01 Mar 2023
My first car was a 1959 Morris Minor (some may need to look that up). It had failed its MOT and I bought it for £50 off a friend of my dad in 1982. I spent the summer sorting out all the problems and got it back on the road so I could learn to drive.
I knew everything about that car. The sound it made when cold, when hot, where every rattle was and why it rattled, all its quirks and idiosyncrasies. If a new ‘sound’ arrived, I knew where to find it and how to sort it out - like on the way to my driving test when it started misfiring (which wasn’t good), but I was able to fix it on the side of the road and went on to pass my test.
In those days cars were all mechanical. ‘Very analogue’, one might say. Maybe one of the reasons why a 23-year-old car was still running was because you knew all the key touchpoints of how it worked, which meant they were cheap to run, and it was easy to fix things at home. But today it’s very different, of course.
Cars possess minicomputers (called ECUs) that do all the listening for you. Everything has a sensor sending back information that can not only optimise things while you are driving but also alert you to problems as they occur, or even before. Put simply, the ECUs ensure almost all elements of your car are aligned and working as they should, improving performance as well as efficiency.
The first ECUs arrived back in the mid 1980’s and today some cars can have as many as 100 controlling all aspects from the engine to the security. So, taking a car in for service, you are more likely to be met by a person carrying a laptop than anyone with a spanner. This does mean that if the ECU fails on the way to your driving test, then you’re probably in trouble! But overall modern cars are very reliable; everything works and requires less intervention than those old analogue days. We’ve made progress.
In the past, understanding which marketing levers to pull was a relatively easy thing to do. It was pretty ‘Morris Minor’, one might say, and could be improved by some simple fettling of the main moving parts. However, thousands of brands seem to have ‘failed their MOTs’ and are undergoing repairs of some shape or other. To get back on the road all are installing new 'marketing ECUs' with the aim of transforming the customer experience and thus performance.
Today, with the explosion of touchpoints and multi-variant journeys that any one customer can take, the ‘listening’ needs to be done by the latest generation of marketing ‘ECUs’ from the likes of Adobe, Salesforce et al, to help monitor what the customer is experiencing - optimising and alerting of issues in real time. Put simply, these marketing ECUs ensure almost all elements of an individual’s customer experience are aligned and working as they should, improving performance as well as efficiency.
One of the growing dislikes about modern cars though, is that in a crowded market they are all starting to look very similar, competing in all the same segments with very little differentiation in terms of design never mind experience. Indeed, if you read a car review today, they’ll spend more of the time talking about the infotainment system than the car and how it drives!
With brands choosing to buy the same platforms there is potentially a similar concern brewing in that differentiating the customer experience will become increasingly difficult. Perhaps exemplified by the growing realisation among brand owners (ASOS most recently) that the current obsession with optimisation is leading to the sharpening of the metaphorical pencil to such an extent that it runs the risk of disappearing entirely!
Ultimately this is where brand comes in, creating signature moments that are distinctive and brand building. The aim is to improve overall performance and grow the business. In the car world, there is a strong aftermarket industry that re-map ECUs, and then back that up by building bespoke exhaust systems, tweaking the suspension, brakes etc - all designed not only to improve performance but deliver a unique experience. Some prefer these enhancements to be very visible (or loud) while others go for the more subtle approach, but what drives them all is a desire not to run with the pack.
Agencies and consultancies have been very busy helping brands do the repairs that ensure they pass their MOTs, but the race is now on to offer those ‘after-market’ services that craft performance and unique experiences from the basic ‘vehicle’. For brands to deliver on this nirvana of one-to-one marketing they will need more than ever to find partners skilled in re-mapping marketing ECUs, rewriting the software to change its behaviour to be more distinctive, both in experience and ultimately achieve higher performance rather than using the ‘spanners’ we used in the past.