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Creative Versus Creepy: How Brands Get Personal Without Getting Weird

7 Minute Read

Tasteful personalized marketing is not creepy. Today, consumers expect it. But do you remember the first time an advertisement weirded you out?

It couldn’t have been too long ago. I recall my first retargeted ad experience: I’d been shopping for cribs in preparation for the arrival of my first child, so to say my emotions were tied up in my purchase would be a gross understatement. Audience engagement via content marketing was well underway—I was reading a brand’s description of the perfect bedtime routine for sleep-through-the-night success. My gratitude (read: loyalty) grew with every helpful word the brand supplied.

However, I was on my lunch break and had to get back to work. I closed the tab and hopped back over to the task at hand. Suddenly, I was surrounded by cribs. Convertible cribs, luxury cribs, environmentally friendly cribs, and even blinged-out cribs. I was creeped out. Why did my favorite professional industry blog know what my personal shopping habits were?!

Obviously, since then, things have changed. Today I know better than to worry about retargeting.

More recently, Burger King wigged out hundreds of thousands of consumers with a TV ad that activated Google home devices in unsuspecting kitchens and living rooms. Creep factor: 10. But then, to everyone’s surprise, the spot won the Grand Prix for Direct at the Cannes Lion Awards festival.

Considering my eventual acceptance of retargeted ads, will stunts like the BK trick someday be widely embraced?

A boy looks in wonder and excitement at a bar of chocolate

Image attribution: Pete Wright

The Element of Surprise

Today, consumers expect to be delighted. Thoughtfulness, when expressed creatively, is (and always will be) attractive. And to compete, brands are expected to be more and more creative in their expression. Customer satisfaction is no longer the standard. Today, delight is the goal—the unexpected pleasure of having been thought of. Your own name on a Coca-Cola bottle, for example. Better yet, one for every person at the party.

But surprise is a tricky thing. Consumers should never be surprised by how much information you managed to gather. The exposure of your genuine care should never elicit the response, “Wait, how did this website know that about me?”

Instead, the gut reaction should be, “Wow, that took someone’s time and attention.” Thirty days after the resolution of any customer complaint, founder and CEO of Blinds.com Jay Steinfeld sends an (automatic) email to follow-up. The recipient is invited to hit “reply” with any feedback that may benefit the company. The executive’s communication is warmer than the usual invitation to complete an online survey, and when a customer takes him up on the offer to converse, the man himself engages in a friendly email back-and-forth.

Use What You Have In Common

The new Starbucks mobile app is another great example of personalized marketing that incentivizes users—without crossing a line. By using the app, customers give the brand information like what they order, when they visit, and which store they frequent. When combined with local data like the weather forecast, Starbucks can push hyperpersonalized, relevant deals. The app also lets customers “earn” redeemable stars by visiting more often and augmenting their usual latte with a pastry, for example. Perhaps best of all is the partnership between Starbucks and Spotify. Now, visitors who like a song in-store can add the track straight to their own Spotify playlist.

A girl on a train listens to her headphones

Image attribution: Takumi Yoshida

The difference here is that Starbucks isn’t changing the subject to connect. They’re not suggesting people who may be pregnant should opt for decaf coffee. They’re not recommending a particular Starbucks location for an upcoming trip you never told them about. They’re not replying to your public tweets when you visit their competitors. Instead of a grab for attention, the mobile experience enhances audience engagement with what consumers have already acknowledged they want: more Starbucks.

Context Is King

Navigation app Waze uses event-based context to advertise personalized suggestions to travelers on the roads at a certain time. In 2014, Taco Bell correctly predicted that people driving on Saturday morning are likely headed to a college football game. In a thoughtful gesture that benefited everyone involved, the brand offered up a deal on Taco 12 Packs with a helpful Waze button that clearly said, “Drive there.”

The campaign was so successful that they used the same tactic to promote their Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos for Sunday NFL games. The iconic fast-food joint extended the partnership with Waze and is predicted to begin offering order-ahead services.

Location, location, location: Just one generation ago, that was the best advice a start-up could heed. Today, the same rings true, but in a different way—both consumers and brands are more mobile than our parents could have ever predicted. Connecting while on the road can be either clever or crawly.

It all depends on context.

Give a Gift

Earlier, I told the universal story that every consumer has experienced—that first unexpected retargeted ad. Business-to-consumer examples abound. But what about a business-to-business example? A few months ago, I signed up to use Lumen5, a free online tool that turns blog posts into videos. In about five minutes, I created a quick, fascinating teaser video to attract readers to click through and consume one of my favorite first-person stories.

The exercise was fun, but I don’t have any long-term strategy planned for the tool. So I forgot about the resource.

A few days later an email showed up with the subject line “Made A Video For You.” Lumen5’s artificial intelligence application had taken the liberty of creating another video similar to the one I had crafted. I was weirded out.

But then, I watched the video. It was pretty neat, and I warmed up to the time-saving gift.

Lesson learned: This brand creeped me out until I realized the value of the gift they were offering. They took information I did not expect to be used (the RSS feed of the URL I’d supplied for my original project) and exploited it . . . to my benefit. Hopefully, the story shows exactly where someone crossed the line, and the relationship survived.

It’s possible to use your customer data creatively for an inventive gift of their own enjoyment, a scenario which may help smooth any other rough edges in your approach.

Y Tho?

According to primary research from Forbes Insights in collaboration with PwC, most organizations are creating content without any personalization strategy or documented business objective. A strategy will always allow creative brands to bench creepy ideas. Unfortunately, it’s when the brainstorming session is so good, so hot, so prolific that the weird ideas emerge.

A group of chairs in a funky modern office

Image attribution: Chris Knight

To be clear, that’s the sweet spot for ideation. However, only the strategy your team has in place at that moment will parse the good personalized marketing ideas from the bad. Run your gutsiest ideas through your strategy first, then ask these questions:

  • What, exactly, is the surprise you’re about to deliver to your customer? Is it a delight? Or confusion? When your target is surprised, will they ask the question, “How did they know I needed that?” Or will they ask, “How did they get my email address/browsing history/daily routine/kid’s name/vacation plans?”
  • Does it address or involve something that you and your target recipient have in common?
  • In what context will your audience receive your message? As you set the scene to answer this question, imagine worst-case scenarios. Acknowledge the risk of a drama or tragedy instead of the comedy or triumphant story you’re trying to write. Embrace negativity as a tool to emphasize a victorious outcome. Use it only to violate expectations, not actual people.
  • If the proposed idea is executed, whose life will it improve? Theirs? Or yours? If you haven’t already, watch the Burger King TV ad that freaked everyone out a few months ago. Now, what if the actor had leaned into the camera and asked the question, “Okay, Google, what is a discount code for a free meal at Burger King?” Something tells me people would be a lot less creeped. Who knows, they may even have been grateful. When crafting a campaign that borders on the edge of a stunt, be exceedingly generous.

The Internet has brought out the best—and the worst—in everyone. As a consumer, I love personalized marketing. It’s fun when sites serve up the topics I’m most interested in. However, I’m also the target of occasional tasteless, creepy messages. Both extremes will only grow more intense as technology advances. Which side will your brand’s campaigns fall on?

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Featured image attribution: Sarah Diniz Outeiro

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Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and the Content Marketing Institute currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences daily. As a consultant, she combines simple change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's gig economy. For more, visit bethanyjohnson.com.

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