Global Practices

Consumer, Personalization, Branding

Making It Personal

How harnessing our habits and preferences as consumers is helping companies stand out from their competitors



A version of this post originally appeared in Edelman Magazine.

Last week, a popular music streaming service released a playlist service that analyses users’ listening habits before creating a tailored, two-hour playlist updated every week. The more you listen, the more sophisticated the playlist becomes, just as if your best friend has made you a mixtape.

But as consumers, how much do we want a personalised service? And what is the value of personalisation for businesses and does it differ to customisation?

Good hotels and restaurants have offered personal service for decades. Addressing a regular guest by name; offering them their favourite table; or replacing champagne for beer in the mini bar as preferred are basic behaviours most hotels practice. Personalised service is expected by guests and whilst it may perhaps have previously been an advantage for those paying a premium, the price point now is largely irrelevant. On its most basic level, personalised service makes people feel special and few people will admit to not wanting that.

However, personal service doesn’t replace poor service, or the malaise brought on by slow service. Consumers have extremely high expectations and our threshold for quality being impacted by any personalisation ‘add-on’ is low. Companies who miss that point and focus on one over the other are missing the point – the reintroduction of staffed checkouts in some supermarkets is testament to that sentiment.

Companies have taken steps to progress from personalisation to customisation (often on a mass level) to differentiate themselves from competitors – and more importantly to learn what makes their customers tick.

The lure as a child on a school trip of a giant pencil or fridge magnet bearing one’s name hasn’t really dissipated for many (though I very quickly became accustomed to row upon row of Sharons, Shelleys and Sarahs). Owning a product that is inherently ‘yours’ and therefore stands apart from other peoples, is valuable. For every Instagram post offering the chance to purchase an entire #ootd (outfit of the day), there are hundreds of thousands of others showcasing ‘one-of-a-kind’ items – anything from clothes, shoes and cars.

It’s the human dilemma of wanting to fit in, but also wanting to stand out – a mindset a famous sports brand used to develop personalised trainers. Giving shoppers the chance to add a personal touch to a product has also given them enormous insight into what people want (perhaps we’re not as individual as we like to think). Executives are using this to understand what colours and colour combinations are popular where in the U.S., and then release such colour combinations in stores where they are most popular.

Personalisation and customisation have huge value to businesses. When done well, they help to create advocates, draw customers away from competitors and deliver enormous customer insight. How that personalisation and customisation is communicated is also very important. Consumers need to be clear on what is being offered and actually why it’s of benefit to them. There is an argument too for companies to be open and transparent about the benefits to them of personalising their offering i.e. it makes it better for all users in the long term.

As we continue to be bombarded with choice throughout our everyday lives, the mentality of sticking with ‘what you know and like’ frankly becomes more prevalent rather than less – but it appears that if there is chance to nuance that habit, all the better. For both companies and consumers.

Shauna McCarthy, associate director, Edelman London.

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