The notion that a brand can bypass the need to present a compelling offer and to engage honestly with conviction, yet still secure breakthrough sales and market share growth, is not really a new one.

Remember that book “The Game” that recently celebrated its 10 year anniversary? If you don’t, then let me introduce you to the world of Pick Up Artists (PUA) that hold the book in very high regard.

The average PUA prides themselves on their ability to entrance and engage with the opposite sex using an array of tactics borrowed from a pastiche of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), cognitive psychology, and straight-out manipulation.

An unspoken principle or tenet upon which the whole culture sits is that by having abstracted data about common social situations and knowing “the rules,” one can bypass the need to engage honestly and can secure real outcomes that are outside of what would be normally possible.

To be a great PUA, you may not need to be attractive, attentive, or even a good person. Just follow the rules and you’ll succeed where others fail.

What occurred to me recently is that Big Data has the power to turn marketers into a bunch of PUAs and, in the process, degrade our creative capacity, the “big ideas” and even the beauty and design that has been a tool of the trade since the Mad Men ’60s.

Because who needs to spend time and money on cut-through creative or “big ideas” when you know exactly who is ready to buy and what offer will most likely result in a sale? What marketer needs to even listen and care when they’ve already abstracted and crunched the numbers to understand a customer’s desires, needs and purchase lifecycle, just by monitoring their target audiences’ interaction with an modern explosion of explicit and implicit touchpoints?

In the old days, we had to have a milkshake to bring all the boys to the yard, and then segment and communicate with them most appropriately to maximize conversion to sale.

We somewhat naively strove to enchant our customers and, in the process, competed amongst ourselves to have the biggest, loudest and smartest message, the prettiest ad, a cut-through label, the most complete communications plan and — well, you get the picture.

Tundra across the floor

Evolutionary market forces kept pushing us to forever change and flourish creatively in order to win the battle for consumer attention and inclination.

Yesterday, I walked into a store and didn’t see an assistant until I purchased my goods. There may have literally been tundra blowing across the floor for all the desolation I felt. When I handed over my membership number, they promptly asked me whether I’d consider purchasing from the new range as I’d done this in the past. Where’s the magic in that? Where’s the effort? Hello? You may as well change my name to an alphanumeric tag!

Wise old wizened retailers used to lecture us to “listen to your customer.” Well, we did. Big time. At last count on a recent purchase, there were upwards of 25 individual things I did during a purchase process that were assessed by the retailer. All that data serves to progressively tell us who we should listen to — and who we can profitably ignore.

The more I feel I’m a part of a marketing algorithm, the more I want to reject the averaging process behind it. I’m not a number, and my past behavior — though depressingly predictive — has no bearing on my future. But more importantly, sometimes I’d just like to abandon the identifiable characteristics that are becoming the bible that marketers use to build my profile.

In fact, I’m much more tempted to reward any brand or business that is a part of the shrinking but inspiring expansionist process of initiating discourse and engaging with their market, rather than the proliferating reductive approach that data-reliant brands are using today.

So then, what about this inspiration business? Is there an app for that? Can we somehow use data to do that too?

It comes down to whether we accept incremental or step-change innovation. Incremental change is the love child of correlations and modelling; it’s predictable and relies on deductive reasoning. It requires us to develop a theory, make predictions and observe the outcome, then make slight changes for increasing gain.

The huge opportunity

On the other side, step-change is affected like a bolt from the blue and is often unrelated to data already amassed, knowledge or models already built. This approach requires us to observe an action, form reasons for why it happened, and then react.

To a PUA marketer, you, the customer, are the sum of your parts. This means that your individual actions on all their brand touchpoints can predict your future behaviors and opportunities for sales. Each action is a “tell” or “sign” which, increasingly, will modulate their business response and interactions with you.

Understand that if you show signs of not caring about price or, even worse, needing a product or service urgently, you can expect that within the next year or so it won’t only be the airlines that are jacking up prices because they know you’ll pay.

But within this reductionist doomsday scenario lies the huge opportunity that more aware marketers can seize. It goes like this:

Going by the cold war concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), you can expect businesses to by and large convert to wholesale use of correlate marketing and big data analysis over the next few years.

We can’t afford not to — it’s like the limbo bar has just dropped an inch and we all need to get more flexible just to keep in the game.

In fact, with increasing data sharing, pooling and potential reselling of negative data, you can expect everyday marketing will also complete its journey from offline to online at a significantly faster pace, with both retention and acquisition marketing embracing a big data approach.

The Gotye effect

This will herald a new age of fully data-driven marketing. Most marketing campaigns will use your prior actions, wants, needs and lack of actions to reduce cost, increase response and justify investment. Most decisions will be supported by data, so what marketer would be brave enough to do otherwise?

But be aware that as data-driven marketing becomes the gold standard, it will lose all of its current competitive advantage. Always remember that underneath the label of “data driven” is the hidden true label of “deductive reasoning.” The key difference here is the approach, for those marketers that continue to take inductive leaps, as well as or rather than deductive steps, the rewards will be market share growth and sustained competitive advantage.

The reason for this is that sometimes my next purchase will make no sense, causing most deductive marketers to freak out. It’s not that the purchase decision is wrong — simply that it’s out of sync with my, or major market, movements.

This is what I call the Gotye effect. No one really predicted that his song, “Someone that I used to know,” was going to be as big as it was. But those that reacted and adapted to the style, rather than freak out because the modeling didn’t work, reaped rewards.

Because the moments when we act beyond our norm, or break from our patterns, are more often than not, great ones.

Ultimately, it’s these game-changing and life-changing decisions that can build lifelong brand loyalty — by being there with the customer or market or linking these moments to products or services.

Which would you rather associate your brand with, a predictable approach or a dynamic unexpected one? In a crowded M.A.D. market, which do you think is a more profitable context supporting competitive differentiation?

Dan Ferguson is the CMO at online graphic design marketplace

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