As an academic who studies the intersection of marketing and technology – and as the Director of the Oxford Future of Marketing Initiative at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School – I am often asked to opine on what I think the future of marketing will look like 1, 2, 5 or even 10 years from now. I wish I had a crystal ball that told me all the answers, but of course I don’t. Instead, when asked about this I try to think about the aspects that are less obvious, the ones that marketers, even the most digitally savvy in the profession, might overlook.
I had the opportunity to ponder this recently, as I prepared for my keynote address at this year’s Teradata Universe conference, and after spending a week in New York with a group of my MBA students visiting marketing, advertising and media companies to hear about this topic from senior executives who are shaping the future of marketing. Although there are undoubtedly many things to consider, and digital transformation of marketing is an inherently dynamic and complex challenge for organizations, I think there are four critical things that marketers need to keep in mind as they prepare for the future. Technology is dramatically changing what we do, but successful digital transformation isn’t all about the tech.
1. We need more “whole-brain” marketers.
I’m not sure where the term “whole-brain” comes from, but basically it means a combination of the analytical, calculative and quantitative “left brain” and the creative, intuitive and qualitative “right brain”. For years I’ve introduced the topic of marketing to my MBA students in the first session of their marketing course by explaining the importance of whole-brain thinking when it comes to marketing. Basically, marketers should be good at both the quant and the qual stuff (or, perhaps more realistically, marketing teams should have a good combination of people with left- and right-sided strengths). You cannot be a top-performing marketer without a good eye for creativity, messaging and innovative thinking and problem solving; but you also cannot be great without being comfortable with data and analytics. In an increasingly data-rich future for marketing, this will become all the more important. But creativity and innovative thinking in a world of data, AI and automation won’t be redundant, as it takes a creative mind to figure out what to do with masses of data, how to interpret seemingly confusing analytics results and, importantly, how to identify the right “story” to tell that comes out of data-intensive analytics/insights processes.
The whole-brain perspective also seems to make good business sense. For example, Kantar Consulting’s Insights2020 study from a couple of years ago found that 71% of the over-performing organizations in their large-scale global study had adopted whole-brain thinking (vs. only 42% of the under-performers in their sample). It goes to show, that having a balance makes a good business sense and it is definitely an important aspect of marketing for the future. The risk, however, is that the profession becomes increasingly quant and driven by data-science, which we must be cautious about.
2. It will not be enough to be customer centric. You have to be customer obsessed.
The marketing world pretty much has accepted the premise of customer centricity, and, as I discussed in a Forbes CMO post last year, creating value for customers has to be at the heart of how we think about marketing strategy. But in an ever-changing, fast-paced world where consumers’ expectations can be exceedingly high and it is harder and harder for brands to deliver truly valuable and differentiated products and services, this might not be enough. Why not? You have to deeply care about what your customers think, feel and do; you need to be customer obsessed. (I mean obsession in a good way, of course.) This means going above and beyond, and this can be fueled by data and sophisticated analytics.
Notwithstanding legitimate concerns about customer data protection, rights to privacy and associated ethical and appropriate-use considerations, first-party customer data will increasingly be a critical marketing assets for organizations. Not only because it makes programmatic advertising or precision targeting work better (although it definitely can), but also because it can provide the raw inputs into a sophisticated data-analytics and customer-insights machine that, ultimately, helps you know your individual customers really well. And knowing each of your customers is what a customer obsession is all about. This can then lead to the ability to personalize products and services (digital and otherwise) at scale, which is what the customer of the future will come to expect. Even though this is facilitated by technology (for data collection, processing and analytics), this is fundamentally about giving customers a better and more personal experience. The human touch can be wonderful, but to do it efficiently and at scale we need to leverage technology.
3. Digitization of everything.
Often when we think of digital marketing we look to the digital-first or digital-native companies as being the leaders and innovators. And invariably they are. But what often strikes me as being more interesting is to look at the organizations that have analog businesses. One example I often talk about is theme parks such as the Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL. Think of the Disney Parks experience and it conjures up all sorts of memories, probably some nostalgia and, for some, the dread of crowding and lengthy queues on hot summer days. Over the last few years Disney has invested in technology on a grand scale with the installation of sensors, IoT devices (i.e., wearables) and the development of the MyMagic+ platform that pulls it all together. What they have done is “digitized” an otherwise analog experience. This helps them collect data to fuel an real-time insights and analytics machine, leads to operational efficiencies and can feed into innovation and experience improvement activities.
We are starting to see these kinds of initiatives as a hallmark of digital transformation in the case of real-world, physical services and products, which is driven a lot by IoT and real-time data capture and analytics capabilities. For marketers thinking about the future, this means that it is necessary to be thinking about how all processes, all systems, all experiences and all customer journey pathways and touchpoints could be digitized. But, and this is important, in doing so it is imperative for marketers to question the efficacy of a complete digital overhaul. Yes, it is possible, but do you need it? Will sticking sensors on everything really produce better insights? Can these insights, as wonderful as they might be, be actioned on quickly enough?
The last question–can insights be actioned on quickly enough–is a really key issue for many companies. I often find that when I talk to marketing professionals about digital transformation one of the problems they figure out is that their internal systems (e.g., team structures, reporting processes, feedback loops and knowledge-sharing systems) are not agile and fast-moving enough for a fully digitized assortment of customer touchpoints with the associated data streams and analytics outputs. They want to get there, but before they get to real-time decision making they need to get from quarterly decisions to monthly, then to weekly and so on. Regardless, the future imperative will be to digitize everything that isn’t already digital so that data can be captured if/when needed. Otherwise keeping up with the digital-first competitors will be impossible.
4. Be more human than ever before.
The last critical aspect that I believe marketers should keep in mind as they prepare for the future is perhaps the most important one. In a world of technology, automation, data streams, AI, advanced analytics and more, we should not turn our backs on the human side of things. In fact, being more human than your competitors may become a key differentiator. This does not mean turning one’s back on technology. On the contrary–it means using technology in ways that make the human experiences your company creates (for customers, employees and other business partners) the best they can be. To do this, however, one must start with the desired human experience and work backwards to developing a technology-enabled set of solutions that can deliver it.
Ultimately, the future is bright for marketing. I love technology, and am thoroughly excited by the potential of smart and ethical uses of data in all facets of marketing. But if we only think of the digital transformation of marketing as about technology implementation and the acquisition of lots of shiny new digital toys, then we will miss the point entirely.