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banner Monday, 9 July, 2001, 12:40 GMT 13:40 UK
Brand-builders talk your language
One-to-one marketing is probably the most momentous retailing evolution we will see this century, writes author Martin Lindstrom. And the key to it could well be the net.

Two weeks ago, I went to a small perfume store in New York City. I made the visit at the behest of a friend desperate for me to experience the shop's wares which were, reportedly, unique. And indeed they were.

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Each and every one of its products was individually produced according to the customer's personality and preferences. Even the labels were individually designed.

The experience left me wondering if such an enterprise might be the precursor of future marketing practice.

Could these individually-concocted perfumes represent the crest of the one-to-one wave which, in five years, may break on the consumer's shore? Or might the one-to-one wave lose its force and recede?

Buying a lifestyle

Over the past four decades, branding has evolved. In the 1950s, a brand drew potency from a product's claim to uniqueness.

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By the '80s, it was the organisation behind the product that was promoted as making the difference. The Body Shop, for instance, created a cult reputation around their corporate identity.

Then, in the '90s, the Brand Selling Proposition (BSP) surfaced, which created a culture around a brand. The consumer didn't really mind what the product was like as long as it wore the "right" label. Think of Pokémon and you'll understand the BSP goal.

Now, the MSP - Me Selling Proposition - has emerged. This promotes products over which the consumer has 100% control and which are, therefore, unique.

Made for you alone

The brand is no longer necessarily a publicly recognisable identity. It can be splintered into infinite entities by "my" branding, informed by individual consumer criteria. Not surprisingly, this has the potential to create brands to which consumers feel tied.

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In the United States, Volvo launched its latest model exclusively on the internet. This model claims to be available in more than one million variations according to the buyer's colour choices, interior preferences, engine dictates and extra feature requirements.

Nike allowed its customers not only to design their own shoes, but to have their names emblazoned on them. But the company soon realised that such dedicated individualism could hurt the brand more than benefit it - some customers incorporated anti-Nike messages in their individually-manufactured shoes.

It's no surprise that the costs of producing individual products are so high that only a few manufacturers - and consumers - can afford to indulge in me-driven consumption. Levi's pioneered customisation on the net, but soon pulled out because the investment required outweighed the returns.

'We know what you want'

But these examples are not true one-to-one marketing. Crucial and, as yet, unrealized, is the capacity for direct communication with each and every customer.

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Yet this isn't thwarted so much by costs as inadequate data. Without the right customer information, relevant dialogue is an impossibility.

After all, the requisite data isn't the demographic information that abounds in every industry sector. It is specific information about a customer's preferences, behaviour, purchasing patterns, tastes, social networks and finances. Such data not only costs a fortune to capture and maintain, but is often retrievable only by intrusive means that breach the privacy barrier.

Although most consumers would prefer to only receive marketing messages relevant to them, the big question is, are they prepared to reveal the personal information needed?

Talking your language?

True one-to-one marketing does make sense. It makes sense that a dialogue carried on by a brand with the individual, to the ostensible exclusion of others, will make the individual feel more involved.

It makes sense that a product produced especially for an individual will appeal more than a generic product available as a standard to the whole world.

What doesn't make sense yet is how to arrive at this marketing and production nirvana.

That perfume store is an indicator of how one-to-one marketing might proceed. But is the consumer ready to greet this next phase in marketing's evolution?

The objective is crystal clear: the closer you get to the consumer, the closer you get to the one-to-one relationship. Thus the ultimate branding solution is one-to-one. But before we achieve that objective we'll be dealing with one-to-many communications for some time to come.

Martin Lindstrom's book, Clicks, Bricks and Brands, is published in the UK by Kogan Page.

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