Personalization is rewriting the brand narrative

Even the most targeted message will fall flat without a great story, writes the CEO of BBH NY.

If there's one positive lesson to come out of the wild and woolly election, it's that storytelling is as powerful as ever.

From Facebook posts to email outreach, personalized targeting techniques were widely used in the election. While granular targeting can ensure that the right messages get in front of the right people, we often forget that the message itself is more than a mere component; it's the essence of marketing. Even the epidemic of fake news is confirmation that consumers connect with stories at an emotional level. As Mark Twain said: "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story."

Extreme personalization is meaningless without a great story to tell. For many brands that have set up Twitter, Facebook or Instagram accounts, it quickly becomes painfully obvious they have nothing to say. This demonstrates that, amid all the focus on distribution, especially in social media, personalized messaging must be anchored in a creative idea in order to break through and truly resonate with consumers.

Here are four ways marketers can pair strong storytelling with personalized targeting techniques:

Localization is not just about coupons. Now that we have the ability to target consumers via their mobile device, wherever they are, marketers have mostly thought of one thing: coupons. Yes, we all like a deal, but localization can also let you convey a sense of place. 

For example, our client Seamless recently used personalized local messages to underscore its brand promise. The brand used outdoor in New York City to remind New Yorkers of its connection to the city and its understanding of the culture. One ad, for instance, read "Pre-War Charm Always Includes a Pre-War Kitchen," a reference that would be lost on outsiders. Such localized ads show consumers that the brand understands them in a way that others don't.

Be part of the narrative in unfolding spectacles. When there's a huge unscripted event, people tune in because they don't know what's going to happen. They can guess, but watching events unfold before their eyes is the draw. Sometimes, brands can be part of the story. For instance, Disney has been getting Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks to say, "I'm going to Disney World!" since 1987. However, while Disney was once an outlier, now this technique is de rigueur.

The traditional advertising strategy was to look at tent-pole events, like the Super Bowl and the Oscars, as the key go-to solution. The new strategy is to tap into unexpected cultural moments that will help your brand personalize its message.

For example, during one of the GOP presidential primary debates, we, along with our client Netflix, took advantage of the rule barring actual candidates from running ads by running a satirical ad for Frank Underwood, the antihero from "House of Cards," to promote the premiere of the show's fourth season. The message resonated because most consumers didn't know about the rule and believed they were viewing a real political ad up until the end of the spot. The "FU2016" message caught them off-guard and became the number-one topic trending on Twitter during and following the GOP debate.

Be contextually relevant by being out of context. The Netflix example isn't an isolated case. Mobile and data-based targeting are upping the ante for advertisers. Soon, consumers will expect all of their marketing messages to be contextually relevant. They'll also expect advertisers to do something clever with the opportunity. Ironically, being "contextually relevant" in this case means being out of context and showing up somewhere that consumers don't expect. 

For instance, Uber used drones in Mexico City to send messages to a very captive audience—people stuck in traffic. The ads taunted drivers with cards reading "Driving by yourself?" and "This is why you can never see the volcanoes."

Show gratitude, it's the last thing consumers will expect. Speaking of out of context, when was the last time you saw a thank-you ad from a marketer? Chances are, not often. That's because most marketers see their relationship with their customers as transactional. After the sale is made, why reach out, unless you're trying to sell something else? This is the wrong approach. Marketers should use the data at their disposal to attempt to make their customers' lives easier or more pleasant, even if there's no immediate sale. 

What does this have to do with storytelling? Everything. It rewrites the narrative between customer and brand in a positive way.

Advertisers have never had greater opportunities to be both creative and targeted. Such choices can seem overwhelming, but they should also be inspiring. With our data and distribution capabilities, for the first time we have the option to speak to consumers as individuals. It's time to call upon our greatest storytelling talents so we don't blow this chance.

—Mike Densmore is CEO of BBH NY and global chief growth officer of BBH

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free