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It’s about connecting with the individual beyond the data

The word personalization in the world of branding often refers to tailored marketing through the power of digital data. Technology has allowed businesses to track and target consumers online based on previous online behavior and other data. This information enables brands to create experiences that are in tune with consumer needs and to drive consumers to quicker purchase decisions.

The trouble with personalization viewed this way is that it’s based on past behavior. Take Amazon for example, which recommends books you might like based on books that you’ve bought already. This approach works brilliantly if you love a crime novel author and want to buy another; it is an effective model to make consumers purchase quicker and ensure they don’t become bombarded with books they’re simply not interested in. This model has its place in many scenarios – particularly small ticket items and replenishment shopping for groceries or weekly travel cards.

However, with purchases beyond the weekly shop, how does Amazon know what you want? Just because someone bought “Born To Run” while training for the marathon does not mean that person now is only interested in running books. Similarly, if someone buys chicken for dinner that doesn’t mean they want chicken exclusively every week. Curating experience can also mean closing down options, limiting interests rather than opening up to new avenues and possibilities.

We also think of personalization as having your name brandished on a product. Coca-Cola had great success with
its “Share a Coke” campaign. Coke replaced its logo with popular first names and turned the soft drink into a personalized gift item for “sharing happiness.” Similarly, luxury fashion house Goyard recalled its bespoke heritage with an “Art of Customization” service. It enabled customers to create an individual monogram from a selection of colors, patterns and fonts.

A broader idea of personalization

While having your name on your favorite drink or handbag is fun and a step to feeling more connected with the brand, surely we don’t want our initials on everything we buy. When considering this topic we must think about how broad the concept of personal is. There are now 7 billion people in the world, and while there is a valuable place for genuinely innovative products and services that provide an exceptionally tailored experience to an individual, our interpretation of what we mean by personalization need not be so narrow.

In its broadest definition, personalization means individuality. That doesn’t have to mean embossed initials. In fact, consumers develop an identity by associating themselves with the brands that speak to them and say something about their aspirational, myriad selves. The implication for brands is simple: be clear on who you are and whom you are for, rather than merely playing back your consumer. In essence, be for someone not for everyone. Kate Spade is a great example of this idea. The brand is exceptionally clear on its story. Dubbed the “Kate Spade New York Girl,” the brand speaks to consumers in every medium as that aspirational girl. She lives a more interesting life – one not of materialism, but of books, culture, dance, cocktail parties and that perfect song from the ‘80s. She has a personality, a lifestyle and a place. As a result, it appeals or it doesn’t. You know if you’re a Kate Spade woman because you personally identify with the brand.

Personalization can also be created through storytelling. By giving people a fascinating brand story they will become more connected and invested in your brand and often use these stories as social currency in return. Huit Denim is an interesting example. It’s a luxury fashion forward brand that set up shop

in a small town in Wales named Cardigan. The town used to make 35,000 pairs of jeans a week, but one day the factory was closed; jobs were lost. Setting up in Cardigan brings manufacturing back to a struggling economy with highly skilled craftsmen on the doorstep. It’s a beautiful, personal story, one that its wearers love to share.

Unique experiences are another way brands are getting personal. Audi has changed the automotive retail experience
by creating state of the art technology in new city center showrooms. These locations reinvent the car dealership, fitting it into relatively small urban spaces where digital technology enables customers to experience and personalize the full range of Audi options. The spaces are also used for cultural events that match the interests of Audi customers. The showrooms now only allow customers to create cars that fit their exact needs, but the also fit their personal lifestyle needs. Most city dwellers no longer have the means or the time to make a trip out to suburban car dealerships. This model brings the car to them.

Brands can get personal in many ways. What is critical to remember is that the value equation must be balanced. If people are giving away personal information for free, it must be clear what they are getting in return.