Value Versus Message: Why Brands Have Data Backwards

Originally published on Campaign Asia.

Did you know that you can only make a limited number of good decisions in a day? After too many, something psychologists call decision fatigue sets in and you start making mistakes. That’s a big reason successful people like Mark Zuckerberg and Albert Einstein (yes, him) wear or wore the same outfit every day. No closet decisions, no energy wasted.

Decision fatigue is a paradox for companies today. They are creating more and more products, and those products create choices. Meanwhile, marketers and others are providing more and more information that consumers have to sift though. The unintended result is that we’re not only giving them too many decisions to make, it’s stressing people out.

Part of the problem is that we’re often missing the point of the data we have. Instead of targeting consumers with ever more precise messages, we should be using it to generate real-time value. To understand how this can work, let’s imagine you’re a man in your 40s, who wants to eat healthier. You research the possibilities and learn there are dozens of suggested programmes, each with its own competing and mutually incompatible suggestions. How can your narrow your choices and come to a decision?

At that point you get a message from your healthcare provider. It tells you that, given your age, family history, and the medications you’re taking, you should eat more of some things, less of others and less overall. This advice is not for everyone. It’s just for you, at this moment in your life. It gives you something you value very much: peace of mind that you’re making the right choices.

Believe it or not, this isn’t pure fantasy. Where I live in Singapore, the Ministry of Health has envisioned just such a system. It’s not online yet, but when it comes, it should use its wealth of data to anticipate our needs and deliver real value to us. In a world where choices are increasing, brands will need to provide value like this if they want to stay top of mind for consumers. To do that, however, we’ll need to keep a few things in mind.

Our current data-driven efforts work backwards. Right now, we are all trying to harness the immense amount of data we have. But we’re using it largely to target consumers more precisely with more effective messages. This programmatic advertising is not necessarily proving value; it’s much more like a jazzed up version of a general food recommendation. It’s creating as many problems as it solves for consumers.

Value comes from the individual out. The Singapore healthcare system will work in the other direction. It will look at our genetics and condition, and offer trusted recommendations for us. That will make life—and our decisions—easier. Of course, it won’t make eating healthy as tasty as the alternative, but at least we’ll understand our choices.

Real time means anticipating needs. Real time does not necessarily require you to be nimble and respond in the moment. It can simply mean getting on your customer’s timeline. Rather than a campaign schedule, the messages from the Singapore healthcare system will come based on age and condition. They will be real-time and data-driven too.

Value transcends messages. Of course we need to have the right messages, but value often comes in a more tangible form. Under Armour apps, for example, look at your recent performance and sleep patterns to make suggestions so that you can work out more effectively. That’s something you can use, not merely read.

You might think, “This all sounds great, but only a small number of brands can generate value in real time.” However, many more have the opportunity to do so than currently are. For example, it’s easy to imagine a financial institution providing more personalised and timely recommendations—or for transportation and airline apps to support us in a more individualised way. And the 'internet of things' should soon provide a massive opportunity for brands of many different kinds to deliver value in real time.

The key is to make use of the data we have now not merely to deliver messages to ever more precise targets, but to generate value in the moment. This will require creative thinking around data for most brands, but last time I checked, we are a creative industry.

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