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The Future of Marketing is Human.


A while back I visited the Museum of Failure in Los Angeles. Seriously, this is a real thing–– a pop-up museum showcasing decades of really bad marketing ideas. My personal favorite? Gerber Singles––meals in a jar targeted at young adults who didn’t have time to cook. And as we know, nothing says your life sucks more than eating dinner in a jar…from a baby food brand.

This experience jolted me into thinking about how marketers, no matter how well-intentioned, can become better equipped to embrace change and avoid being showcased in the Museum of Failure.

We’re living in a period of unprecedented change. Massive demographic shifts. Shifting cultural norms. Media fragmentation. New technologies. The power of data. Low barriers to entry. New business models disrupting the status quo. 

Change is simply the new normal. The marketers that succeed will be those that quickly adapt, developing the skills to rapidly test, learn and iterate. Being open to change isn’t a best practice, it’s a survival skill. (As has been said, if you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less!)

The most exciting part of where marketing is heading is what we are returning to. We’re moving past the phase of being dazzled by shiny new marketing technologies, applying them simply because we can. We’re remembering that on the other side of that screen, those VR goggles, or holding the mobile app…there is a human being. 

Human Centered Design, and by extension, Human Centered Marketing, starts with genuine empathy. Human centered marketers don’t draw inspiration from the latest technologies. They draw inspiration from people. They develop an empathetic understanding of their journey, needs, and aspirations.

This is not about going analog. Far from it! Data and marketing technologies give us more ways to be more relevant and personalized to customers. Addressable TV enables us to use Mass Media as 1:1 marketing. First party data segmentation enables us to personalize at scale. Machine Learning helps technology be more intuitive. (Just ask Alexa.) Data provide the ability to better understand people––how they’re alike, how they’re unique, how we can help them.

But we know, too, that there is a dark side to technology, to social media, to seeing humans as algorithms. We are witnessing an erosion of trust concurrent with an increase in isolation, social bubbles, and stress.

This is why I've embraced a simple truth: what’s true in life should be true in marketing. If a marketer hopes to build lasting customer relationships, it must first earn the customer’s trust. Empathy is how we build trust in our personal relationships. So, too, in marketing. 

Empathy is different than being customer driven. (Hey, simply being customer driven leads to dinners in a jar for time-starved young adults!) Empathy is the ability see the world through another person’s eyes…to truly understand their experience by standing in their shoes.

Practitioners of Human Centered Design start by putting aside preconceived ideas and instead focus on understanding the people they are designing for. It involves discovering what people are trying to accomplish; how they want to feel; their unarticulated needs; their pain points. Successful marketers increasingly understand that true customer empathy is a source of differentiation.

We see signals pointing to the future of marketing in many of the disruptive marketing frameworks that take a human centered approach to helping people accomplish goals. 

Direct-to-Customer Marketers such Casper, Warby Parker and Carvana are disrupting categories by uncovering unarticulated needs and designing new experiences that are convenient, friction-free and personalized. (DTC marketers have the added advantage of capturing 1st Party Data, enabling them to maintain ongoing relationships with their customers.) 

Subscription Marketers, similar to DTC brands, solve real customer pain points yet have the added benefit of continuously learning how to personalize the experience. Stitch Fix learns more about its customers each month based on what clothing they return or keep. Netflix uses machine learning to understand what we like to binge. And in a surprising move, John Hancock recently announced it will only underwrite “interactive insurance” policies for customers who agree to share health data from their wearable device. (Subscription models have a huge financial benefit to these marketers, generating a more predictable revenue stream and greater lifetime value per customer.)

Mobile 1st Marketers use mobile as a business strategy, not a media channel. Mobile 1st businesses apply Human Centered Design to understand the customer journey, especially the unarticulated pain points, and use mobile to help people accomplish tasks. Delta has done a brilliant job of this, even down to solving the latent anxiety felt by many travelers who worry whether their bag was successfully loaded on the plane. Domino’s is also embracing a Mobile 1st approach, not just with their Pizza Tracker, but now with the launch of Domino’s Hot Spots nationwide.

Purpose-Driven companies are human centered, but in a different way. Brands such as Tom’s, Chobani and Dove aren’t listening to customers to figure out how to be more relevant. They are guided by a clear sense of purpose about making the world a better place. They operate as a force for positive change and attract people who share that same belief. (Research increasingly shows a growing number of customers will consider a brand’s stand on social issues before making a choice.)

As I said at the start, change is simply the new normal. The most exciting change in marketing is how, in an increasingly digital age, we are returning our focus to the human experience. We’re remembering a timeless human lesson: To build lasting customer relationships, we must first earn the customer’s trust by designing experiences inspired by genuine human empathy.

Because what’s true in life, is true in marketing.