LAS VEGAS — Ask a company to tick off their tech strategies and personalization is no doubt on the list.

There’s been a lot of promise but whether brands can actually deliver and reach that prize known as one-to-one to marketing is up for debate. One-to-one, to the non-marketer, is about using data to create highly personalized messages. Just how personal brands are able to get was something tackled during a panel Wednesday, the final day of the Shoptalk retail and technology conference here.

Personalization to date has largely been about using data brands have to segment their audiences so they’re receiving semipersonal e-mails or viewing web site homepages that are somewhat based on who they are in terms of what they perhaps last viewed. Getting closer to the consumer has its challenges, even with all the data that’s possible.

“It’s stretching an organization in ways that traditionally the organizations don’t,” said Bryon Colby, senior vice president of digital commerce at Cornerstone Brands, of the complexities that have hampered the industry from getting to one-to-one personalization. Cornerstone has a portfolio of home and apparel brands that include Ballard Designs, Garnet Hill, Frontgate, Grandin Road and Improvements.

“We have so much data, but that doesn’t mean, one, that it’s actionable or, two, that you can get insights from it,” Colby said.

If 100 personalized e-mails were to go out, how would that break down by way of responsibility within an organization, Colby said by one way of example?

“Is a copywriter going to draft 100 different subject lines, or what’s creative going to do?” he said. “A lot of it is just the organizational mind-set and a lot of the technology is getting there, but the more we look at more tech, we ask what is it going to take on the human capital side?”

Daniel Neukomm, chief executive officer of La Jolla Group — which has a brand portfolio that includes O’Neill, Roark Revival and Metal Mulisha, among others — reiterated the complexity of weaving digital in with a pre-established corporate culture.

“You need humans to do all this stuff,” he said.

He used the company’s tech vendor matrix by way of example, saying there aren’t hundreds but rather only a handful and, as it relates to personalization, the same vendor is doing product recommendation and search for La Jolla. “Somebody’s got to be a common denominator,” Neukomm said.

“I don’t know that personalization is a business model; it’s really about having a great experience,” said Prama Bhatt, vice president of digital and e-commerce at Ulta Beauty.

At the end of the day, Bhatt said, no amount of data will ultimately be able to predict the exact brand of mascara or toner an Ulta customer might pick up in store.

Yes, there is a place for technology and data in the personalization conversation, but it’s as an aid to a store employee, in the case of a retailer, who can then make split-second decisions about a customer as the associate finds out more about what that person needs.

“Focusing on that and doing that really well produces ROI,” Neukomm said.

In the case of La Jolla’s O’Neill brand, the company is testing one-to-one as it relates to search and product recommendation on its site. If, for example, someone is searching for black boardshorts and begins to type that in the search bar, the field should auto-populate with that search term before the customer has finished typing. And the O’Neill site will even cue up a whole product matrix of additional relevant product based on the search.

“We’re kind of guessing our way there, but candidly, I think there’s another evolutionary level that we’re going to have to go through and it’s going to require more humans than individual, isolated tool sets.”

For More on Personalization in WWD:

Voice-Activation Tools Heighten Consumer Personalization

Personalization is Key to the Shopping Experience, Says Laura Geller’s Mila Mendez

Think Tank: Personalization to Trigger Conversions — Online and In Stores

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