Personalisation is making waves in the marketing community. What started as the tailoring of an email greeting (from the stock ‘Dear Valued Customer’ to the cheerily familiar ‘Dear Louise’) is evolving rapidly and imaginatively.

When, towards the end of last year, Marmite offered its users the chance to add their or someone else’s name to a jar of the black stuff, the brand team were in no doubt that they were contributing to a growing, influential trend. There is plenty of evidence to support this view, that consumers interpret the creation of personalised content as a real, active interest in relationship building.
And, of course, personalisation doesn’t stop at product labelling. In an expanding digital environment, the combination of data and technology has transformed the possibilities for monitoring consumer behaviour, assessing consumer needs, targeting and styling communications with ever greater precision.

Social media mining has enabled brands to deliver personalised content recommendations. Advances in technologies like NFC (Near Field Communication) and Bluetooth have breathed new life into the marketing adage ‘the right message to the right person at the right time’. As a result, it has become more realistic to speak of one-to-one relationships between brands and consumers.

Indeed, as long as a balance is maintained between relevance and intrusiveness, consumers seem no longer willing to accept generic messages and offers, knowing that organisations have access to tools which facilitate a more sophisticated and rewarding interaction.

So, personalisation is here to stay. It’s a classic win-win. It benefits brands by helping generate engagement, distinctiveness and retention. It benefits consumers who can be overwhelmed by the volume of product and service related content to which they are exposed and who value some intelligent editing based on an informed, sensitive understanding of their wants and needs.
And, of course, personalisation is pretty crucial in my specialist field too, the successful management of business relationships. Few would doubt that knowing your clients or agency advisors thoroughly and genuinely is the cornerstone of a mutually fulfilling collaboration.

But there is a watch out with buzzwords like personalisation. Apparently, all marketing interventions at the moment have to be agile and disruptive. The irresistible allure of these behaviours has led to overuse, misuse and on occasions a discrediting of powerful underlying concepts. Similarly, personalisation runs the risk of being applied too liberally, stretched too thinly.

This point was well made by Leonie Roderick in her Marketing Week piece from last November (10.11.15): “Personalisation isn’t about calling consumers by their name, but rather about brands making an emotional connection with them as individuals that transcends labels and packaging.”

As Roderick’s article asserts, in truth therefore, having your name printed on a Marmite jar is not personalisation; it is a form of customisation, falling short of that emotional connection which results from a truly personalised approach.

In managing business relationships too it is still common to encounter a well-intentioned but essentially customised approach to client/agency liaisons. Not as simplistic as name/gender/location/job description but certainly failing definitively to isolate individuals from the organisations which employ them, from the roles they perform or from the disciplines they practise.
Organisational cultures can be strong but businesses don’t have relationships with businesses. People have relationships with people. Equally, not all agency account directors operate in the same way and not all marketers adhere to the same school of marketing. A client development plan which focuses on growing business with the client company but omits a tailored strategy for working more effectively with the client people is certainly better than no plan at all but is just such an example of customisation rather than personalisation.

The advantages to be gained from understanding individual business associates both professionally and personally, from adopting behaviours which in major and minor ways demonstrate that comprehension, are hard to exaggerate. They can be the source of telling differentiation.

My favourite example of knowing your clients personally comes from the middle of the 18th century. During that period at Berry Bros. & Rudd, St James’s world famous wine and spirits merchants, they actually used to weigh their clients, a practice which was both useful in a pre-healthcare era and which became fashionable among high profile customers like Lord Byron.
These days brandishing bathroom scales would certainly be inappropriate but weighing up what’s on a client’s mind, professionally and personally, remains a reliable route through to a level of connectedness which establishes and nurtures rapport and trust.

And as Keith Weed, chief marketing and communications officer at Unilever, wrote in last week’s Campaign magazine (13.05.16), extolling the virtues of clients and agencies working more closely together: “…trust is the magic ingredient that builds brands that make an impact, brands that matter.”
Business relationships are founded on trust. It cannot be customised. It’s personal.