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How brands can remain relevant in the age of the shape-shifting consumer

My eight-year-old son and I love mythology and spend hours talking about the archetypes, heroes and villains that help shape our understanding of the world. Recently, we discussed the Greek myth of Proteus, the seer whose apparent identity is so mutable that no one knows who he is. He can foretell the future, but changes his form constantly, so he cannot be forced to do so. He poses as an old man, then a tall green tree, then a blinding fire – to escape those wanting information from him.

This capacity for shape-shifting is an apt metaphor to describe one of marketing’s major current dilemmas. The consumer we presumably “know” so much more about thanks to data analysis is also more elusive than ever when it comes to defining and targeting his or her identity and interests. With the exponential growth and adoption of technology, consumers have become fractured through the synthetic communities, identities and personas they’ve created. This is all compounded by artificial intelligence (AI), willing and able to serve as the proxy for all the facets of their identities. Before, we had “the self.” We now have many “selves.”

If identity is fluid, so are consumer expectations, swirling in a kind of perpetual motion. People feel required to be engaged and aware of everything at all times, to get the best deals, for the best chance at health and happiness. Missing out means missing out big. There’s franticness, even a kind of panic. Shopping and consumer behaviors have become a crisis that has made people more receptive to urgent appeals.

It’s Thanksgiving and you haven’t finished your holiday shopping???

Run—don’t walk—to the Presidents' Day Sale!

Kids are headed back to school! Buy pencils now that will cost twice as much next week!

In addressing this consumer dynamic, marketers, unfortunately, risk giving in to a tendency ourselves to engage in our own version of shape-shifting behavior. We define these communications options positively as our new versatility and adaptability, that we’re becoming more multifaceted as we extend our presence in many new forms through many new channels. But unconsciously, we have unlocked the powers of Proteus — as marketers conjure up wearables, biotech, geo-fencing, and computer-aided gamification of nearly everything. They take on every form, to reach every self, in every space.

Shape-shifting marketers move fluidly through new spaces, presenting consumers with one new challenge after another. Technology is the magic through which people are made aware of the onslaught of challenges: your phone and wearable tell you your cholesterol is up, you have five weeks of marathon training left, and the market has shifted so you have to manage your portfolio.

I’m certainly no opponent of technology — quite the opposite! — but I see a risk in adapting too quickly and too enthusiastically, and chasing after consumers as they revolve through multiple versions of themselves. Let’s remember the futility faced by those who tried to capture Proteus. Because he has the power to radically change his identity, no one can pin him down long enough to make him reveal the truth about himself or his gift. For brands, there is a similar risk in transforming too rapidly through too many formats in a wild chase to keep up with people’s fleeting interests; namely, the loss of a brand’s recognizable identity, characteristics, benefits and equity, its own truth.

And in this age of socially conscious marketing where backlashes are a tweet away, we don’t want to be perceived as enabling, or even encouraging, an anxious and unnecessary sense of urgency or worry among consumers. Marketing and technology should not be in the position of amplifying this challenging dynamic. Our goal should be shape-solidifying, so to speak, to anchor brands more firmly so that they can genuinely and responsibly help improve people’s lives amidst this culture.

This statement is hopefully not the end to a discussion, but the start of conversation based on ethical persuasion. We need guiding principles — for brands, for agencies, for technologists — of how an authentic, responsible brand offers real value to people in this world we’ve created.

Jason Alan Snyder is chief technology officer at Momentum Worldwide

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