signals.[4]
  • Place: Core distribution channels will continue to be set by the brand-owner but there will be increasingly flexibility in how and, importantly, where delivery is fulfilled. E-commerce delivery will become more personalised, determining with more precision when and where you want the product delivered. We will also see the rise of aggregators such as Quiqup, which help ensure personalised delivery of items from a range of retailers.[5]
  • Promotion: This has been the core focus of marketing personalisation to-date through the rise of programmatic and data-driven targeting.  The concept of brand elasticity becomes most evident here. The brand owner sets the broad parameters for how the brand can communicate and who it should be talking to, leaving the technology (increasingly AI) to identify who exactly to talk to, and what precisely to say.

Marc Andreessen famously said that software was eating the world[6], but until now it has only taken the bar snacks of marketing. This is the beginning of a perfect marriage between human intuition, technology, and artificial intelligence that allows us to deliver personalisation at scale – using data, content, and technology to harness the power of brand elasticity to co-create a brand with consumers. After all, none of us got into marketing to relentlessly retarget people with a pair of shoes that they’ve already purchased.

[1] From 2014 to 2015, the number of marketing technology companies nearly doubled from 947 to 1,876. Personalisation vendors alone more than doubled YOY and began to incorporate chat services as part of the suite of products, which is a testament to the demand and need for innovation in this space. Source: “Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic (2015)”, Scott Brinker, 12-Jan-2015, Chiefmartech.com (http://chiefmartec.com/2015/01/marketing-technology-landscape-supergraphic-2015/).

[2] “Designing Britain 1945-1975”, Visual Arts Data Service (http://www.vads.ac.uk/learning/designingbritain/html/crd_cultrev.html).

[3] “The third industrial revolution”,  21-Apr-2012, The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/21553017).

[4] “The Second Era of Digital Retail”, Intel Labs and The Store WPP, 2015, pp. 12-13 (http://www.intel.com/content/dam/www/public/us/en/documents/reports/futurecasting-report-june-4.pdf).

[5] “On-Demand Delivery Service Quiqup Picks Up Backing From Delivery Hero And Global Founders Capital”, Steve O’Hear, 15-Sept-2015, TechCrunch (http://techcrunch.com/2015/09/15/quiqup/).

[6] “Why software is eating the world”, Marc Andreessen, 20-Aug-2011, Wall Street Journal (http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111903480904576512250915629460).

How Apple plans to steal cash from Google and Facebook

Here’s a little thing I wrote for Campaign here a few weeks ago.

While most people will be paying attention to the new iOS and the revamp of iMessage, marketers should be paying close attention to two developments that have flown a little lower under the radar –the introduction of paid search results in the App Store and the redesign of Apple News.

These developments both have implications for advertisers, and mark a significant strategic move from Apple to begin competing with Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

By far the most intriguing development is the introduction of paid search placements in the App Store.

Apple has, for many years, spoken disparagingly about advertising as a revenue stream (and its efforts to monetise data through advertising with iAd was a flop too), so this move will surprise many.

But this move marks what many will see as direct posturing against Google and Facebook. Not so long ago, the big four (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon) had distinct markets of their own, but as each begins to explore new revenue models, they are increasingly bumping into each other as competitors.

Each wants to ‘own’ the web (or rather create their own version of the web), and Apple will see this as a clear route to monetising one of its largest assets – the app ecosystem.

As Benedict Evans at Andreessen Horowitz recently said; the first wave of digital was web, the second wave was apps, and the third wave is likely to be bots. Apple is in a position of strength with regards to hardware and devices.

This development will provide the choke of supply that paid search relies on, and also gives it a significant opportunity to trial paid search placements – possibly with a view to introducing paid search placements into Siri.

For advertisers this is mixed news. Much like Facebook’s NewsFeed algorithm, it looks like an effort to reward creators of popular content (through the increased revenue share), and charge those with unpopular content for the opportunity to be seen.

If the decline of organic reach on Facebook’s NewsFeed is anything to go by, then every app developer should be preparing to pay for their place in the App Store in the near future.

What all advertisers should be taking from this is not that there are now paid opportunities to promote below average apps, but rather there is now an opportunity to trump competitors who have to pay to promote their apps – and putting people at the heart of everything you create as an advertiser is the first step.

The second (and most recent) announcement from Apple was the revamp of News, and this too marks a significant moment for marketers.

Everyone is trying to own the direct interface that people have with content. For Facebook, it’s the news feed, for Google it’s the results page and for Amazon it’s their devices.

The redesign of Apple News will be (as ever) carefully designed to have user experience at its heart, but the real trick will be convincing publishers that Apple News should be a primary distribution platform.

Facebook ramped up its ownership of the content interface with Instant Articles, and this looks to be Apple’s riposte to that.

After years of playing in their own territories, it finally looks like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon are starting to directly compete. Things are going to get very interesting as the race to own the internet heats up, but the winner will always be those that put people at the heart of their product. The technology doesn’t matter, but Being Human always will.

Ultimately the big four represent organisations that put people at the heart of their product, and advertisers can learn from this.

Two new things I have learnt

There are two things that I have learnt in the last few months, which I thought I’d share.

One.
Some people who are talented, are also difficult to work with. However, that doesn’t mean that if you’re difficult to work with, that you’re also talented. (Many) people often get these mixed up.

Two.
There are three types of people;
1) people who wait for their turn to talk,
2) people who listen out for things others say to prove their point,
3) people who listen to others, and use the information that they provide to rebuild and refine their thinking.

I’m trying hard to be the third type of person as much as possible.

Finding purpose and satisfaction in media

How many times a day do you ask how someone is, and they respond with ‘God, I’m so busy!’. Everyone is busy. Emails to reply to, calls to make, reports to write. But I think it’s a fallacy. Instead of actually being busy, we’ve become obsessed with the idea of being busy.

I’m sure that some people are busy. In fact, I know lots of actually busy people, but they tend to be the ones who don’t tell you that they’re busy. So why do people like us – advertising and media people – feel that we need to tell people how busy we are? Are we that busy? And if not, why do we insist on telling everyone that we are – what’s to be gained?

I think we’re obsessed with the lure of ‘productivity’. Of ‘inbox zero’, of no new notifications, and of having ticked off all our to-dos for today. We equate visible actions with busyness, and busyness with productivity, and productivity with value. But that’s a trap. If you’re trying to show how valuable you are by how many tasks you can do, then you’re replaceable. You’re trapped in a world of shallow work. That sort of work, as Nicholas Carr points out in both The Glass Cage, and The Shallows, is a dangerous place to be in. Shallow work is replaceable work, much of which can be automated. This is especially true in our industry.

Maybe I’m being a little bit harsh. It’s easy to fall into the shallow work trap – especially when your work doesn’t have a tangible output. I think that the reason we throw ourselves with abandon at our emails is insecurity. Our shallow work produces a tangible output – a report, an email, a conference call. But is it what we really do? Or is it what we should really be doing?

The value that you bring to your organisation is problem solving and creativity. For the most part, regardless of your job title, we all do the same job, and it centres around those two things. We fix problems and address challenges for our clients. Having worked in PR, creative, and media agencies, my experience is that we all do roughly the same job.

If we fill our days with shallow work, we won’t have time and space to think about the real task at hand. Our job is not to send emails, it is to fix problems for our clients. How can anyone leave work satisfied if all they’ve done all day is send emails and make phone calls?

Last year a friend of mine quit his job. He was about eight years into his career, in a senior role, at a respected consumer PR agency. He quit to take on a role as an apprentice barber at a barbers in Soho. “What is he thinking”, I thought. Hardly transferable skills. A totally alien environment, I thought. Another casualty of the industry, I thought. I didn’t understand. I bumped into my friend a few months after he quit, and he was beaming. I thought it was all bravado, a bit of a put on, but as we spoke his enthusiasm was palpable. He loved his new job. It was his calling. “I’ve never felt so satisfied”, he said. “I don’t have any of the distractions that I had in my agency life anymore – I can just focus on one thing, and doing one thing really well”. Five minutes later he got off the tube, and I sat thinking ‘what satisfies me?’. I’d never thought about it before, and it’s quite a hard question to answer. Ironically, it’s questions like that (the ones that are hard to answer) that I find so satisfying. Or in a less abstract way, I find solving difficult problems satisfying.

A few weeks later, I read an interview between Trevor Beattie (of BMB fame) and Nils Leonard (of Grey fame). One of Nils’ answers stuck with me. This:

TB: You’re a designer by trade. How big a role does design still play in your thinking?

NL: Ive is a designer. Heatherwick is a designer. McQueen was a designer. Designers actually make things. They’re not dependent. And the best ones matter outside the industry they work in. The best ones have changed how we live or given us memorable, remarkable, powerful moments. They don’t see the answer as the same every time. They are empowered, and remain open to influence and change. Advertising agencies are bad at that, so I try to bring that.

The idea of Nils having a trade, and making things that aren’t dependent on a client brief made me feel a bit insecure. “What is my trade?”, I thought (again, sat on the tube*). This bought me back to the shallow work versus deep work thoughts I’d been having. In Deep Work, Cal Newport discusses the sense of satisfaction that people with a craft or trade feel each day having made something. Nils was using the same sort of language, but he was plying his trade in a similar environment to mine.

So what is my trade? Well, my employer sells me as a problem solver. I make things that are often complicated, simple. I provide clients with my point of view on the challenges that they face, and the best course of action. So my trade is problem solving, but I think my craft is writing. Writing is the thing that I toil away at late at night, it’s the thing that gets me up in morning. Writing is the tool that I use to solve problems and think more creatively. So if  Trevor Beattie ever interviews me, he’ll open his question by saying “You’re a writer by trade. How big a role does writing still play in your thinking?”, and I’ll say “Trev, writing is my thinking”.

Realising what my trade and craft is was a big step. It means I can focus on honing those skills and actively trying to produce better, stronger work. I hope that should give me a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day.

I’ve read two books recently that I think provide some of the tools to honing those skills. Deep Work (as above), which introduced me to the idea of allocating a chunk of time every week to deep thinking. I’ll never escape all shallow work, but I need to develop my skills as a problem solver. For that I have to give my brain the opportunity to think about one thing for a good amount of time. I need less HITT, and more marathon training, or at the least, I need a mixture of the two.

The second book is Curious, by Ian Leslie, which I’m only half way through so far, which extols the virtues of curiosity. In fact, scrap that, not the virtues, but the necessity of curiosity. He believes that curiosity is what helps us develop as people. It helps us to make connections between different things, to make new things. There’s a lot of research that shows that learning new things develops stronger neuroplasticity. That makes the brain a type of muscle, one that grows stronger with practice, and helps us to make new connections. Connections, in turn, drive creative thinking. So to develop my trade, I need to give my brain two things; time, and interesting stuff.

So from now on I’ll be carving out at least four consecutive hours every week to dedicate to fixing one problem. I’ll also be putting as much interesting stuff in my head as possible, things like art, music, and books. Although it isn’t about ‘all you can eat’, but instead taking a focused approach, and applying epistemic curiosity.

You might be reading this now thinking ‘first world problems’, and I acknowledge that. I would never suggest that what I do for a living is comparable to that of a firefighter, a teacher, or a nurse, but the media industry has its own challenges. One of those killer challenges is satisfaction, the other is demonstrating value.

In times of increasing financial scrutiny, automation, and competition, it’s easy to be insecure. To work in a shallow way. But we must remember that we are not employed for our ability to fire out emails, arrange pointless meetings, and write empty reports.

We’re employed to solve problems and provide creative thinking, and that means swimming in the deep, at least once a week.

It’s at this point that I realise just how lucky I am. I have a job where the core parts of my role are thinking and curiosity. I can exercise my craft on a daily basis, if I choose to. I can do this with ideas for some of the worlds most interesting businesses. But luck is another subject altogether…

*There are two places where I do my best thinking; 1) the tube, and 2) the church yard near the office. Both places are ridiculously busy, but both in both places I can lose myself in thought and avoid distracting myself.

I’m back (nearly).

Something intelligent here, probably.