Her: brands may have to target algorithms in the future
Her: brands may have to target algorithms in the future
A view from Toby Gunton, head of innovation, OMD UK

Marketing to the machine: how brands will be forced to court the algorithm

The recent film "Her" , which featured Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with a computer operating system (voiced by actress Scarlett Johansson), will have caused marketers to consider what else that virtual lover might do for their human charge.

What the film hints at is the looming scenario where most people have acquired their own virtual minder or companion briefed not to please them emotionally, so much as to attend to and manage all the nitty-gritty elements that come with modern life. In other words, a virtual assistant that will take away and look after all that is dull, functional and forgettable, but nonetheless important to modern living or running a household; the life admin we do our best to avoid.

That means, of course, taking over interactions with some brands and services we encounter daily and, in particular, the ones we don’t really like, the ones where the decisions have very little emotional impact on our lives.

What this would mean in effect is that some services and brands would be barred from direct access to the consumer unless that consumer proactively chose to intercede with its virtual minder’s decision-making.

Some brands may ultimately find themselves limited to a dialogue with an algorithm; marketing to a machine.

This is a scenario that if not immediately around the corner, is a lot closer than people think. We are a few short years away from joining the dots between a range of personal data streams, services and hardware.

Personal robotics

We are already beginning to consider how big new ideas such as the internet of things and personalised operating systems flowing across every device and even travelling with us out of the home, as a virtual cloud of data could transform our individual worlds. And that’s even before you start to consider the impact of personal robotics.

For example, linking your mobile diary with home shopping and a smart fridge plus a wearable monitor checking out your dietary needs. Or your work-schedule, diary, Google Maps, parking services and bank account.

Google Now and Siri are early attempts to create easier interfaces with information and services and they, along with new entrants such as Microsoft, are working on the next generation. The real leap will come when the dots are joined between the smart physical objects or appliances, social and personal information, financial data and brand services and the capability to curate, manage and react to your requirements in real-time.

It’s easy to imaging your virtual minder or intermediary processing and deciding for you the best energy or water supplier to go with based on bespoke algorithms personal to you. You wouldn’t even register the switch. The same could be true for an online shopping switch between Waitrose, M&S and Sainsbury’s based on quality and price.

A world like this throws up many questions:

  • Where does advertising fit? Which media can break through to the human with branding or direct engagement?
  • Which brand categories will be direct to human and which direct to machine?
  • How would brands cope and interact with virtual assistants – would some marketing become programmatic in the truest possible sense?
  • Who will provide these virtual guardians? Which brands could and should play that role? Will they work for the consumer or for the brands?

Right now the most likely outcome is that intermediaries will be those businesses that already hold massive customer or consumer insight data. For example, Facebook, Apple, Google and Microsoft are all potential launch pads for a real life "Her". But consumers will need to feel comfortable about these brands becoming very close to them indeed.

These are very big questions for marketers, media planners and creatives alike and the transition to this world could be a potentially frightening experience for some brands.

Today’s marketers may not have to worry about a virtual Scarlett Johansson getting in the way of their consumer relationships, but the next generation surely will.