Is this the depressing future of brands in a marketplace run by algorithms?

This Christmas was a weird one from the perspective of a brand marketer who is also (obviously) a consumer. My overwhelming impression is that the influence of brands is disappearing from many purchase journeys and I believe that if this trend continues we could all be in big trouble.

To explain all this, I'm going to have to take you down the same retail rabbit hole in which I found myself, so I beg your indulgence for a while.

I'm sure I was not the only person in December who found themselves buying loads of products from brands they have never heard of and just hoping what turned up was half decent.

At the risk of giving you too much insight into my personal life, here is an eclectic selection of the brands and associated products that I bought (mostly via Amazon) over the festive period:

Pimiti (digital meat thermometer); ScoPow (starlight projector); Naipo (back massaging cushion); Yi (4K action camera); Nasum (wireless karaoke microphone); Lictin (hair styling set); PowerA (mini Xbox controller); Okayshop (knitted mermaid tail blanket)... you can probably guess the age and gender of my children from this list!!

Oh and a Kindle.

Every single one of these products had at least a four-and-a-half star average review score on Amazon. Yet with the exception of the Kindle, I had no prior knowledge of any of those brands before and I would be very surprised if I remembered the names of, or indeed bought any of them again, in the future.

This isn't even because I was buying the cheap knock-off version of a branded product. They were often the "Amazon's Choice" listing. In nearly all instances, apart from the Action Camera and the Kindle, there was no recognisable brand for me to choose from (I know that because I was desperately looking out for one). I needed some reassurance that I wasn't buying a piece of crap – anything other than a review from a potential bot to suggest that this product was worth the (excessive) packaging it was sent in.

Making it even more difficult was that there were so many products available, virtually identical in function, description and price.

To give just one example: the "digital wireless meat thermometer" (a product that really needs to work at Christmas if you aren't going to poison your entire family with undercooked turkey) had around 350 different listings on Amazon, 11 pages of them, with at least 50 different brands – none of which I'd heard of. There was no Samsung, or Philips, no Cuisinart or KitchenAid – not even a Russell Hobbs or Salter. Nothing at all. And to the untrained eye they all looked pretty much identical.

At times I found myself paralysed by the choice with nothing to break the deadlock. I wanted some reassurance that there was a level of quality that you would expect from a recognisable brand.

My rationale for choice came down to two things: the standard "wine list" approach of "I don't really know what I'm doing, so I'll go for one which isn't quite the cheapest” and "does the description vaguely make sense in English and not appear to have gone through Google translate?". I then relied on the no-quibble returns policy from Amazon for the products I was buying for myself, but with the gifts I had to just buy and hope.

As a media planner, it feels like this is almost the inevitable outcome of a marketplace run by algorithms. If we solely rely on data-led performance marketing to make our product and advertising decisions for us, we all end up selling exactly the same thing to the same people in the same way with no differentiation. In that world, a product feature or promotion is the only thing that catches our attention. When that happens, brands and their ability to generate a premium through trust will cease to function.

When I look at the nature of the majority of digital advertising, it seems to bear this out. I've long been a critic of the type of advertising that you see on Facebook and YouTube, but when you look at the kind of stuff that seems to be surfacing now, it is all product feature led advertising like this:

These ads are all from my feed, clearly using data-led analytics to dynamically generate creative aimed at targeting a January mindset.

The ads are promoting and describing product ideas that are likely to be relevant to people like me. But there is nothing in these ads that persuade me that Udemy, Intrepid Travel or Fender are brands that will be better than the next guy at helping me commit to new year's resolutions, go travelling, or learn the guitar. There is nothing in these ads that even makes me remember the brand name, so if I don’t immediately click, but instead go to search for "learn the guitar", I'll probably quite happily choose from yousician.com, guitartricks.com or chordbuddy.com.

The thing is, the algorithms do work – to a point. They do find people who are in the market for certain types of products and they dynamically generate adverts that use all the right clickbait-style buzzwords to attract attention and generate clicks. But unless I'm in the mood to buy right there and then, all they can achieve is a desire for a product that any old brand can then take advantage of. The algorithm is essentially commoditising every single product out there, ensuring that the only differentiator becomes price. Once that happens to your category, it becomes a race to the bottom

We've all heard how Facebook and Google make up the vast majority of digital advertising which means that the vast majority of digital advertising is generated and targeted by an algorithm. As digital takes up a greater and greater proportion of advertising, the ability for brands to truly stand out and generate any kind of equity is fast diminishing.

I worry that this Christmas's shopping list was a very depressing ghost of a Christmas future in which brands cease to exist and we all just buy the products that the algorithm tells us to.

I hope I'm wrong.

Dan Plant is global strategy partner at Wavemaker

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