Now for something completely different
Why the rise of data makes it harder to stand out
Joint Chief Strategy Officer
Meaningful. Different. Salient. Important words in the canon of BrandZ. Words for marketers and advertising folk to worry about. Words to build careers around (just ask some of the people involved with the brands in this report). Especially that word “Different”. Difference really matters. Difference is the small thing that can make all the difference. Especially in a world consumed by another small thing – data. A world exhibiting a voracious appetite for this small thing. A world obsessed with the application of digital data to media planning and execution, and increasingly interested in how this plays out with creative.
It’s a wonderful world view, this data-driven economy. The precision with which we can understand and target people has been exponentially boosted by a desert or two covered in server farms full of bits and bytes. We can be more efficient, for sure. We can do away with wastage. We can know the people we are talking to, what they have bought before, maybe even what they are about to buy. All of which is incredibly powerful, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the intelligent application of insight derived from various sources.
The problem here is that a huge chunk of the digital data that media practitioners can see and use to drive incremental gains in efficiency is widely available marketplace data. Some of it is in the hands of Google, YouTube and Facebook. Some of it is housed elsewhere. Mostly, if it can be seen by you, the same thing or something close to it can be seen by all your competition. And by those in other categories.
Where does this lead us? Well, that’s where Different makes its entrance. You see, the brilliant targeting of people is fine. But with the exponential increase in available media inventory driven by the digitization of channels, it is getting a little difficult to stand out. Once you’ve found Segment of One X, then the likelihood is that someone else has found Segment of One X as well, and someone else, and someone else. Then Segment of One X is being bombarded by hundreds of brands on the basis of the data that they can all see. Suddenly, we’re in the wind tunnels of clutter, where all the execution looks the same because it is based on the same data point. Just pick a category and go have a look at the digital execution in that category; it’s frightening how similar a lot of it is.
Suddenly, Different really matters. In fact, Different matters more in the digital age than it ever has before. We have to ask ourselves whether the pursuit of data-driven perfection in targeting will lead to a world of commoditized brands, no logos, and supermarkets from The Handmaid’s Tale (I doubt it, but hyperbole and all that).
This is where Difference and Salience overlap. Invariably, an increase in digital precision leads to a decrease in cultural visibility. Now remember, before people start pointing at the many digital businesses and brands that have been built over time, I’m talking about advertising here – and there are many factors that lead to a brand’s success outside of advertising. This is a problem because brands are both private and public constructs. A brand is both “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another” (Seth Godin) and “What other people say about you when you are not in the room” (Jeff Bezos).
In advertising terms, both of these definitions are relative to other people’s experiences. That was easy when you knew that other people were experiencing the brand. When you all wanted to talk about the advertising. Or a smart piece of media planning. Or, god forbid, a stunt. When you wanted to talk about these things because they were driving some form of Meaningful, Different or Salient.
Whilst the current media landscape is portrayed as a brave new world, some fundamentals remain the same. People, their motivations, their behaviour, why they do things, do not evolve as quickly as our category would like to believe. Neither does the fundamental nature of their relationships (or lack of relationships) with brands and advertising. So, when looking at the use of data we would do well to ask ourselves, is this piece of data going to lead to an insight that makes my advertising and my brand more Meaningful, more Different, more Salient? We should also ask: is this piece of data something that everyone can use?
If the answer to the first question is no, and the answer to the second question is yes, then maybe stop and do something less boring instead.