Chris Duncan, chief customer officer at News UK
Chris Duncan, chief customer officer at News UK
A view from Chris Duncan

Why the 'triumph of personalisation' has to encompass cultural relevance

Chris Duncan, chief customer officer at News UK, believes brands that talk to consumers in a human way will achieve the best results.

Alan Turing devised his eponymous test in 1950 as a method of determining whether machines could talk so much like humans as to be indistinguishable from them in a blind test.

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Passing the test is seen as a goal in the development of artificial intelligence, and has been made famous in The Imitation Game and Ex Machina, among other films. The fascination stems, I think, from the recognition that there is something in natural language that machines can’t fully replicate, but it’s damn hard to put your finger on exactly what it is.

The rise of automation

As marketers we have an ever-expanding range of automated tools and platforms fuelled by a firehose of product, customer and transactional data. Targeting technology has leapt forward over the past decade, and rules-based tracking and programmatic trading are unremarkable activities for most mainstream brands.

The level of hands-free automation will increase, as programmatic targeting of audiences will move from cross-device to cross-media, including radio, print and even customised worlds constructed within virtual-reality experiences.

Video clips will be matched rigorously to ads across native platforms and the open web. Decisions on dynamic pricing, creative and content will all be made and served in milliseconds based on thousands of options. Layers of machine-learning algorithms will constantly optimise delivery of marketing communications.

It sounds like a triumph of personalisation. Our customers and prospects will be delighted, sales will be up and the marketing teams will be having the longest of long lunches. Won’t they?

Turing’s test suggests perhaps not.

The three key moments of human instinct

Despite the amazing advances in AI, I still think that most customers are not ready to be considered entirely predictable. They will detect robotic activities that fail the test and those brands will lose favour.

There is something about the human mind that can make leaps that are unexpected and illogical, but brilliant and effective

The most likely points of failure come in three key moments of human instinct; purpose, creativity and cultural fit.

The strongest brands in an increasingly competitive and cluttered world will be those that stand for something consistent. Brands will need a recognisable point of view and a strong point of reference to be able to maintain a point of difference.

Strong brands are good at what they choose to do, but often exceptional at holding firm on what they don’t do. Brand equity is won and lost in the long term, when considered and consistent choices turn into consideration and association. This is rarely optimised for clicks or profit in the short term, and, as such, can rarely be machine-built.

The same is true of creativity. There is something about the human mind that can make leaps that are unexpected and illogical, but brilliant and effective.

A man in denim hotpants to make you think

What links Russian meerkats, a man in denim hotpants and a clumsy ballerina?

They are all answers to the question "How do we get people to think about insurance?" They all have power in their unexpectedness, their unpredictability and their ability to surprise and engage audiences and unlock new thinking.

Lastly, culture. The power of emotion is never more acute than when brands want to mix with events that shape popular culture. The zeitgeist provides a lure to grab hold of a shared moment or nostalgic memory and harness it.

This works because memory is a very powerful tool for association. Events that carry emotional meaning in our lives are remembered with more accuracy and colour. This occurs because we recall not just the event (hearing a song) but the contextual details that surround it (who I was with when I heard it, my excruciating mullet hairdo…).

It takes taste and sensibility to know why you could sell a Motörhead Jack Daniel’s, but not a Bowie Crocs shoe – whatever the triggers tell you

Tapping into cultural events to piggyback this emotion has moved from Valentine’s Day through ice-bucket challenges to film releases, such as Star Wars, that dominate our collective memory. Targeted media has allowed anyone to insert their brand into my cultural event.

However, culture can be tricky to decode. Sports humour is deeply tribal. Music allegiances are embedded with identity and prone to offence. ‘Cool’ is a moving feast of generational characters and moments. It takes taste and sensibility to know why you could sell a Motörhead Jack Daniel’s, but not a Bowie Crocs shoe – whatever the triggers tell you.

The canvas offered to the modern marketer to analyse, to segment and to personalise in new and automated ways is mind-blowing. The advances of machine learning will continue to evolve and amaze us all.

However, the teams that get the best results from this new canvas will be the marketers who also paint pictures of purpose and creativity, and who are sympathetic to cultural relevance. Their brands will pass the Turing test of continuing to talk like humans do.