A view from Sue Unerman

Brands must get personalisation right

"Blue like my boyfriend's eyes or golden like my personality?"

Jen is choosing her new car specifications. Most of it has been simple: of course she needs heated seats and black-leather interior trim; fancy wheels and the best possible sound system. All of that took just moments.

The tough question is the exterior colour. There’s a range of standard colours but, in addition, she could pay extra to get her own unique one-off design. In the end, this dilemma proves too much and she defaults back to one of the standardised colours. After all, they pick the standard colours because the car looks good in them, don’t they? You can’t go wrong with silver. The challenge of personalisation to her specific taste just gave her a headache.

Mass personalisation: is this the future of for brands?

The principle of personalised marketing has been around for a while. The consultant John Grant wrote in 2000 in his first book, The New Marketing Manifesto, that the old rules of marketing didn’t apply any more. Modern brands, brands with a desire to grow, needed to adopt a more intimate approach to marketing: to be "up close and personal".

Fifteen years later, Deloitte has just published its latest consumer review, Made-To-Order. It says: "In the era of all things digital, consumers have higher expectations: they want their interactions with businesses and the products and services they buy from them to be personalised."

As the report also points out, however, it is crucial to get the level of personalisation right. No-one wants a stalker. And as one marketing expert once said: "I don’t want a relationship with my bank; I have a relationship with my wife and family. I want efficient service from my bank." People have different requirements of their interaction with different categories.

We have entered an era of mass personalisation at scale. The idea might have been around for a decade-and-a-half, but the means of production have been slower to develop. A new imperative for any marketing campaign is therefore to explore what degree of personalisation is suitable. How is it useful and relevant? Will it improve returns for immediate sales? What is the long-term brand effect? No brand can afford to get this wrong.

According to Deloitte’s report, three-quarters of consumers said they receive too many e-mails from brands. Half avoid brands that contact them with poorly targeted communications and two-thirds have "unfollowed" brands – closed their accounts or cancelled subscriptions.

But there is a difference between a study and the real world. It is difficult to imagine what kind of consumer (perhaps a very lonely one) would express an active preference in a survey for being targeted. The facts of return on investment for appropriate personalisation mean every brand will consider deploying it. Consumers will reject communications that use their personal information badly. Customer reviews are now essential.

The good news of the report is that, in some categories, consumers state a willingness to pay a premium for personalisation.

How this pans out in reality may be another issue. The paradox of choice can apply if you’re asked to specify a design preference or unique colour for a product you’re purchasing. As for customer involvement in a campaign idea, people like to be asked but they prefer to watch, maybe to share, than to create. It’s a good personal assistant that consumers are after, not a stalker; nor do they expect to work for the brand.

Meanwhile, Jen has got her new car now and is regretting her decision, wishing that she’d plumped for fuschia.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom