You know, marketers really need to know. The only trouble is, says marketing journalist Morag Cuddeford-Jones; I don’t know who I am half the time. So what chance have you got?


Here’s how to mess with marketers’ heads. Get up in the morning, stick on some of Pharrell’s nice, boppy Happy to get yourself going. Pop to the bathroom, lather up in some own-brand fragrance-free shower gel, then douse in Jo Malone smellies. Put on vegan shoes, grab hemp bag and pop to Costa for a bacon butty and full-fat latte. Spot of Iron Maiden for a mid-morning perk up, take Bella the bulldog for a quick walk, then home for some online shopping. John Lewis for a cute drinks trolley, Ocado for Seedlip (no gin is the new gin), Amazon for a steampunk cosplay outfit for Comic-Con. Take a quick call from the office because hey, who said a CEO could actually have a day off for God’s sake.

That’s the sort of ‘persona’ that is likely to give so-called ‘data-driven marketers’ whiplash.

What’s the real value of defining personas? I am not a number (or at least an algorithm), I am a free (wo)man! I am also different people depending on the day, month, minute and I can change my mind on a whim. That’s not a girl thing, that’s a human thing.

One minute, I aspire to be one of those ethereal, waspy, Hamptonites with honey blonde hair and a white picket fence. The next, I fancy myself plunged into deepest Borneo, every possession I own strapped to my back. More simply, I’ll be all about the avocado, turmeric and good intentions in the morning and by lunchtime, I’ll be channeling Nigella by practically bathing in melted butter and a snappy Sauvignon.

You’ll get no argument from me that personalization is important and that you buggers are getting better at it by the day. It’s the only explanation I have for you so successfully separating me from my hard-earned cash. Those ads that gently slide into my Instagram feed, showing me a vase that would go ‘just so’ with the rest of my painfully Millennial (before you ask, no, not a Millennial. Not by some considerable distance) succulents and rose gold everything. They just seem to know what I like. Well, what I liked at 10.31 this morning at any rate.

We humans are multi-layered, fickle, nuanced beings and trying to stuff us all into one of a handful of molds is a fool’s errand

But I don’t think those ads are based on a particular ‘persona’. In fact, defining people like Jilly Cooper did in Class* with Jen Teale and Harry Stow-Crat went out with the ark. We humans are multi-layered, fickle, nuanced beings and trying to stuff us all into one of a handful of molds is a fool’s errand.

Instead, that persona has to be a much broader, mobile set of characteristics. It has to be intelligent, ready to anticipate which particular skin we might be wearing at any given moment. Maybe there is some dark psychological art that knows I only scroll Instagram when I’m feeling my honeyed, Hamptonite best. It’s true that there’s a lot more White Company and John Lewis drinks trolley than Iron Maiden tickets or indie travel deals. Interestingly, they turn up most often on Tumblr. What are you trying to tell me about my Loki obsession?

Personas, like real humans (remember them? actual flesh and blood beings and not IP addresses?) don’t exist in isolation. They are impacted, influenced and changed by what’s happening around them. Context is all. In fact, you might want to look at how humans do context, if you want to teach your machines anything.

Take Pret, the ubiquitous sandwich chain. It’s already known for the legendary niceness of its staff. Probably the same can’t be said for its customers all the time. But staff have been given the ability to give away freebies – totally at their own discretion. These aren’t marketing professionals. The only real training they’ve had is in great person to person customer service, sandwich assembly and how to work the contactless point of sale. But they’ve been entrusted with one of marketers’ most precious assets – brand building and advocacy through personalization.

Importantly, it’s all in the moment and full of context. And it works.

What this means in practice is that a human with human common sense looks at the next customer and thinks ‘they could do with having their day brightened’, or ‘I bet if I give them a free fruit pot they’ll tell their colleagues when they get back’. Perhaps it’s as simple as ‘Oh, he’s cute. Free latte for you sir.’ Importantly, it’s all in the moment and full of context. And it works.

How you bring that into the digital world? That’s above my pay grade. I do words. I’m sure some clever people can figure out the 1s and 0s that get these data bits together. Judging by my credit card statement, you already are.

And it’s because marketing professionals seem to be on my side here, that contextualized, in the moment personalization is the ultimate goal. If you want the opinions of the professionals, how marketers are tackling personalization, working with data regulations, understanding context and getting all that magic to work together online, this whitepaper ought to do it: Global Leaders Debate Personalization in association with Forrester. It’s got the Pret story and more.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, that avocado didn’t quite hit the spot and there’s a Pot Noodle in the larder with my name on it.

*Seriously, you should read it. Screams 1973 but no less hilarious for it. Just…it’s not a textbook, ok?

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