We humans are complex, messy and varied. A cosmos of 7.9 billion people with unique personalities, mindsets and emotions. Even identical twins are different. The result of inherited genes and environmental factors. And that’s before exploring the intricacies of social behavior, cultural identity, and power relations.
Marketing has always tried to decode human behavior. Every business seeks to influence decision making, sell more products, and outperform its competition. Research methods used to understand consumer behavior have advanced considerably. From surveys in the 1920s to focus groups in the 1940s and market segmentation later in the 1970s. Before the Internet, powered by the World Wide Web, transformed the face of marketing. As a result, companies could conduct large-scale research, measure results, and make decisions in minutes. But having access to an endless stream of data only widens the gap between businesses and people. Many brands have sort of lost sight of what makes marketing magic: people, not technology.
Most brands have increased their spending on digital advertising to reflect changes in consumer behavior. With people spending more time online and less time in the physical world. Attribution is one of the perceived benefits of digital marketing. Marketers can measure campaign ROI, including traffic, views, and conversion, in ways that weren’t possible with traditional TV, billboards, or radio advertising. Thus, Marketing Technology (MarTech) will be born, a wide range of software and tools to measure, analyze and optimize marketing performance. Digital marketing dominates. Today, Facebook (now Meta), Google and Amazon receive 64% of all advertising dollars ($ 211 billion) spent in the United States
In theory, marketing technology should benefit brands and consumers alike. Brands can leverage data to improve campaigns and reduce waste. Meanwhile, consumers receive more relevant and useful messages. However, theory does not always translate into practice. We create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. Most brands have too much data, but not enough insight. Decision making transferred to emotionless machines obsessed with driving efficiency and minimizing risk.
Modern marketing has traded imagination for validation. The magic of human storytelling for highly polished, pasteurized and predictable work. In many marketing departments, it has become easier to make a business case with a dashboard of questionable statistics than an original idea based on human instinct and emotions. The Big Idea has been superseded by version number 134. Even though great creative work can make communications eight times more effective. No wonder 46% of Gen Z users worldwide use ad blockers. Brands must once again realize the true power of creativity. Because uniformity creates indifference, but fame drives growth and profit.
The emphasis on effective marketing is dangerous. This can leave companies blinded by rapid changes in market conditions. Data captures historical results. But past results are not a reliable indicator of future results. We live in a random world full of uncertainty, variance and coincidence. Therefore, brands must constantly refresh and adapt to stay relevant. In 2007, Nokia dominated the mobile telephony market with a 50% market share. But the company has largely underestimated the transition to software and smartphones. At that time, investing in touchscreen technology was seen as a business cost. Nokia is a prime example of how traditional performance metrics fail to identify the sequel. Conservatism stifles innovation.
Brands must seek out new trends, emerging behaviors and unmet needs at the periphery. Since innovation happens at the edges. For example, a deep dive into gaming culture in 2017 would have revealed the first structures of the metaverse. Ethnographic research with predominantly female adolescents on Musical.ly in 2015 would have suggested the transition from consumption to creation. While watching the early manifestations of Black Lives Matter and the People’s Climate March, one would have discovered the value of a new generation.
If brands want to sustain their business, they need to combine the rigor and scale of big data with deep human knowledge. This requires an investment in qualitative research. Not only with mass consumers using outdated newsgroups, but with the creators and early adopters of their world. Work with cultural translators related to different subcultures. Exploring the periphery should be a business priority for all forward-looking brands. And it can’t be a one-time project. In the 21st century, brands need a constant flow of new ideas and information from the outside world to be injected into their veins in a consistent manner.
The global pandemic has reshaped our way of life. We now see the virtual world competing with the physical for our attention. Human interaction has been replaced by digital pixels broadcast over the Internet every day. This can create long-term challenges for young people who are just as, if not more comfortable living online. Generation Z is now the loneliest generation in the world. Loneliness drives a deep desire for meaning, community and connection. More than half of Gen Z think life was better before social media.
The desire to escape reality explains the emergence of the Y2K trend. A throwback to the mid-90s and early 2000s, when on the surface, life was simpler and less chaotic. Moments of turmoil fuel collective nostalgia. When you mix the climate crisis with a global pandemic and economic uncertainty. It becomes easy to see why young people seek refuge in the past. In this environment, brands have the power to reconnect people and communities.
As we stumble into a post-pandemic world. We have a unique opportunity to make marketing more magical. It starts by rediscovering the power of human creativity as the greatest brand differentiator. Then, stay ahead of trends by using qualitative research with early adopters and cultural translators. Then reallocate marketing budgets, resources and expertise to serve and empower communities. Going forward, brands will primarily be judged on their contributions to people and the planet, not just shareholders.