What’s the future of marketing?
This is the question I set out to answer when I took the stage at the 2019 edition of the always-excellent Brand ManageCamp conference. My keynote, dubbed Marketing 2025, came late on day 2 of the agenda, after attendees’ heads were already full-to-overflowing with actionable advice from well known experts and top-notch presenters.
Against this backdrop, my presentation was more eye-opening than actionable — after all, nobody knows what the next five years will bring and many of my ideas about what could be coming (whether within the next five years or not) aren’t quite here yet. Obviously… But as I told my BMC audience last week, and as I often tell my audiences any time I present, it is important to consider the future in order to start making the right decisions and taking the right steps to prepare for it, today.
Now, as those of you who have been following my work for years know, I am something of a reformed marketer. After decades spent in the marketing trenches and one book later (plug: many of the ideas in that book are actually more relevant today than they were when I wrote it 10 years ago), it has actually been quite a while since I’ve addressed an audience made up of nothing but marketers. So while my presentation drew upon my usual themes related to exponential change, digital transformation and human transformation, it also laid out what I see as five need-to-know trends for brand marketers — and I thought I’d write this post to summarize some of what I shared at BMC.
So, What’s the Future of Marketing?*
*According to me. (And I reserve every right to be wrong.)
For the TL;DR crowd, my take is that as a result of shifting human beliefs, behaviors and expectations; and powered by big data, artificial intelligence, extended reality, automation and emergent business models, the future of marketing will shaped by five forces:
The Artificial (Augmented, Virtual, Extended Realities)
Deeper readers, continue on for more details and some examples. You can also find my full slide set on Slideshare.
The Future of Marketing is Experiential
House of Showfields reimagines retail as an immersive, Instagrammable experience that’s part theater, part art exhibit and part storefront for direct-to-consumer brands.
Of my five projections, this one is closest-in. It’s already playing out today — with the majority of companies saying they compete primarily on the basis of customer experience and with disruptors like Uber, Airbnb and Spotify raising the bar for excellence in customer experience, every brand should already be thinking about how to become an experience.
Consider how a product like Apple Card veers away from the typically stale, somewhat cumbersome bank card application/activation process by being both bank-free and mobile-first; how Beam taps into IoT and ‘small’ data to blur the line between dental insurance and oral hygiene (with cost and health benefits baked into their subscriptions); or the way immersive pop-ups like Showfields in New York or best-in-class lifestyle retailers like Lululemon and REI reimagine the store to buck the retailpocalypse.
Key Takeaway: To thrive in the experience economy, you must become an experience company. Recognize that the last great experience your customer had with any company is now the standard experience they expect of your company.
The Future of Marketing is Personal
We are making a shift from a single mass culture to millions of micro-cultures.
microMARKETING posited that mass culture was splintering into millions of highly focused micro-cultures whereby audiences form around passions rather than personas. Today (and into the future), thanks to digital, big data and artificial intelligence, we are seeing this play out in practice with the promise of an “audience of one” becoming more of a reality than ever before. Personalization will be a key driver of distinction, not only in terms of how we promote our products but in the very nature of the products themselves.
Consider how advertising technologies like Google’s Director Mix allowed Netflix to assemble and air more than 1 million different Narcos video ads, personalized to YouTube viewers based on content, context, interests and behaviors rather than demographics.
Or how Intelligent X brews personalized beers that are custom tailored to each individual buyer’s tastes.
Or how, with the acquisition of Dynamic Yield, McDonald’s imagines a transformed drive-thru experience that could ultimately be personalized for each and every customer based on everything from prior purchases to wait times and weather.
Having said all this, I would be remiss not to “remind” brand managers that with great power comes great responsibility. While data will drive unprecedented levels of personalization, your protection of and responsible use of that data will drive consumer comfort, trust and acceptance.
Key Takeaway: Marketing is human-to-human. Data, analytics and AI will power new levels of personalization and customization. In fact, your customers will come to expect truly one-of-a-kind interactions with your brand, but businesses will need to earn the right to truly ‘know’ their customers and continually prove that they are responsible in the ethical use of their data.
The Future of Marketing is ‘Artificial’
Sephora Visual Artist uses augmented reality and your mobile device to let you try on looks without entering a store or picking up a makeup brush.
Yes, it’s increasingly important for businesses to embrace authenticity. Consider CVS’s ‘Beauty in Real Life’ movement, the rise of micro-influencers (something I foresaw in microMARKETING a decade ago — ahem), and of course the level of social media transparency demanded by customers of many companies. But here, I chose to focus on the counter-trend toward augmented, virtual and even obviously inauthentic experiences — and how these might play out over the coming years.
Australian department store Myer has partnered with eBay to pilot a retail store that exists only in virtual reality, while EDM artist Marshmello has performed for an estimated 10 million fans in Fortnite.
And then there’s Lil Miquela — one of a handful of inarguably artificial influencers, with millions of social media followers and a stable of lucrative brand sponsorships — hinting at a future in which your brand may have its own customized, (eventually) AI-driven digital ambassador that represents your ideal customer and connects with your prospective customers in ways you wish today’s human influencers could.
Key Takeaway: Brands will come to life in the blur between physical and digital, as consumers no longer draw the line between online and off. Even if consumers expect authenticity from your business, they will embrace the augmented, virtual and artificial as tools for convenience and components of experience.
The Future of Marketing is Automated
Robot inventor Hiroshi Ishiguru poses with his digital doppelganger. For me, this image is a metaphor for the coming age of trusted machines, the algorithms and smart assistants that will know us as well as we know ourselves, and act as the intermediaries between companies and their customers.
Consumers already implicitly trust product recommendations from digital assistants like Alexa, Siri and Cortana — even in light of the privacy issues that have come to light of late. As humans trust algorithms over brands today, we are just now entering a new age of trusted machines — one in which we trust algorithms to do our buying for us.
CX expert Steve Van Belleghem has written about two coming waves of automated buying: first for our needs (staples, commodities, and so on), and then for our wants. First for the simple things, and then for the more complex (like insurance policies or vacation travel). I agree wholeheartedly, and hinted at this when I wrote about the introduction of Amazon Dash in 2015. We’ve come a long way toward automation and intelligent assistance since then and I believe this trend will accelerate in the coming years.
While many brands already market to machines (writing copy that appeals to Google’s algorithm as much as it appeals to human readers), the coming reality that machines will increasingly act as unbiased intermediaries between brands and their customers will be one of the most disruptive changes for marketers.
Key Takeaway: Algorithmic automated buying will result in unprecedented brand lock-in for some and unbeatable brand lock-out for others. While human brand loyalty may stack the cards for success, a brand’s ability to earn the trust of trusted machines will be the ultimate decider between “always order” and “never consider”.
The Future of Marketing is Access
Automakers are imagining a future after ownership, as providers of mobility-as-a-service. Every brand needs to consider its own future as access.
Sure, a brand’s access to its own customers per my prior point… but what I really mean here is a widespread shift away from product ownership to x-as-a-service subscription models.
Examples of the access economy (subscription economy, sharing economy, circular economy — pick your poison) abound: Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Spotify, Spinlister, Rent The Runway, even resale markets on eBay or Facebook.
Upstarts like UpChoose are tackling the bane of many a parent’s existence (purchasing kids’ clothes knowing any given item may only get one or two wearings) by offering a use-then-return kids’ clothes subscription, while big brands like Nike are getting in on this trend with their own children’s sneaker club (hat tip to Joseph Jaffe who shared this last example during his own BMC presentation based on his book Built to Suck).
While it would be premature (and a bit too black-and-white) to foretell the end of ownership, it’s undeniable that access will become a much more common model in the years to come — whether for economic or environmental reasons. The shift to access has already caused massive disruption in some industries (music, movies) and is poised to remake many more markets. For example, virtually every automotive manufacturer is grappling with what it will mean to provide mobility-as-a-service (and sell far fewer vehicles) as it becomes evident that the car of the future is self-driving and shared.
As a shift to access happens in one industry, it becomes vital that players in other industries anticipate its wider effects. For example, what would mobility-as-a-service mean for auto insurers? With fewer vehicles and drivers to insure, will they falter or fail? Or will they shift their model toward on-demand, pay-per-use protection for passengers when and only when they need it — like SURE RideSafe insurance, with coverage that is in effect only while a subscriber is riding in an Uber or Lyft?
Key Takeaway: Your business model will be your brand. While this is a whole-company concern, as a marketer you should play a key role in reimagining your product as a service and positioning it for survival in the age of access. Being on the frontline of changing consumer demands gives you an outsized opportunity to shape your company’s entire business strategy.
If, as the futurist Alvin Toffler once wrote, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn,” then the successful 21st century marketer must be able to learn, unlearn and relearn too.
The bottom line is that by 2025 (heck, by 2020) marketing could look very different than it looks today. While some of the fundamentals will survive marketing disruption, some will be called into question as a result of not just the exponential advance of our toolset but by inexorable shifts in consumer behaviors, beliefs and expectations.
When we look back from the future, it will be clear that tomorrow’s thriving brands will have been built by the marketers who embraced ambiguity and tapped into emergent technologies to transform the way they connect with their next generation of customers, today.