Why marketing's fascination with data is killing brands

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Why marketing's fascination with data is killing brands

Right then, guys. I’m going to tell you a story that involves a squirrel and a beaver, but it’s not about the John Lewis ad, and it’s most certainly not a fairy tale. This is in fact a story about how media and marketing’s fascination with data is murdering brands and quite possibly might get us, all of us, killed. Let’s start by looking at the media owners.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, the world’s biggest distributor of news, recently told colleagues that a squirrel dying in front of your house may be of more importance and relevance to you in that moment than people dying in Africa. This sums up their business model. It’s purely about relevance, okay? Algorithms have replaced editors, and you, your news feeds, it’s dominated by your behaviour and what you like. You have no control over it, and you have no choice. It’s not just Fakebook that are doing this, okay? They’re all at it. Google, Amazon, Netflix, the Huffington Post, everybody’s doing it.

Eric Schmidt of Google recently commented that it’s going to be almost impossible for us to consume content that is not in some way personalised to us, and that’s happening right now. What this is doing to you, to us, to all of us, it’s diminishing the window we have on the world. You have a very narrow perspective on things now. You believe wrongly that it is some fair representation, a balanced representation of the broader picture, and it’s not. We are living in echo chambers of our own design.

Why do you think … Disclaimer, I do all my own slides, okay? This is all my work. Why do you think these platforms, these businesses, these media owners have created this type of thing, this algorithmic behaviour? Do you think they’re doing it for you, for us? They’re not. It is a super, super smart business strategy. I can sum it up in two ways. Firstly, it’s about getting you hooked. It’s about making you addicted. These platforms like Facebook, they tap into the reward centre in your brain. It’s something called the nucleus accumbens. It’s stimulated by things like sex, food, money, and social acceptance, all the cool stuff. When you get a like and stuff like that on Facebook, when you get positive affirmation on Facebook, it stimulates that same reward centre. It’s super addictive.

From a commercial perspective, it’s brilliant what they do, because we are squirrelling away like beavers in our little echo chambers, all of our own design, and what does that do to us? It makes us easier to identify. They know who we are. They can put a label on us, stick us in a little box, and sell us off to advertisers. These echo chambers that we now live in, they help explain how Trump and Brexit were two of the most successful and most certainly influential marketing campaigns in recent living memory. Think about it. If you were a liberal thinker, either in the EU or over in the US, looking through the lens of your echo chamber, you thought everybody was aligned to your way of thinking, and they weren’t. You were blind-sided.

Look at the guys that have got the big data close to home, the city. They called it wrong. The bookmakers called it wrong. With all of their big data, they thought that Remain would win the day and they didn’t. Meanwhile, Trump and Farage here, at the start of their campaigns, they ignored the data, they ignored the reason, they ignored all of the logic and they won. They won big. What does this mean to us in marketing communications, and very, very specifically, in relation to digital marketing? Well, I believe we’re guilty of placing brands in their own mini echo chambers. We’ve become reliant on performance marketing.

I’ll give you an example. We stereotypically start a campaign off with some PPC. Right at the end of the funnel, when somebody is full of intent, the consumer is ready to perform an action that has meaningful return on its investment for a client, we then cookie these people, and wow, we start to grow an audience. We do this by mirroring them. We find more people that are exactly the same as them. Then what we do is we set about remarketing through the full funnel, through display, through social, and back into PPC. Now, there is merit to this model, because what we’re doing is we’re de-risking the investment of our clients. We basically pretty much guarantee the ROI, and then the minute the data deviates from plan A, we can rein things in.

I believe this is the marketing equivalent of Tinder. It is end-of-funnel, one-off engagements. Surely, we as marketers, we need to help brands have more meaningful, long-term communications with their audiences and not a series of one night stands. Great Tinder profile, isn’t it? This means that brands must grow audiences. They must. To do this, they need to get comfortable talking to people they’ve not met before, having debates with them, challenging their perceptions. In this world, data-driven personas and programmatic, they are not the keys to success. We as humans make very complex emotional decisions about the brands that we invest in.

If we, as marketers, if we’re to help these brands, we need to humanise the understanding of their audiences. We need to make it a full contact sport again, okay? That means us, marketers, creatives, sitting alongside their audiences, actually talking to them, meeting with them in person, and understanding them. That’s when we’re going to do great work. Now, I think in digital, as marketers, we are terribly guilty of trumping up big data and programmatic, and we’ve done this at the expense of the fine art of influencing audiences with creativity but from a perspective of empathy. The world’s biggest media owners, with their algorithmic behaviour, what have they done? They’ve managed to put the nuclear codes of the Donald? We must not follow their lead.