Advertising on Shaikh Zayed Road, Dubai. While marketers ought to be seeking insights from experts on human behaviour, they have almost exclusively been seeking such insights from data analysts and IT experts instead. Picture for illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News Archives

There are many instances where big data, and consequently, message personalisation, regardless of how accurate these may be, simply don’t work.

What’s really unfortunate is that most marketers have chosen to put aside an entire scientific field that can guide them as to when to personalise, and when not to, because they are much too fascinated and distracted by the lure of data maps, personalisation, engagement, and interactivity.

This neglected field is the science of psychology. While marketers ought to be seeking insights from experts on human behaviour, they have, almost exclusively, been seeking such insights from data analysts and IT experts instead.

i) A flashback into the essential need for psychology in marketing and advertising

So, the first question one might ask is: How does psychology tell us when not to personalise? And the answer is: Through the “Dual Process Theory”.

This theory tells us exactly how people process any piece of given information, what content they may find interesting, and how a marketer can capture their attention, interest or desire to purchase or to use the product that is on offer.

What’s even more interesting is that long before the fascination with big data, marketers actually applied this theory; and their belief in it was, in fact, a main driver behind what’s referred to as the Golden Age of Advertising or the industry’s “Creative Revolution”.

The Dual Process Theory states that when people process information, they use either one of two routes:

1. The Peripheral Route: This uses the S1 part of the brain, which is ‘old’ from an evolutionary perspective. The manner in which information is processed in this system is very instinctive, impulsive, emotional and intuitive.

2. The Central Route: This uses the S2 part of their brain, which is far more recent, from an evolutionary standpoint; it is here that information is processed in a rational, logical, conscious and reflective manner.

The theory also states that the route for processing information is determined by two factors: Ability and Motivation. When people lack these two factors, they process information through the Peripheral Route. If these two factors are present when processing information, then they use the Central Route.

ii) The good old days when marketing and advertising actually applied psychology

In order to study advertisement processing in a scientific manner, the Dual Process theory had long been used as the backbone of the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM). The model states that when people use the Peripheral Route to process a piece of advertising, they are unable to process any rational and/or functional messages.

In this scenario, people are behaving instinctively, impulsively, intuitively, emotionally and, most probably, irrationally. Therefore the content of the advertisement should only seek to provoke an emotion, deliver an aspirational brand message and establish shared brand associations aligned with an attitude, a conviction, a mindset and/or a perspective.

Marketing should in no way attempt to promote a functional benefit or use rational thinking to persuade people to buy a product. The advertisement should simply not attempt to sell, and neither should marketing use big data or personalise the offer or the message.

The Golden Age of Advertising, which took place between the late 1960s and early 1970s, was rooted in the fact that the role of advertising is not just to sell through rational and functional messages, because such a focused objective only works when people possess the ability and motivation to process these messages.

Back then, marketers realised that the majority of people being targeted by advertising did not possess the required motivation or ability to use this communication route.

The role of advertising therefore became to create human, insight-driven/ inspired brand ideas that people would find interesting, relevant, provocative, meaningful and exciting. Ian Leslie, in his Financial Times article “How the Mad Men lost the plot”, summarises this fact by stating that “There was a time where advertising was an extension of the sales department. It was nothing but a method to persuade consumers to buy a product.

“Then came the Creative Revolution that did not attempt to sell; it attempted to create an image of the brand through creative ideas that people felt strongly about.”

In this era of advertising, marketers and advertisers sought insights into human behaviour from well-informed sources. Today, as the psychologist Geoffrey Miller, a prominent evolutionary psychologist and author of the book “Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour”, puts it: “The methods being used by marketers to understand people today are obsolete; they are not at pace with the last 30 years of advancements in the field of psychology, and looking at people as numbers will end up with meaningless and irrelevant marketing efforts”.

Also, according to Tim Stock and Marie Lena Tupot in their AdMap article “Cultural Mapping”, big data and digital analysis produces uninspired consumer profiles. Data today is available in a number of seductively enticing forms, and marketers are lured into a false sense of security, thinking they know exactly where to go and how to get there.

What seems to be missing in all this, however, is the human element that may be missed in the focused pursuit of neat answers from extensive data analytics. Yes, people are communicating and are extending their reach globally though the amazing tools of technology, but they cannot be defined by technology.

The authors state “People are the manufactories of cultural meaning. To get closer to the lives of real people and understand the context they inhabit means dedicating time to thinking and analysis. Answers do not live in databases. They live fuelled by contextual knowledge and confident intuition.”

iii) “Light Buyers” and where the majority of business comes from

As we have seen, the utilisation of big data and personalisation only works when people are both capable and motivated to process the information in that customised proposition or message. However, there is a larger issue at play — the major chunk of a brand’s business does not come from this set of people.

In his book entitled “How Brands Grow”, Professor Byron Sharp refers to the people who lack motivation and/or ability as “Light Buyers”. By applying statistical analysis to sales data, he demonstrated that the majority of the business comes from “Light Buyers”.

Other scientific research studies in the area of neuro-marketing have used fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology to test how the subconscious influences peoples purchase decisions. These studies have consistently revealed that 90 per cent of all purchasing decisions are made subconsciously.

Given these findings, it would be fair to assume that the majority of business is driven by a mass of people who are incapable, or lack the motivation to process rational, informative, personalised messages.

Industry veterans who cut their teeth during the Golden Age of Advertising have voiced fierce criticism of this rampant and unchecked Age of Over-Personalization. Key among them is Dan Wieden, who has gone to the extreme of calling this practice “irritating and disgusting”.

In our pursuit of customer profiling, we tend to blindly trust and submit to the authority of data maps. Professor Mark Monmonier explains, “People trust maps, and intriguing maps attract the eye as well as connote authority. Maps can even make nuclear war appear survivable.”

Data has somehow morphed the advertising industry into a clinical but efficient communications machine, where RoI (return on Investment) and the bottom-line supersede all other measurements of success.

If marketers lived in a utopian world where their business offering had clear functional advantages that could be duly understood by every potential customer, then data analytics and personalisation could consistently work with the desired effectiveness and efficiency.

However, such a world does not exist, and as Prof. Byron Sharp’s statistical analysis and other neuro-marketing research studies show, more frequently than not, the case is the exact opposite.

Therefore, big data and the ability to personalise a message can never fully replace the need to utilise the science of psychology to capture human insights that inspire exceptional creativity and give rise to brand ideas that can ignite the imagination of the masses.

The writer is Regional Strategy Director, Leo Burnett MEA.