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In recent years, many marketers have been striving to achieve hyper-personalisation through the use of data, analytics, AI, and automation. It’s sometimes a controversial topic, with differing views on how achievable such fine-grained segmentation can be.

Furthermore, is this level of targeting even desirable in today’s world, particularly considering consumer demand for privacy and newly introduced data regulations?

I caught up with Simon Harwood, Global Performance Director at global influencer agency, Billion Dollar Boy, to discuss both the opportunities and pitfalls of this approach, and why he believes brands that are too fixated on personalisation might be missing out on the value of shared meaning. 

“Just because you can create atomised content, it doesn’t mean you should”

According to McKinsey, companies that excel at personalisation generate 40% more revenue from those activities than their average counterparts. Harwood doesn’t doubt the validity of stats like this, citing the much-recognised benefits of personalisation, “particularly when [retailers are] closing a sale or cross selling.”

In addition, he comments how it is becoming increasingly hard to ignore new technological developments – such as generative AI – and the new opportunities they are opening up for marketers (see Econsultancy’s recent coverage on AI-powered CRM).

However, Harwood isn’t completely sold, caveating that “in practice, so-called ‘hyper personalisation’ isn’t achievable in its truest form for practical reasons when applied at scale and cross-channel.”

This could be due to data quality, of course, as well as technical or team silos, or even the fact that consumers don’t necessarily have a relationship with brands in certain categories. But overall, Harwood’s main argument is that “personalisation prevents shared meaning.”

“Just because you can create atomised content, it doesn’t mean you should. And we often find that it falters, most noticeably, for brand building objectives,” he said.

“Virality is based on shared social spaces and products that are universally enjoyed”

“We like to share our lives and we like to share in our entertainment,” said Harwood. “That’s why social and TV went hand in glove for so long. The water-cooler moments from the office were transferred seamlessly online, the two channels living in symbiosis. People like to watch what other people like to watch.”

Harwood suggests that brands are increasingly missing out on highly valuable social proof, whereby people’s tastes are typically informed by others’.

“Brands aren’t just the construct of what’s in your head, they’re the shared meaning across multiple heads. The chances are you’re more likely to pick up a crate of Heineken to share at a friend’s barbecue than a niche beer brand that no one’s heard of. Virality is based on shared social spaces and products that are universally enjoyed, which is why it’s much harder to achieve scaled-up brand awareness campaigns with hyper-personalisation.”

The argument is that building a brand based on one-to-one interactions with consumers is unfeasible. Furthermore, Harwood says that personalisation can be conspicuous when it goes wrong, saying “When expectations [of the use of personal data] aren’t met, it can have the opposite to the campaign’s desired effect.”

Success is “always underpinned by fame”

If brands aren’t able to truly achieve hyper-personalisation, then, is there an alternative strategy to scoring high levels of engagement with today’s consumers?

Harwood says that, regardless of how personalised a brand’s marketing approach, “its success will always be underpinned by fame – both ‘overarching’ and ‘resonating’ (desirability).”

“Fame is an essential ingredient for brands to achieve incremental sales and grow profitability, among other business benefits.” As such, he stated, “finding a shared meaning within a community can trump personalisation.”

Harwood uses Sabrina Bahsoon’s Tube Girl trend as an example of the effectiveness of this type of virality and meme culture.

“Consumers were able to adopt the trend and put their own spin on it. And they did in their thousands, until Sabrina finally got noticed by brands and signed up to campaign partnerships with Hugo Boss among others.”

It seems that rather than obsessing over a goal of achieving a utopian hyper-personalised vision of marketing, new brands are increasingly recognising that it’s okay not to personalise all the time. Instead, as Harwood explains, “shared meaning has impact, and that shared meaning can be found in internet culture – [which is] now mainstream culture. Tapping into that is the key to unlocking effectiveness.”

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