The last episode of the brilliant series Mad Men ended with “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” the iconic 1971 television commercial. Though it may not have been the dramatic intent of the series’ writers, the moment served as a nostalgic eulogy to the golden era of marketing. If you’re above a certain age, you remember it: A rapidly growing economy driven by a burgeoning middle class, three major broadcast television networks that captured an overwhelming majority of eyeballs day and night, glossy magazines that attracted millions of readers, a homogeneous suburban population with shared tastes, and the emergence of what Daniel Yankelovich dubbed a “Psychology of Affluence,” which encouraged spending on self-indulgent products and experiences. In this golden age, marketing drove consumer demand and preference by developing and publicizing compelling value propositions via powerful messaging. Marketing reached a peak in effectiveness and in clout within organizations.
The subtext, of course, is that everything has gone downhill since — a decline that accelerated in recent years. As my colleagues Christopher Vollmer, Kristina Bennin, and Deborah K. Bothun argue in a recent article, the marketing landscape has hopelessly fragmented. Ad-avoidance mechanisms like remote control and DVRs have proliferated, the Internet has diverted audience attention, and social media and mobile devices have blown up the existing models. And just like in the Dark Ages, careers in the age of the Marketer’s Dilemma can be nasty, brutish, and short. According to executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, the average tenure of a CMO today is just 23 months.
The Dark Ages ultimately gave way to the Renaissance. And it’s quite possible we are on the cusp of a Marketing Renaissance, thanks in part to technology, the force that has done so much to destabilize the industry in the first place. A series of technology trends, including the digitization of content, rapid advances in cloud computing, and advanced analytics, are encouraging and enabling smart marketers to reinvent the function. More important is the shift in mindset. The Renaissance is remembered for a return to a focus on humanism. The Marketing Renaissance is driven in part by a renewed focus on humans. Personalization, long an empty buzzword, is becoming a realistic way to make content, experiences, and messages more relevant and persuasive.
The Renaissance is remembered for a return to a focus on humanism. The Marketing Renaissance is driven in part by a renewed focus on humans.
The Renaissance was also a time of empiricism and scientific discovery, when brilliant artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci studied human anatomy directly and Galileo explored the heavens. While it might be a stretch to compare contemporary marketers to that trio of immortal artists and scientists, it is clear that leading marketers are embracing new ways of learning about what works in the digital ecosystem, given consumers’ non-linear paths to purchase. (We will return to this theme in a subsequent post.)
So how is personalization contributing to a Marketing Renaissance? Consider two examples.
Frequent business travelers have all experienced the frustration of having to scramble to find a hotel room when a flight is canceled. Economy hotel chain Red Roof Inn combines publicly available flight cancellation information with customer mobile location data to forecast demand near airports and target customers who may be seeking nearby hotels after a flight is canceled. Customers at airports where flights are canceled who punch in relevant searches — e.g., “hotels near La Guardia Airport” — receive targeted advertising and tailored room pricing offers. Reaching out in this way injects a small dose of humanity into a situation when people often feel angry and frustrated. In areas where the initiative is in place, it has led to revenue increases of about 10 percent.
To restore a human touch in retailing, upscale retailer Burberry is using RFID chips embedded in clothing to create a personalized shopping experience in its flagship stores. When a customer enters a dressing room with an item in hand, the RFID tag triggers a video showing how the item was made and offering up other products that might complement it, such as a handbag that goes perfectly with a raincoat. With the customer's permission, tags can also help create a customer profile by capturing information on what she or he has tried on. The new “try-on” information can be mashed up with data Burberry already has on customers’ purchase histories and fashion preferences. Store associates viewing these profiles on their iPads can add to the experience by offering product and fit recommendations, as well as suggesting ways a new purchase could work with items already in the customer’s closet.
Making personalization real (pdf) is a critical way marketers can compensate for the lost power of the mass marketing model. We’re still in the very early stages of experimentation. To continue the analogy, it’s as if we have just entered the Early Renaissance. There are a number of challenges to overcome, not the least of which is finding the fine line between helpful personalization and that which is intrusive or creepy. There is also a great deal of work to be done to ensure that the data individuals voluntarily share with companies remains secure from the growing army of cyber-thieves and hackers. Still, for the first time in a long time, those of us who work with leading marketing organizations can see some light at the end of a dark age.