Brand loyalty is not what it used to be, with consumers swayed by anything from lower prices, more options, gimmicks, and even the occasional boycott. As such, to combat brand fatigue and shopper infidelity, mass market personalisation has grown over the last decade, taking cues from pre-mass consumerism to drive pure advocacy.
From a PR perspective, current brand offerings of personalised labels and products have started hundreds of media and social conversations, but it raises the question of ‘is what is on offer really paradigm shifting, or is it mass consumerism under a new guise?’
Evolving technology has allowed brands to create new offerings and show a deeper understanding of their consumers, create talkability and reinforce loyalty. With the generational shift from simply owning a product, to seeking out an experience or emotional connection with purchases, brands are taking offerings up a level, treating people as individuals to create unbreakable bonds between brands and consumers.
The concept of personalisation isn’t a new consumer trend and the argument could be made that the shoppers are attracted to experiences once offered pre mass-consumerism. Before the age of supermarkets and department stores, many shoppers had their particular butcher, baker and grocer who knew them by name and how they liked their bread sliced. Back in the 1930s, Charles of the Ritz in New York (now known as the Ritz-Carlton) offered their visitors a personalised powder press service. The beauticians would blend and press a powder shade matched to each customer’s skin tone in an extremely personal experience. The process made its way into department stores as they grew in popularity in the 1950s – video viewable here
As population numbers grew, along with mass production and consumer demand for cheaper products, personalised services fell by the wayside as people wanted a quick solution. Since the turn of the century, personal experiences and deeper connections with brands have become part of shoppers everyday lives, from exclusive offers to experiential marketing campaigns, brands try to entice consumers to purchase their products and experiences as well as build trust. Online personalisation is far easier to attain, as computer algorithms get more sophisticated, personalisation of online shopping has grown from simple segmentation of product types, and purchase recommendations, based on repetition connected to demographic groups, to the introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) online assistants able to answer questions pertaining to that individual’s needs.
High level personalisation is cost restrictive in physical store fronts, not all brands can offer the same experience of personalised online shopping or AI assistance, however, there are currently a range of offerings which use techniques as simple as pen and paper. Starbucks rolled out writing consumer names on cups across its global franchises in 2012, a technique already utilised by independent baristas worldwide. Comically, it led to endless misspellings by staff and a surge of people named Voldemort and Batman, but the consumer made the experience their own. The offering enabled them to make a connection to the experience, either by being able to try out a new name, joke with friends using nicknames, or share their misspelled names on social media.
Blurring the lines between customisation and personalisation, and harking back to the ‘Charles of the Ritz’ experience in the 1930s, beauty brand Clinique launched a foundation which enables the consumer to blend a unique shade to match their skin pigment. As skin tone changes throughout the year, the required colour and viscosity of foundation changes. This simple idea allows consumers to customise their own shade at home giving complete personalisation of a technically generic product, making them feel no-one else has that product.
In 2009, Vegemite started offering jars with a space to write a name, to either claim the jar or give it as a gift. The simple action of writing a name invoked an emotional response and meant the jar was no longer a generic jar, but each time they reached for it, it became a more personal experience. From there the brand began spruiking names printed on jars as a gifting gimmick in 2016, something that Nutella has also jumped on.
An example of a brand introducing personal customisation into a storefront is McDonald’s. The fast food giant overhauled its Australian offering in 2014 after sliding sales, showing that heritage brands also need to keep innovating to stay relevant. McDonald’s first tested out its touch screen ordering in select stores in Victoria and NSW. Following the success of the initiative, many more stores now offer the touch screen personalisation option. Customers can choose from a variety of buns, burgers, vegetables, sauces, sides and drinks, making what was once a faceless fast food experience far more personal.
Low level personalisation sees no signs of slowing down this gifting season, with Myer’s latest Christmas offering at the Wonderland in Pitt Street, Sydney. Shoppers can have gifts personalised, including monogrammed leather products, personalised Beatrix Potter character art and framed Mr Men and Little Miss covers.
Personalisation may never again resemble what it did 80 years ago, brand loyalty may never be guaranteed, and online may always lead the way with true product personalisation offerings; but there are lessons to be learned from the past to combat consumer fatigue.
The PR implications for next gen personalisation, as technology evolves, means true personalisation will become possible, enabling brands to create an authentic connection with their customers, think A.I. However, one thing is clear, gimmicks get tired, consumers get bored so the next big thing which drives consumer engagement, sharability, talkability and media will surely surprise us all, one person at a time.