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Renegades: Lathan Hodge on 5 Takeaways about "Mass-Personalization"

Lathan Hodge

Jeff's chat with Lathan Hodge, Executive Producer at M. Herbert Productions (pictured above)

Mass-personalization gone wrong

I like to validate ideas with people who are a heck of a lot smarter than me. So I'm creating another blog series called, "Renegades." The Webster dictionary has two definitions for "Renegades":

1: a deserter from one faith, cause, or allegiance to another

2: an individual who rejects lawful or conventional behavior

These are the kinds of people I like to have as friends. They are the change agents and "evangelists" I had described in an earlier post. I admire renegades in the realms of art, business, technology, and some combination of these three. So I thought that the best person with whom to begin this series would be Lathan Hodge.

Lathan is an award-winning producer who straddles the worlds of entertainment and technology. He's produced more than 3,500 shows for syndication, cable, and broadcast TV for such companies as Black Entertainment Television. However, Lathan and his firm M. Herbert Productions is best known for expertise in content delivery across multiple channels - mobile, Web, and digital platforms. His clients include notable figures in sports and entertainment, in addition to large corporate brands.

We sat down and chatted about the opportunities and threats facing marketers and entertainers as they pursue their multi-channel strategies. Here are the key takeaways:

#1. Dominance of all 5 screens is no longer a strategic differentiator, it's a necessity.

4 years ago, I wrote an article for Billboard Magazine entitled "Understanding the Potential of Next-Generation Retailers." I asserted that, in their efforts to create distinctive shopping environments, retailers were developing new consumer 'touch-points' inside their stores. Collectively known as the "fifth screen," these in-store touch-points included interactive kiosks, digital displays, next-gen point of sale devices, and in-store mobile devices.

These technologies were designed to enhance and influence all phases of the consumer's shopping experience, from product discovery to the "moment of truth" to waiting in line at the cash register. My article was a call-to-action, urging marketers and entertainment companies to differentiate themselves through these new channels in order to reach their target segments in new ways.

But that was 4 years ago. Lathan provides a more up-to-date view. Consumers, particularly the millennials (a.k.a. Generation Y, the kids who grew up in an Internet world), expect constant connectivity and accessibility. By necessity, marketers must be seamlessly fluent across all five screens in delivering their content. A siloed approach to each screen would create suboptimal results.

Remember what the other four screens are? The first screen is the silver screen. The second screen is television. The third screen is our laptops and personal computers. And the fourth screen is our smart phones.

#2. The peanut-butter approach doesn't work. Find the right mix.

Lathan points out that, to his clients, the plethora of media platforms, devices, and channels is a double-edged sword. In an always-on, always-connected world in which consumers expect access through all 5 screens, marketers face the challenge of having to figure out how best to allocate their marketing budget. Unless you have deep pockets, it's best not to indiscriminately boil the ocean, but to figure out where your target audience can be reached, when, and through which screens that will deliver the most cost-effective impact. Oftentimes, the answers are not clear. Quick and easy allocation of resources, spread equally across all 5 screens, is not the right answer. You must prioritize.

#3. An integrated multi-channel approach can transforms a one-time campaign into an ongoing conversation.

Lathan often challenges his clients with this: "Okay, so you've created awareness of your brand. How do you maintain continuity and momentum with the relationship you've just established?"

Marketers face tough choices about their media mix, but they have an opportunity to creatively foster lasting impressions and 'intimate conversations' with their target audience. The idea of "Mass-Personalization" may seem oxymoronic, but it works. Lathan points to Nike's "Kobe Mentu" or "Kobe Disciples" campaign in China. At its core was a 6-episode reality show in which 24 Chinese youngsters were mentored by Kobe Bryant. The TV show and out-of-home advertising created brand awareness, but the interactive training Web site continued the relationship with the audience. It gave them a reason to come back.

Adidas' "Team Signature" campaign also included TV, in-store, print, online, and mobile components. Again, the online and mobile components provided continuity, intimacy, and persistence to Addidas' relationship with its customers. Fans who subscribed to the campaign received calls and texts from NBA players. Further, some fans were able to leave voice messages about how it felt to be "part of the team."

In these examples, a campaign isn't just a one-time event. It's what Lathan calls a hub or "mini-network" of content. These mini-networks become fertile ground for highly personalized word-of-mouth driven advertising, "memes", or viral concepts. Marketers can form long-term and deep 1-to-1 relationships while retaining the potential for broad reach.

#4. It is easier to maintain intimacy with a brand personality.

I asked Lathan about the differences and similarities in managing artists and sports figures versus big brands. "There are more similarities than differences because the problem we're trying to solve is the same, and that is giving a customer a compelling reason to act," replied Lathan. "But it's definitely easier when you have a real person who can begin and continue the conversation with the customer." This explains why the Nike and Adidas campaigns were so effective. They revolved around major figures.

In the absence of celebrities, mascots, and other personas, marketers could perhaps think of their brands in terms of archetypes. Yes, in the Jungian sense, but in a marketing context. I think of archetypes as a transculturally (sorry for the big word) recognized and understood group of images and personality traits which could be used to define a brand. For example, "the outlaw" archetype may define the Harley Davidson brand, while "the innocent" may define Ivory Soap. Carol Pearson does a way better job of defining archetypes in her book which is insightful, albeit at times repetitive.

So, without Kobe Bryant selling your product, think of your brand's archetype. If your brand had a voice, what would it say? How would it/he/she behave? Which medium(s) would make that archetype come alive? What would your customers say to your brand?

#5. A good digital campaign creates measurable value for the marketer ... and for the customer.

Lathan points out that "If you can measure it, you can sense and respond." A key advantage of using mobile and online components with traditional media is that a marketer gains a means of measuring the effectiveness of the campaign. In Adidas' "Team Signature" campaign, 5 million text link ads were delivered via the mobile component. When used in conjunction with online and email components, marketers can measure clickthroughs, geographical penetration, purchase intent, and ultimately close rates (outreaches resulting in sales). The marketer is able to ascertain return on investment from these key performance indicators.

But the customer is also seeking value, even if he/she has not yet bought the product. In return for his information and participation in your campaign, he expects an experience with your brand that is rich in useful information, meaningful connections, and most importantly excitement and fun. Consumers are already very suspicious and sensitive creatures. Don't beat them over the head with an overt hard-sell. Think of your annoying cousin who started selling Mary Kay or Amway at the last Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, employ nuance, subtlety, good taste and authenticity in your approach.

Most importantly, remember that, in spite of all these digital tools at your disposal, you're not entirely in control. The customer ultimately controls your brand. You don't dictate the conversation, so think of yourself as a facilitator or moderator. Listen in, and nudge the customer every now and then.