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It’s not personalisation without personality

When brands address you by name, or show you things they think you’ll like, do you feel loved and valued? Or are you unsettled by the experience? Or even annoyed?

It’s been a long-acknowledged fact in marketing that ‘personalisation is power’ and the results bear this out – consumers have traditionally liked the personal touch and enjoy feeling valued through ‘brand-to-one’ communications. But in the data age, organisations need to tread carefully. Sam Tatam is a psychologist and Head of Ogilvy Consulting's Behavioural Science Practice in London. He is an expert on consumer behaviour and works with some of the world’s leading brands. He acknowledges the “love of our name and the warm glow when we are recognised,” but warns that recognition and response are not innate. We discover his top tips for brands who want an effective personalised relationship with their customers.

Relationship building

View personalisation as two-way traffic, rather than a very binary ‘call to action’. “It’s important to see personalisation as a relationship rather than a tactic,” says Sam. “Approach it as ‘trying to better understand people’ and use it to bring them things that we think they might value more. Acknowledge that relationships have variability – there are upsides and downsides that make relationships genuine. Brands who think about authenticity in personalisation don’t try to close the world off to others at the same time, which for me feels quite important. This has a wider implication too, as it makes sure our customers don’t become stuck in a bubble, – whether that’s a strongly held point of view, right through to what they wear.” Perhaps it is best to approach the process of personalising your relationship with your customer as a learning exercise instead?

Trust through transparency

There is a world of ‘my social media is listening to me’ theories out there, but the reality is simply data. The way customers respond to the use of that data is all in the presentation. “If you’re wondering how a brand has learnt so much about you, this might actually make you turn off a decision which would otherwise have been attractive. But if you can see your data working for you, and there’s clarity behind how systems are being smart to bring you something that you’re more likely to enjoy – you hope – then maybe that’s not such a bad thing.” It’s important for brands to deliver a personalised experience in a way that shows empathy, does not silo the likes and dislikes of customers and, crucially, is truthful and authentic.

“Humans are massive game theorists,” explains Sam. “There’s always got to be a catch. If something’s too cheap, what’s wrong with it? If things feel too pristine, organised or crafted, what’s the world that’s being taken away from us? So, maybe there’s an innate rebellion there, when things feel too perfect. We need a sense of authenticity and variability that shows us that we’re not just experiencing a squeaky code. We see through it.” Something as simple as language or symbolic cues can be enough to create transparency. Sam uses the Domino’s Pizza Tracker as an example of ‘transparent labour illusion’. It’s a simple way to deliver the information the customer requires and build trust. This trust can be earnt by something as simple as “stating where we’ve learned from you and where we’re offering that up. There’s a lot of really interesting research around trust and credibility and what we call ‘costly signals of mass communication’.”

Sam Tatam, giving his keynote speech at a Canon launch event, holding a microphone and standing behind a Canon branded lectern
Sam believes that sales and brand loyalty should come from a blend of personalised relationships and space for happy accidents.

Create space for serendipity

Ever just stumbled upon the perfect item? It feels great and immediately gives us a warm connection to the place we discovered it. When appealing to your perfect customer, sometimes controlling every aspect of the journey isn’t the best way for them to experience your brand. There should always be room for a happy accident. Sam believes that “enabling people to do some of the hard work themselves can be more valuable than your supposed preferences served up on a platter.” TK/TJ Maxx is a great example of a big brand with a strong proposition based in ‘striking it lucky’. “I think that can be a very valuable equation if you get it right, as customers can sense that if something is too pristine or feels non-authentic.” He cites Spotify as a brand that is getting this right. “I don’t get my discover weekly playlist and think ‘here we go, Spotify telling me what to listen to’. It’s an opportunity for discovery and so the value exchange with Spotify is different to having a collection that’s been arranged. That gives me at least the perception of variance.”

Not everything needs to be personal

Personalisation of allcommunications simply isn’t necessary, so pick and choose carefully. “There’s value that we seek in things that are not personalised because they subtly say a lot about the brand.” Signals and cues can often be as powerful as the personal touch – as long as it’s appropriate to the message you’re trying to convey. “If you think of advertising for the World Cup, for example, and you just have a big billboard saying, ‘Coca Cola’, there’s no key message. The signal is just that the brand has got enough money to advertise at that scale. And that’s all they need to say. Niche personalisation prevents that opportunity.”

The micro marketer of the future

Does this mean that we must begin to micro-segment? And the end of customer profiling as we know it? Well, yes and no. “The segments are just getting tighter and the information we have at an individual level can now be influential. I don’t think segmentation is out the window, but there are new lenses we can add to it that can help us to understand our customers on a range of different levels, from five factor characteristics – openness to neuroticism – right the way through to an entire world view. These might slightly change how I frame a message for you. There is value in framing messages. We’ve done it for years.”

That being said, it’s important to approach next level ‘hyper personalisation’ with some caution. “You don’t want a brand being a million things to a million different people. Remember the core promise and purpose of a brand? And how it can help to deliver those values to individuals, with a better understanding of the things they enjoy? I still think we need to invest in people and build relationships, have a tone of voice, build colour and context behind why we know the things we know about people.” Essentially, the personalised customer experience must find its place in your wider strategy, rather than bethe strategy. “The fundamentals of human interaction remain the same. If we’re creating a world that’s just so refined and calculated, I don’t think people want that. The absence of choice takes away agency and customers will react against it. What we want are brands to embed personality and transparency into the way they try to better understand customers, fulfil their desires or help them to make the right decisions.”

Sam gave a keynote address ‘Dare to be Trivial: How small changes can drive customer engagement’ at Canon’s Customer Experience Centre in Paris, as part of our ‘Pushing the Creative Limits with Print’ event. You can also follow Sam on Twitter.

Written by Antony White

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