A coronavirus-driven lurch to digital means that brands will inevitably increase their focus on data-driven personalisation. But this has to be combined with genuine customer empathy, says Kieron McCann.

There are many key moments throughout the year that brands will leverage to engage with customers, whether that’s big retail days like Black Friday, the changing of the seasons, family moments like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day or festivities like Christmas. Each day or holiday presents an opportunity for businesses to drive engagement with their audiences.

And then there are life-changing events. Now, more than ever, brands need to bring context, personalisation and awareness to their marketing activities so they don’t appear tone deaf or insensitive. Customers need to be at the centre of any marketing campaign, and brands need to think more carefully about whether to engage, how to engage and when to engage. Ultimately, genuine authenticity and empathy are what’s required.

Simple acts can go a long way, especially right now. They demonstrate the underlying intent of others and this is something that brands need to be even more conscious of. As customers are forced into an almost exclusively digital relationship with the companies they buy from, building and sustaining loyalty in a more competitive landscape is key. Delivering customers the right offer, at exactly the right moment, can have a big impact.

When you take a look at how businesses have behaved during the pandemic, some have got it right but many have got it very wrong. The way supermarkets reacted when faced with increased demand and supply chain issues is an interesting example. How they communicated and ultimately the action they took to support their customers in difficult times has divided the pack. The ones that took action to support the vulnerable, catering shopping hours and online services to help, will be remembered. The ones that continued to drive shoppers to online platforms that were no longer functioning under the straining demand, or that hiked prices, will also be remembered.

It’s clear when a company is using the circumstances as an opportunity and these efforts immediately come across as opportunistic. Consumers feel quickly disengaged. When we consider personalisation in this context it seems that a company’s motivation to deliver personalised and relevant experiences becomes more important than the technical capability to do it. And, with the right motivation, the current increased reliance on digital interactions presents an opportunity for marketers to be more relevant, because they are now on the receiving end of more data.

Emotions drive customer experiences and influence behaviour, so invoking the right mix of emotions can take your brand a long way. Understanding your target audience and relating to their challenges or experiences will help you empathise and therefore create experiences that resonate, making your brand relatable and memorable.

Personalisation is a focus for many businesses trying to build a relationship with their customers. In just about all cases, more personalisation and relevance is the way forward, and can deliver proven results. However, like many things, personalisation is easier said than done. It’s an iterative process, built on data, testing and insight and used to continually improve the relevance of the customer experience. In the days before COVID-19 this would have been enough, but in the days since there is more at play.

Marketers must use more data points to get an accurate picture of the target audience for relevant and engaging campaigns. While it’s good to use statistical analysis to boost sales, the data for that personalisation increasingly has to come from first-party sources, especially as the end of the third-party cookie era looms.

This brings first-party data and the customer data platform (CDP) to the fore. But brands will need to earn the right to obtain it. Consumers will remember those that tried to monetise a global pandemic or engaged with them at just the wrong moment – so brands need to be working now to build trust and act with integrity.

The opportunity for personalisation is not just to make experiences more statistically relevant, but also to make them more personally relevant. This may be by factoring in the current zeitgeist or even recommending something that might on this occasion save the customer money, rather than upselling them, in exchange for greater lifetime value. This combination of personalisation, technically well executed, with the genuine intent to do the right thing for your customers will be very powerful indeed.