We, humans, are complex, messy and varied. A cosmos of 7.9 billion individuals with unique personalities, mindsets and emotions. Even identical twins are different. The outcome of inherited genes and environmental factors. And that’s before exploring the intricacies of social behavior, cultural identity and powers relations.
Marketing has always attempted to decode human behavior. Every company seeks to influence decision making, sell more products and outperform competitors. 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. Suddenly, companies could research at scale, measure results and make decisions in minutes. But access to an endless stream of data is only deepening the divide between companies and people. Many brands have somehow lost sight of what makes marketing magical: people, not technology.
Most brands have increased their digital advertising spending to reflect changes in consumer behavior. With people spending more time online and less time in the physical world. One of the perceived benefits of digital marketing is attribution. Marketers can measure the ROI of campaigns—including traffic, views and conversion—in ways that weren’t possible with traditional TV, billboards or radio advertising. Thus, giving birth to Marketing Technology (MarTech), an extensive range of software and tools to measure, analyze and optimize marketing performance. Digital marketing dominates. Today Facebook (now Meta), Google and Amazon get 64% of all ad dollars ($211 billion) spent in the U.S.
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 doesn’t always translate into practice. We create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. Most brands have too much data, but not enough insights. Decision making transferred to emotionless machines obsessed with driving efficiencies and minimizing risks.
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 gut instincts and human emotions. The big idea has been replaced 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 adblockers. Brands need to realize the true power of creativity again. Because uniformity creates indifference, but fame drives growth and profit.
The unrelenting focus on marketing efficiency is dangerous. It can leave companies blindsided by rapid changes in market conditions. Data captures historic results. But past results are an unreliable predictor of future outcomes. We live in a random world full of uncertainty, variance and coincidence. Therefore, brands need to constantly refresh and adapt to remain relevant. In 2007, Nokia dominated the mobile phone market with a 50% market share. But the company grossly underestimated the transition to software and smartphones. At that time, investment in touchscreen technology was viewed as a business cost. Nokia is a prime example of how traditional performance metrics fail to identify what’s next. Conservatism suffocates innovation.
Brands need to look on the periphery for new trends, emerging behaviors and unmet needs. Since innovation happens on the edges. For instance, a deep dive into gaming culture in 2017 would have revealed the early structures for the Metaverse. Ethnographic research with mainly female teenagers on Musical.ly in 2015 would have suggested the shift from consumption to creation. While observing early Black Lives Matter and People’s Climate March protests would have uncovered the value of a new generation.
If brands want to future-proof their business, they need to combine the rigor and scale of big data with deep human insights. This requires investment in qualitative research. Not only with mass consumers using outdated focus groups but with creators and early adopters in their world. Working with cultural translators connected to different sub-cultures. Exploring the periphery should be a business priority for all future-facing brands. And it can’t be a one-time project. In the 21st century, brands need a constant stream of fresh ideas and insights from the outside world injected into their veins consistently.
The global pandemic has reshaped our way of life. We are now seeing the virtual world compete with the physical for our attention. Human interaction has been replaced by digital pixels beamed across the internet each day. This can produce long term challenges for young people who are equally, if not more comfortable living online. Gen-Z are now the loneliest generation, globally. Loneliness is driving a deep craving for meaning, community and connection. More than half of Gen-Z believe 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 2000’s—when on the surface—life was more simple and less chaotic. Moments of turmoil fuel collective nostalgia. When you blend the climate crisis with a global pandemic and economic uncertainty. It becomes easy to see why young people are seeking refuge in the past. In this environment, brands have the power to reconnect people and communities.
As we stumble towards a post-pandemic world. We have a unique opportunity to make marketing more magical. It begins by rediscovering the power of human creativity as the greatest brand differentiator. Next, staying ahead of trends using qualitative research with early adopters and cultural translators. Then, reallocating marketing budgets, resources and expertise to serve and empower communities. In the future, brands will primarily be judged on their contributions to people and planet, not only shareholders.
by Kian Bakhtiari