Personalisation versus relevance

Personalisation is the zenith of modern marketing, delivering a better customer experience, higher conversion rates and increased loyalty. Or is it?

It’s true that by connecting data, technology and great creative, brands can create tailored experiences that make customers feel seen, heard, and valued. However, as with any buzzword, there is a danger of overusing and misusing personalisation, leading to consumer fatigue and even backlash.

This is why relevancy should be the primary focus of zero and first party data marketing, rather than generic personalisation, as it helps brands connect more meaningfully with their audiences by leaning into not just context, but also culture and emotions.

This is much more than a name at the top of an email, or an acknowledgment of recent activity

Using personalisation has been top of the agenda at every customer relationship management (CRM) conference and pitch I’ve ever heard. But what do people mean by it? We’ve all had plenty of emails or letters addressed to us, mostly correctly, and sometimes incorrectly, and honestly, even when it’s correct, does a company you bought a hairbrush from two years ago need to be on a first-name basis with you? Is it personalised to repeat back to someone what they’ve already shared, when no additional thought has been put into it?

To the average person, personalisation has become synonymous with the ever-present third-party cookie, which feels like an invitation to follow me around the internet trying to sell me a sofa I idly glanced at on my lunch break. This blunt tool means people often respond negatively to the idea of personalised digital experiences. Being regularly encouraged to do something that one doesn’t want to do can be so jarring that it will stop people from letting a brand interact with them. This isn’t just part of my campaign to force a ‘reject all’ option on all cookie pop-ups. But seriously, stop making users untick 30 boxes.


Relevancy, on the other hand, is about ensuring a marketing message or experience is useful, valuable and meaningful to the consumer.

Because meaningful connections inspire us to interact, and when we interact, we’re more likely to act. How many of us have bought something not because we needed it, but because we were sold on the feeling – the nostalgia, playfulness, kudos, escape – that we thought it would give? Probably all of us.

As humans, we try to rationalise – or post-rationalise – every decision we make, and that includes our relationship with a brand when, as with all relationships, our emotions are in the driving seat.

So we need to look much deeper into who customers really are and not just assess a one-dimensional scrape of their data. Working in a world of data-led marketing is a privilege. People have given us their trust, but we must earn the right to retain that trust and keep using that data. When a brand shows that it understands our expectations, passions and motivations, it can create a positive emotional connection that goes beyond the transactional and inspires loyalty and advocacy.


Understanding the why not just the what, is the first step towards relevancy

A great example to illustrate what I’m talking about here is film trailers. Film trailers shown in theatres sometimes only go as far as to suggest films in the same genre as the ones being shown in the theatre at present. But maybe the film is interesting because of a specific actor – or because we like comedy more than big explosions. But trailers aren’t necessarily tailored to these nuances and preferences. A truly relevant film trailer would tell consumers why they should go see the movie, tell them what time it‘s on at their local theatre and then give them an offer to use on the days they might regularly go.

My much wiser friend helped me understand this principle a few years ago by talking about the purchasing cycle of something like skin cream. A personalised journey would entail reacting to someone’s purchase by telling them all about what they’d bought, making recommendations based on what other people who bought that cream bought next and hitting them with friendly nudges to repurchase. It would probably be somewhat successful. But it’s not actually interested in who that person is or why they bought the product. What if they were trying it for the first time? What if they bought it as a gift? That journey wouldn’t maximise or entice some of those people; in fact, it might put them off.

Even the people for whom such a campaign was mostly spot-on aren’t getting any sense of real relevance; people are much savvier now. They understand that a digital transaction of any kind has implications beyond the purchase. One of my favourite tweets of the last few years saw a user poking fun at Amazon for re-targeting them for something they surely don‘t need more of – like an air conditioning unit.

What does this mean in real terms? It means looking at more of the inputs a customer provides through their behaviour. What are they browsing? What does their purchase history look like beyond the last action they took? When are they likely to purchase (either in a day or as a frequency)?

But – and here’s an option that‘s too often overlooked – a brand can ask its customers specific questions. And – get this – they will probably tell you. People love being excited about the things they like. And they want more of them. And they like being seen as experts.


Staying current requires cultural relevancy

When it comes to making purchase decisions, a brand’s cultural associations are surprisingly important. 44% of influence is price and quality, 31% brand perception and 25% brand cultural involvement.*

A great quote in The Drum recently said; “good marketers sell products, great marketers sell solutions, and excellent marketers aren’t marketers at all – they’re storytellers. And what’s one of the most impactful ways to tell (and sell) a story? Cultural association.”

Brands that are culturally relevant are brands that align well with cultural events, promote trends that define today’s culture, and support social issues that benefit everyone. Consumers, especially emerging generations, are increasingly expecting brands to be aligned with their values, so it stands to reason that personalisation through cultural association – if done well – will resonate highly.

The first trap not to fall into is to assume culture relates only to traditional culture such as heritage, family rituals, cuisine and so on. 83% of consumers think of culture as something other than this,* like pop culture and current affairs, think inclusivity, sporting events, natural beauty and fair trade. There are many ways brands can be culturally relevant – and giving back is key.

The second trap not to fall into is to grab at the biggest sporting event or hottest trend in a way that doesn’t feel authentic for the brand. A brand must consider its credible sphere of influence and in the context of the relationship their consumers have with it – like Dove Skin Stories and Under Armour’s Protect this House. The fact that Ikea ranks so highly in a sea of culturally vibrant tech brands speaks to its ability to connect with consumers in a culturally relevant way that stays true to who they are, a furniture brand that acknowledges how people are increasingly interested in design and fashion.


Learning through data

What all this means is that we must look at a brand’s relationship with people from the outside in, and not just the inside out, and as highlighted above, your consumers will help you do this where a two-way dialogue is encouraged, and so we come back to how we use data to personalise our messages and experiences in a way that’s relevant.

To create CRM strategies that truly resonate with individuals, brands must revisit the way they collect, read, and analyse data and use it to test, learn and nurture relationships. Anyone can copy a brand’s product or service, but nobody can replicate a brand’s cultural positioning, or its credibility and relevance to a specific context. CRM is in a unique position to connect these dots, to make the links between data, culture, creativity and tech in a way that supercharges relationships between brands and individuals.


*Source: The Impact of Culture, IPG Media Lab 2023


Originally posted on The Drum, 15/05/23

Updated 16/08/23