Choice is better than always getting your favourite pint
At Dmexco recently, Facebook’s VP advertising Andrew Bosworth began his opening keynote with a story. Like many stories, it begins with a man walking into a bar. In Bosworth’s version, the man doesn’t have to say a word before the bartender hands him his favourite drink. The man then goes over to the jukebox, where his favourite songs are all queued up ready to play. And the punchline is that this is not the man’s favourite bar in his home town, but a bar he’s never visited before, in a city he’s never visited before.
This is, or course, a familiar story of online personalisation, brought about in this case by the combination of the man’s smartphone, Facebook and its advertisers. And according to Bosworth, this is the role of brands today - to help us navigate a world of too much information.
Now it may be that beer is a really bad example to choose, but if this is the future it sounds awful. One of the joys of travelling is that you experience new things. And if you like beer, sampling the local brews is part of the fun. You might buy a really unpleasant pint, but in the rare case that happens, beer’s cheap enough to put it down to experience and order something else. Except maybe in Norway.
Of course there may be times in a foreign city when I feel lonely and in need of some reminder of home, but in that case I can ask the barman for - in Bosworth’s example - a Budweiser. I don’t need Facebook and Anheuser Busch to nanny me. In fact this whole suggested future feels like a bizarre combination of desperate parenting (“Please drink some - it’s your favourite”) and fear that, if we tried another brand, we might prefer it. But in this world that’s hyper-saturated with marketing messages, trying to lock your customers into some kind of walled (beer) garden has regularly proved not to work.
So to counter this restriction of choice masquerading as customer service, let me tell you another story. A man walks into a bar in a city he’s never visited before - in this case a real bar, in Liverpool. The bar specialises in whiskies, and offers a bewildering range of choice. The man doesn’t know what he wants, so he asks the barman for a recommendation. The barman asks him half a dozen questions about the flavours he likes, and then suggests a couple of brands, neither of which the man has come across before, but both of which he enjoys. And back home a week later he goes out and buys a bottle of each.
In this story choice is expanded, rather than reduced, but in a way that still matches Bosworth’s idea of brands helping us to make sense of a world of too much information, even if the brand in question this time is the bar rather than the drink. And the recommendation process could even be done electronically - it could be done by the bar’s app rather than the barman.
The crucial difference is that control of the transaction remains with the customer. It’s no longer tenable for a brand to concentrate solely on what it wants to sell; it has to ask what the customer wants to buy.