The presence of advertising in our daily lives is akin to that of water in the life of a fish. It’s everywhere, and yet often, we remain oblivious to it — blind to the brightly colored billboard on the highway, or the flashing neon lights outside a roadside motel. Our conscious minds, however, were never the targets of traditional advertising. The most effective advertising campaigns of the last 50 years were the ones we eventually forgot were there — the McDonald’s television ads delivered to us as children, the Coca-Cola slide in left field at AT&T park in San Francisco, the slogans that somehow made insurance more than a hedge against disaster. (“You’re in good hands”, “Nationwide is on your side!”, “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there!”)
In the old world, before Facebook and Google, there was no effective way to target individuals searching for niche products, so the companies that succeeded offered products that appealed to broad swaths of people, and advertised by reaching thousands, and in many cases, millions of people at once. The companies that ran successful advertising campaigns through these mediums tended to be of a certain ilk: restaurant chains, car brands, department stores, insurance agencies, or brands under the umbrella of a larger consumer goods company.
Enter the modern era, and the internet has flipped the traditional retail model — one characterized by retail locations and brand advertising — on its head. Distance between buyer and seller no longer constrains sales — a consumer in Japan could just as easily obtain a watch manufactured in Detroit as could a consumer in Ann Arbor. The internet has given buyers and sellers unprecedented access to one another; it has never been easier for a buyer to find a seller who has what they need, just as it has never been easier for a seller to find a user who needs what they have.
In this new world, CPG companies and advertising agencies are experiencing utter paralysis. Advertising is not “dying,” per se, but what is dying are the brands that succeeded in a world without the unparalleled access that Facebook and Google afford consumers and producers to each other — brands that succeeded precisely because Facebook and Google did not yet exist.
As Stratechery’s Ben Thompson puts it:
“The biggest advertisers on television are cars; retailers; CPG companies, all of which have business models that are fundamentally threatened by the internet. These are all companies that are mass market, but the offline mass market relative to the internet is a middle market, and the internet destroys mid-size businesses. It rewards niche businesses that have high differentiation and can charge a premium, and it rewards massive scale businesses that can operate internationally, at a scale unimaginable by even these giant companies. And one wonders, when and if this advertising shifts away from television, how much of it is going to be left?” — Ben Thompson, Exponent Episode #104: Snap’s Gingerbread Strategy
Google and Facebook ads are a microcosm of this shift from mass market to niche. No longer is the cost of individual consumer acquisition so high that reaching a million consumers at once is the only effective way to advertise. Now, through Google and Facebook, niche businesses can target specific individuals whose data determines that they are prime candidates for said niche product or service.
Bevel, a company that produces a suite of shaving products specifically for black men, would have been hung out to dry in the old world of advertising, because its ads would’ve been irrelevant to the majority of people they would’ve reached. Now, however, Bevel can target potential customers with Google ads under certain keywords; when I type in “razors for black men” on Google, Bevel is the first promoted result. Facebook, too, allows Bevel to target users by age, race, and whatever other factors Bevel determines as indicative of interest in spending money on a shaving kit specifically for black men. If I were a black man in my mid-twenties, had a Facebook account, and had searched for razors somewhere online before, Facebook’s algorithm would likely begin serving me ads for Bevel products. Once I realized that those ads were for something that could improve my life, I would click one, which would cost Bevel a few cents on the dollar, make a purchase, and most importantly, do so immediately and regardless of my geographic location.
In the end, what Bevel would pay to acquire my hypothetical business would be a fraction of a what a company like McDonald’s did pay to acquire my actual business, 20 years ago, as it peppered me with constant television and radio ads that allowed me to catch my first glimpse of the golden arches, or hear the words “I’m lovin’ it!” echo through my living room. McDonald’s was smart enough to realize that given existing advertising avenues, and the homogeneity of its product, the only way to succeed was to invest deeply in mass-market targeting and pursue long-term and large-scale consumer retention, albeit with a low per-customer profit. Today, however, Bevel can target anyone with an internet connection based on user data, obtain a new customer immediately, regardless of proximity, and extract more money per transaction than a corporation like McDonald’s ever could — and the company can do it at a fraction of the cost big brands once paid. This is the beauty of the internet.
This doesn’t mean there was never value in the shotgun approach, defined by blasting ads to huge audiences and seeing what sticks. Coca-Cola and McDonald’s used it to ensure that today, there are few soda machines in the world devoid of Coke, and likely even fewer adults in the United States who do not recognize the golden arches as a symbol of consistency. Similarly, every time I’m hungry in an airport, I end up at McDonald’s, not because it’s the best, but because it’s what I know — and I know it for no other reason than that its brand has been subliminally imprinted in my brain so often that it has become the default option for food when I don’t know where to go, or simply don’t want to waste time thinking about it. This is the power of branding.
To this day, McDonald’s advertising campaigns target massive, heterogeneous audiences, because its products appeal to the median consumer. Watching McDonald’s television ads in which five millennials — all of different racial backgrounds, but none deeply attached to one; all lean and attractive, but none intimidatingly so — mill about, dancing and smiling while consuming small portions of McDonald’s food, is a reminder that McDonald’s isn’t trying to appeal to some of us . It’s trying to appeal to as many of us as it can, and reaching the median consumer does just that. Politicians use this strategy, too, and the ones who do it best get elected. Should they focus too heavily on fringe voters, they risk not garnering enough votes. The same applies to companies of the old world — there was little precedent for appealing to a niche market, and few means to do so. Thus, the successful companies of the old world, like the successful politicians of both that world and today’s, appealed to the median, because there was no other way to win.
To elect a winner in the political market, voters vote. In a goods market, however, consumers pay. And while it is hard to imagine a political world not governed by the wishes of the majority,¹ it is easier, given the current online landscape, to imagine a goods market no longer governed by the tastes of the “median consumers,” but by the needs of the niches — those who are willing to pay premiums for niche, high-quality products, like Bevel. Old world companies could rely on the moat of imperfect information to afford them long-term consumer loyalty, even with mediocre, one-size-fits-all products. Now, in a world of information immediacy and cheap advertising enabled by avenues like YouTube and Facebook, this advantage is dissipating.
Gillette is an example. For decades, the company sold razors at a premium, because it sat behind moats of massive advertising and distribution costs. The internet gave way to a new competitor — Dollar Shave Club — that was able to advertise cheaply through savvy social media use that generated amplified word of mouth, and distribute its product for a fraction of what companies like Gillette were charging, given its lack of a constraining retail presence or large investment into brand advertising.² In 2016, Dollar Shave Club was acquired for $1 billion dollars by Unilever — indicating that the model is not only sustainable, but replicable across industries.
Dollar Shave Club’s success indicates that shotgun advertising will fade over the decades to come. Companies that serve the masses will be replaced by companies that serve niches, because the latter will take advantage of the decreased distribution costs and grass-roots marketing opportunities that the internet provides. As this happens, and information about both buyers and suppliers becomes more and more perfect, the advantages enjoyed by producers of homogeneous products like the Big Mac and Coke will dissipate, and their products will lose market share to more targeted, higher-quality products that take advantage of unique, niche markets that were never able to monetized in the old world of advertising. The internet, the data it generates, and the companies that own and utilize that data best, will be the driving forces behind the monetization of niches.
“You want to know who you really are? asks Dataism. “Then forget about the mountains and museums. Have you had your DNA sequenced? No?! What are you waiting for? Go and do it today. And convince your grandparents, parents, and siblings to have their DNA sequenced too — their data is very valuable for you. And have you heard about these wearable biometric devices that measure your blood pressure and heart rate twenty-four hours a day? Good — so buy one of those, put it on and connect it to your smartphone. And while you are shopping, buy a mobile camera and microphone, record everything you do, and put it online. And allow Google and Facebook to read all your emails, monitor all your Likes and clicks. If you do all that, then the great algorithms of the Internet-of-All-Things will tell you whom to marry, which career to pursue, and whether to start a war.” — Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus
The perfection of data will, eventually, give rise to a world in which every consumer can be paired up with goods that meet his or her biological, rather than consumptive, tendencies. This world will also be devoid of branding, because in a world that relies on perfect information, there will be no need for branded trust. The cheaper of two identical goods will always and everywhere be purchased, as opposed to what happens now, when a consumer pays more for Motrin, the brand, than ibuprofen, the drug, even though they’re the same thing. Once perfect information becomes a reality, there won’t be just a few over-the-counter meds to alleviate pain; rather there will be hundreds, or even thousands depending on the specific needs of the niche markets. The purpose of advertising in this world will be to pair niche consumers, whose needs were never profitable enough to be met, with niche products, whose production was never profitable enough to be realized.
Given all of this, advertising as we’ve always known it — large-scale campaigns predicated on instilling subconscious intuition in consumers — will die. What will rise from its ashes be unlike anything we’ve seen before. It will not subject us to a menu of mediocrity; rather, the algorithms buried within the walls of companies like Google and Facebook will deterministically present us with our best options for everything, because they will know us best. At first, consumers may rebel, like they did with GPS in cars, or online shopping. But as they realize that they are better served by allowing algorithms to take care of the decisions they once relied on their own autonomy to make, they will make the shift. It will not happen overnight, but it will happen.
This new world will be marked by a monumental shift away from branding, which is already happening; a shift away from search, which is about to happen; but most importantly, and perhaps most unsettling, a shift away from trust in the user as the final indicator of their own desire. As we make this shift, and move toward a world in which data — and the mastery of its use — is king, ads will become deterministic. The companies that define this future will master the use of consumer data to inform ad delivery, and as they continue to amass user data, both their advertisements — and in turn, their data — will improve in tandem, until both are perfect. As this happens, our world will become one in which every consumer will be deterministically paired both with what they want, and what they need. In this new world, whether there will even be a difference is far from clear.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to David Perell, Yuval Noah Harari, Ben Thompson, and James Allworth for inspiring essays like this.
¹ Because someone will say it — the presidential election process within the United States is not technically governed by the majority. I know.
² Dollar Shave Club did end up investing a sizable portion of its revenue back into brand advertising, but at first, its marketing strategy relied largely on viral videos, and specifically the “Our Blades Are F******* Great!” video, which pulled in 12,000 subscribers in two days.