This time it’s personal

A book that I read more than 20 years ago fundamentally changed my perspective on business overall and marketing in particular.

Peppers and Rodgers “The One to One Future” embedded in my psyche the notion that knowing more about your customer than your competition was a critical component of competitive advantage. And before long “treat different customers differently” became my mantra.

As brilliant as Don and Martha’s book is, it was, for the most part, way ahead of its time. To be sure, many brands and marketers benefitted from its wisdom. But overall, few brands saw personalization as a burning platform and many of the espoused concepts simply could not be operationalized in any practical and cost effective way.

For most, a strategy of uniquely identifying customers, differentiating them by their needs and value, interacting with them to understand their desires and then customizing the experience in a relevant and remarkable way, lingered somewhere between a dream and a nice-to-do.

Yet today personalization is not only increasingly possible at scale, it is rapidly and inexorably becoming a business imperative.

It’s an imperative not because it’s cool or sexy or sounds good at a conference.

It’s an imperative because the battle has shifted from market share to share of attention–and it’s increasingly difficult to be the signal amidst all the noise.

It’s an imperative because one size fits all marketing strategies are well past the point of diminishing returns.

It’s an imperative because we are drowning in a sea of sameness and delivering average products for average people gets you average results, if you are lucky, and gets you fired, if you aren’t.

It’s an imperative because the power has shifted irretrievably to the consumer and the only way to stand a fighting chance is to compete on deep customer insight, intense relevance, remarkability and trust.

That means small is the new big and intimate is the new interesting. And that, at last, the one to one future is here.


I will be moderating two very different expert panels on personalization during the next month. Stop by and say “hello” if you can.

On April 20th I’ll be with the Dallas-Fort Worth Retail Executives Association. Pre-register here:  

Then it’s ShopTalk in Las Vegas on May 17th. More information is available at  Readers of this blog can use my promo code “sageb250” to save $250 on their conference registration.

I am the captain now 

For a long time brands had the upper hand.

The purchase funnel was relatively straight-forward. Media channels were few and generally well controlled. The consumer’s access to product and pricing information was limited. Distribution channels were highly disciplined. Communication was largely one-way. Marketing plans were often drawn up just once year and any changes required substantial lead times. Mass marketing ruled the day.

Today? Well not so much.

The shift of power away from brands to consumers has been swift and profound. The advent of search unleashed a tsunami of information access that tipped the balance of power irretrievably. The rise of social networks allowed for tribes to connect more easily to share ideas, reviews and instantly understand that people like us do stuff like this. The rapid adoption of smart devices has meant that most consumers now have access to just about anything they want, anytime, anywhere, anyway. We no longer go online, we live online.

Yet still some brands remain seemingly unconscious and horribly stuck.

They continue peddling average products for average people, when no customer wants to be average. With nothing new and interesting to say, they simply shout it louder and more often. Many retail brands continue to rely on one-size-fits-all strategies when those programs rarely get noticed, must less drive any profitable business. In today’s attention economy these efforts remain merely a dim signal amidst the noise.

The power shift away from the brand to the individual consumer and the power of the tribe is upon us. Retail has a new immediacy. Retail is now much more ME-tail and WE-tail than some holistic top down strategy cooked up in a conference room. Don’t kid yourself–you’ve never been less in control than right this very minute. And that’s not changing.

The individual is the captain. The collective “we” increasingly rules the roost. And unlike in Captain Phillips, no one is coming to save us. We can only accept this reality, let go of the past and work with a new set of rules and tools.


Reach is not impact

This Sunday dozens of brands will pay for multi-million dollar Super Bow ads because those spots will get them in front of what is likely to be the most watched TV show in US history. The odds that more than a handful of these massive budget campaigns will accomplish their objectives sits somewhere between slim and none. Great reach, little impact.

Today, tomorrow and the next day, many thousands of brands will send out many thousands of email and direct mail campaigns to many millions of customers–and most will be ecstatic to get a 1% response rate. Huge reach, very little impact.

Each and every day many of us fret about how many friends we have on Facebook, our Twitter follower count or the number of “likes” we get for something we post. Our often fragile egos may get a temporary hit from multiple retweets or for a bunch of “likes” for our super cute outfit, some random photo of our lunch or the preciousness of our kid and/or dog. But to conflate the number of superficial affirmations we might get with making a meaningful difference is a mistake. We crave more and more reach, but substantive impact is almost always lacking.

As Bernadette so rightly reminds us: “it doesn’t matter who encounters your message, your product, or your service if they don’t care about it.”.

It’s one thing to relentlessly pursue more. It’s another to relentlessly pursue better, more remarkable, truly relevant, deeply connected.

Maybe the people in the tribes we lead want us to turn it up to 11, to increase the frequency, to go for more, more, more. Maybe average or boring is just fine by them.

Or maybe it’s about easing back on the throttle, turning down the volume and choosing instead to uncover and celebrate the people that really matter to us. And then, very intentionally, crafting a message and an experience that deeply resonates with them.

There isn’t only one right way to do this. Your results may vary.

But when we confuse reach with impact, we’re bound to end up in a bad place.

When we ask the question: “who cares?” and the answer is probably only a handful of the people we’re talking to, marketing to, sharing with, then the quest for reach has likely gone to far.


Are you done cutting those cookies?

In today’s retail world there are a few truths I hold to be self-evident:

  • Folks don’t need or want much more stuff, so we had better not count on overall spending growing much, if at all.
  • With just about anything available anytime, anywhere, anyway, competing on scarcity of information and access is no longer a viable strategy for most brands.
  • Engaging in a price war is not likely to end well–unless you are Amazon.
  • Consumers are overwhelmed by information and the distracted customer has become the norm. The new battleground is for share of attention.
  • Mass marketing is becoming less effective by the day.
  • No customer wants to be average.

And yet so much of the product we see, the stores we visit, the websites we surf and the marketing we encounter, looks awfully familiar.

Our Boards encourage us to adopt best practices, and by the time we do, the industry leaders are on to something entirely different.

We pick the tried and true, because it seems safe, when it is precisely the opposite.

We choose average because it’s easy to manage and seems to scale. Until it doesn’t and we are left to wonder what the hell happened.

For most of us, the only way to win going forward is to eschew boring and average. We must know our customers better than the competition and use that information to treat different customers differently. We must commit to being intensely relevant and utterly remarkable. We must amplify our signal amidst the noise.

Let somebody else can make the cookies.






Just about everything is noise

The overwhelming majority of the ads that are run are not the least bit relevant to any one of us. In fact, we’ve grown accustomed to skipping through them when we can–or simply tuning them out when we can’t.

Even a well-curated social media stream contains an awful lot of information that we couldn’t care less about.

When we drive down the street–or walk through the mall–there are only a handful of stores we pass that we will ever walk into, much less buy anything from.

And within the stores we do visit–or the websites we traffic–it’s rare indeed that more than a tiny percentage of the product we see actually grabs our attention, commands true interest and captures any of our spending.

The fact is just about everything we encounter is noise. Advertising based upon interruption rather than permission. Marketing programs that are mostly one-size-fits-all, rather than rooted in treating different customers differently. Product assortments that suffer from a sea of sameness. An avalanche of data and a tsunami of stuff.

And the noise is growing. Consumer distraction and disinterest has become the norm.

When we accept that just about everything is noise, when we understand that, more and more, the power has shifted to the consumer, when we embrace the notion that attention is fast becoming the most precious asset for any brand, then we realize our challenge is not to merely copy best practices or do what we’ve always done, but just a little bit faster, cheaper or louder.

The challenge is to deeply understand our customers at a granular level,  to create and deliver something intensely relevant and remarkable and then to amplify the hell out of that sucker.

The challenge is to become the signal amidst the noise.






Retail’s great bifurcation

It’s not that malls are dying. In fact, many malls are not only surviving, quite a few are thriving.

Despite all the doomsayers, physical retail is not facing extinction. Not only are many retailers opening significant numbers of profitable locations, many of the most highly valued and rapidly growing pure-play online brands are opening brick & mortar locations. These new units are among the most productive of any specialty retail sites anywhere.

Department stores aren’t going away any time soon either, despite the constant buzz of consternation from Wall Street. Several major players are successfully reinventing themselves.

What IS happening is a great bifurcation. The proverbial fork in the road. The increasingly clear emergence of “have’s” and “have not’s. And the looming death in the middle.

“Class A” malls and the also-rans.

Retailers that have a well articulated target consumer and seamlessly meet those customers needs anytime, anywhere, anyway, versus stores drowning in a sea of sameness, offering disjointed service and peddling average products to average people.

Brands that either go big, efficient and cheap or intimate and remarkable, versus those that get stuck in the middle or are trapped in an inevitable race to the bottom.

There are obvious choices to be made. The chasm is widening. The poles are becoming more extreme.

Yet many of us remain stuck. Many brands keep straddling the line.We fail to choose because a bold commitment seems risky, when in fact it is our inaction that is the riskiest decision of all.

Pick a lane. Start driving.

And you might want to step on the gas.


n = 1

I see dead marketing.

Strategies deeply rooted in average products for average people. Campaigns that haven’t answered the fundamental question: “who’s this for?” Promotions desperately (and pointlessly) trying to out-Amazon Amazon. Programs that reek of me-too-ness.

It’s never been a good idea to promulgate the undifferentiated, the uninteresting, the irrelevant. But today that nonsense will get you killed.

When the power has shifted to the consumer, when there is little scarcity of product, information and access, when top-line growth must increasingly come from stealing market share, tried and true, one-size-fits all approaches are dying.

“N = everybody marketing”–i.e. the mass marketing that is the centerpiece of most marketers plans and the overwhelming consumer of their budgets–has the advantage of being efficient and comparatively easy to execute. It also has the pesky little problem of not working very well, if at all.

If you have not embraced a treat different customers differently philosophy, the odds are pretty good that you are falling behind. And every day that you procrastinate it only gets worse.

“But investing in mass-customization and personalization is really hard” you say. Perhaps. But what’s hardest of all–what’s really going to suck–is getting fired or having your company go out of business completely because you fail to change.

True “n = 1 marketing” may be unachievable any time soon for many brands, in every circumstance. But in a world where mass is ending and the power of the individual and the tribe is rising, where being intensely relevant and remarkable is the ONLY thing that creates a signal amidst the noise, for me, it’s pretty clear in which direction you should be heading.

Oh, and I’d hurry if I were you.