Unpredictable individualism

This is an unedited version of an article which appeared in the September 2016 edition of Market Leader, the strategic marketing journal for business leaders, and is reproduced with their permission. To subscribe, visit www.warc.com/bookstore.

Just a few weeks ago, I was having dinner with five white middle-class friends. All mid-30’s, all married, all homeowners, and all with steady jobs in or around London. We were a segmentation dream, neatly sat together ready to have our stock photo taken and be labelled with a two-word alliterative title.

Looking round the table, I noticed something odd, though. Two of us were wearing normal, old-school watches. Another one had a classic 80’s Casio. There was one without a watch, one with a FitBit, and one with what seemed to be a useless piece of plastic strapped to his wrist. (On closer inspection, this turned out to be an Apple Watch.)

Credit: Dieselsweeties

As the conversation got going, more differences emerged. An even split across iPhone, Android, and Windows phones. Three of us would have chips implanted for identification purposes and contactless payments, three were horrified at the idea. Two refused to have any financial information on their phones for fear of data security – one of whom was the FitBit wearer, a laggard in one sense and an early adopter in another. Three did no kind of financial budgeting at all, whilst the other three religiously kept their receipts and ticked them off at the end of each month. One wasn’t even on Facebook.

It struck me that in amongst all of the well-known emerging trends such as global connectivity and quantified self, there was one that could have a bigger impact on companies than any other – customer divergence.

A yellow fish swim in the opposite direction of a group : Think

This isn’t just about similar people having unexpectedly different views (Martin Hayward covered that superbly in his piece on Segmentation in June).  The new world is one of frequently changing minds and inconsistent preferences, driven by a barrage of influences from friends, family, and followers. It’s a world where we all desire to be seen as individuals, captured brilliantly by Pamela Bath’s article on the future of personalisation in the last edition of Market Leader, recognising that ‘it ultimately comes back to the basic human need to be recognised and valued.’

This means that every day, customers will choose the most useful option for them in the moment, and may choose differently each time. Shall I use cash, contactless, or Oyster? Uber, Taxi, or Tube? Burger & Lobster, Dine in for a tenner, or Deliveroo? Do I feel more ‘Premium’ or ‘Value’ today? This hour? This minute?

The much-maligned Banking industry demonstrates the challenge this creates for companies. It used to be simple – you went into a branch, and did everything via Cash or Cheque. Then telephone banking appeared, followed by online banking, mobile banking, and TV banking. New ways to chat, new ways to pay, new ways to complain. The only problem is that as these new ways appeared, the old ones refused to die, providing an increasingly rich choice of options for customers, and an ever-growing headache of processes and systems for banks to manage.


Credit: RBS Heritage archives

So the good news for customers is that it’s never been easier to appear wholly individual in their tastes, and for companies to reduce the effort needed to experience products & services. But the bad news for companies is that customers will always look for most useful option, the path of least resistance to get to where they want to go – whether it’s your company or not.

As always, companies who take the time to really understand what their customers’ value – rather than simply monitoring Twitter and overweighting the opinion of the outraged and techno-dazzled – will do well in the next decade. But those companies who react to that insight by building flexibility into their core will truly excel, giving the ability to change and react to their customers’ whims and wants, and to whatever it is they choose to wear on their wrists…

Thank you for reading this article, I really hope you enjoyed it. If you did, I’d love you to subscribe to my blog at johnjsills.com/subscribe to get new thoughts sent to you on an infrequent basis, and find me on twitter @johnJsills

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