Marketers Need to Use Behavioral Data Responsibly to Really Connect With Consumers

Figuring out when to optimize loyalty and sidestep bias

Consumer control over content and marketing has disrupted established channels.
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I feel for marketers, not only because they are my clients and lifeblood, but because they are under siege in more ways than ever in the history of business.

For one, consumer control over content and marketing has disrupted established channels, applying pressure to CMOs to find alternatives that are meaningful and valuable. Not helping matters is Wall Street’s relentless fixation on short-term results, which inhibit good marketers’ chances of cultivating success with any degree of runway.

With greater consumer control and opportunity for ad avoidance comes a commensurate drop in brand loyalty, leading marketers to struggle mightily with how to best use behavioral data to foster a better one-to-one customer connection. You need to use the data—but more importantly, you need to use it responsibly.

Though the concept of the purchase journey has been around for more than a century, the way we understand it, analyze it and use the resulting data to a brand’s advantage must be tailor-made to the situation that a brand finds itself in today.

Recently, marketers have placed a priority on this data and, with it, understanding consumer purchase journeys, with new technology offering detailed insights into how and why people choose one brand over another. From my vantage point, though, this reliance on so-called big data leaves most marketers with a massive hole in their understanding of their customers—and therefore missed opportunities for growth. Most existing purchase journey maps focus entirely on the “active stage” (once a consumer identifies a want or need for something and is actively trying to decide what to buy) and fail to examine a critically important influence—people’s predisposition toward brands.

Since 2013, my agency Wavemaker has examined nearly 400,000 individual purchase journeys in over 70 categories across 38 countries. Our data tells us that in virtually half of all journeys, buyers have a strong idea of which brand they’ll buy before they begin choosing a product or service and are triggered into the active phase. In fact, someone is six times more likely to choose a brand she or he already has a strong bias toward, and it starts in the “priming stage”—the daily life of brand exposure when consumers aren’t necessarily in market for something in particular.

Unfortunately, in our experience this priming stage is often lost in a sea of immediacy as brands seek to convert in-market shoppers. Digital has exacerbated this, by prioritizing a focus on existing or known customers, on loyalty and short-term sales, but brand growth comes from reaching people we don’t know and don’t know that much about.

The biases people bring with them have a profound effect on their behavior when they reach the active stage, and that bias helps make choice easier: People actively consider only three brands in any given category and are far more likely to consider the brands they already deem valuable or meaningful. Like everything, though, biases vary, and, in some categories, bias is quite high. For example, 59 percent of people know which soft-drink brand they’ll buy before they even enter a store.

Other categories are the polar opposite. For example, with flat-screen TVs, people in general have low priming stage bias and are more easily influenced by marketing during the active stage where the purchase decision happens. Similarly, biases vary according to brand and also geography. If you’re looking to sell someone a luxury car, Chinese buyers take an average of three weeks to come to a decision, compared to three months for German buyers.

It is crucial for marketers to understand this bias and focus on how it can be created and maintained through brand communication during daily life, long before people start displaying the behavior that marketers typically use to identify their target audience and potential buyers.

As I prepare to take my place as president of the Media Lions jury at Cannes next month in France, the focus this year will be on the context of a brand’s media decisions. How are agencies and marketers using insights and data to make brands more relevant and distinctive in people’s minds along the purchase journey? What role does communications play and how are these touch points being prioritized to drive conversion? How is exposure being measured and optimized while delivering against a client’s KPIs?

This story first appeared in the May 28, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.