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The Case Against Personalized Marketing

November 23, 2020

kids on coin-operated rides boy in tame yellow duck girl on wild fire-breathing dragonblank vertical space, 16 pixels highWhat is personalized marketing?blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

It’s one-to-one marketing. Instead of sending the same message to everyone, you deliver individualized content to each customer or prospect.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

How exactly do you do that?blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Well, you have to track people online. (Cynics would call it spying.) You add data capture software to your website and start recording clicks, time on site, abandoned shopping carts, purchases, etc.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Maybe you can get visitors to sign up for something and capture their email address.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Once you have that info, you can send them product recommendations based on their browsing and purchase history.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Sounds good, right?– so what’s the catch?blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Well, for one thing, you need time and resources (a marketing team and money).blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Which lets out most small businesses.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

But say you are a big brand– does it make sense to pursue personalized marketing?blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Many say yes. This HubSpot post lists 24 “data-backed” reasons to personalize your marketing.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

But I’m not a believer. Here’s the case against it.blank vertical space, 32 pixels high

Bob Hoffman, aka, The Ad Contrarian, says the most obvious objective of marketing should be to create fame. That while fame does not guarantee success, famous brands– the Apples, Nikes, Cokes, McDonald’s, Budweisers, et al.– have an huge advantage over brands that aren’t famous.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

He writes:blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

“Experts” tell us that highly personalized, precision targeted, one-to-one advertising is far more capable of performing successfully because it reaches “the right person, at the right place, at the right time.”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

This may be true if you have the least ambitious marketing goal — to generate a click. However, if you have the highest marketing goal — to build a successful brand — I have seen no evidence that this is true.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Mass-media advertising is demonstrably more effective at brand building than precision targeted, highly individualized advertising…blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

To a substantial degree, mass media is public advertising and online advertising is private advertising. It’s hard to become famous in private.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Now you might be thinking: what about brands like Proctor & Gamble and Unilever? Haven’t they committed to mass personalization?blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

They have. In fact, Keith Weed, former marketing chief at Unilever, once said, “Unilever has an ambition to have a billion one-to-one relationships.”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

But here’s the thing: their micro-targeting only works because they’re already famous. No one would pay any attention to personalized messages from an unknown brand.blank vertical space, 16 pixels highblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Jeremy Bullmore, former chairman of what is now the Wunderman Thompson creative agency, makes a similar point.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

First he concedes that:blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

The drive for personalization makes total sense. To know when an individual may be in the market for a mortgage, a new car or a holiday villa, is precious knowledge.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

It allows you to dangle the offer enticingly in front of that person at the moment of greatest potential interest; and, very importantly, that person will probably be grateful to you for having done so.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

But then he adds:blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

But… most advertising isn’t like that. Most advertising is on behalf of staple brands, repeat purchase goods and services, and it’s not expected to trigger an immediate (sale)…blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

It sets out to remind its audience of the brand’s existence… to maintain its general desirability…blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

This function is usually described as brand-building… It preserves a brand’s worth, and therefore its profitability.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

In other words, most advertising is geared toward fame. Making the brand memorable, keeping it top-of-mind.blank vertical space, 16 pixels highblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

JP Castlin, CEO at Rouser, a “boringly efficient” strategic consultancy firm, also favors casting a wide net, not a narrow one.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

He writes that marketers should be targeting customers’ “big similarities,” not their “little differences.”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Micro-targeting (personalization) limits potential buyers, which also limits potential penetration and potential growth.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

He cites an interesting case:blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

The meat substitute Quorn originally targeted vegetarians, which represented 7% of UK households. Eventually, it changed its strategy to instead appeal to healthy consumers, which represented 70% of UK households.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

It remains arguably the most growth-enabling move the brand has ever made.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Castlin also notes that:blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

In a given time frame, some people who have bought a lot from the category will buy less, some people who have bought little from the category will buy more, some people will stop buying from the category altogether, and some will begin.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

By breaking down the category into who bought from it in the past, we easily forget who might buy it in the future.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

People change. Preferences change. Needs change.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

That’s a powerful case for mass marketing, for “fame”– which for most of us (sole proprietors and small businesses) just means trying to make a name for ourselves.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Why? So we’ll be a brand people think of when they need a certain product or service.blank vertical space, 16 pixels highblank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Mr. Bullmore says that “as a race, we’re deeply suspicious of being spied upon… (and) using partial knowledge (gleaned from tracking customers) is as likely to alienate as it is to appeal…”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

And he makes this interesting point:blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

As with friends, we feel most comfortable with brands when we feel that in some sense we have discovered them for ourselves.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

The disciples of personalization forget that the human brain is on constant, unconscious alert for things, ideas, people with whom it might like to connect.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

We don’t, on the whole, like pushy people (or brands), so…blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

The skillful brand custodian imbues a brand with characteristics and character that are most likely to attract the attention of its clearly defined target audience– and then invites that audience to make that final, all-important connection themselves.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

He concludes that “only mass media confer the status, the fame and the allure that make brands individually desirable to millions of wonderfully disparate individuals.”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Which segues nicely into one final (and subtle) point:blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Many people buy products to help them project a certain image: the car I drive, the designer labels I wear, the wine I drink, all tell the world who I am. What Kevin Simler calls cultural imprinting.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

A mass media product ad establishes a cultural meaning, which then determines how I’m perceived by others. It’s something that’s only possible if lots of other people have seen the same ad.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Personalized ads can’t create cultural meaning, since they’re only aimed at individuals.
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About Mark: I’m an illustrator specializing in humor, editorial, branding, social media, and content marketing. My images are different, like your brand needs to be.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

You can view my portfolio, and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Questions? Send me an email.blank vertical space, 40 pixels highRecommendation testimonial for Mark Armstrong Illustration from Claire Porter, PORTABLES, choreographer dancer performance artist

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