Marketing in the Age of Intelligent Machines [a Five-Part Series on the New "Marketing Mix," and What It Means for All of Us]

06/18/2015 11:20 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

In 1953 -- so long ago, and in so many ways -- a business professor named Neil Borden coined what's possibly the most enduring phrase in marketing history: "the marketing mix." He was inspired by the work of a colleague, James Culliton, who described the modern marketer as

a 'decider', an 'artist'--a 'mixer of ingredients', who sometimes follows a recipe prepared by others, sometimes prepares his own recipe as he goes along, sometimes adapts a recipe to the ingredients immediately available, and sometimes experiments with or invents ingredients no one else has tried.

Borden added his own artistic choices to the mix, the so-called "four p's": price, product, promotion, place. Over the years, these four p's -- not quite in a pod -- have morphed in the minds of other marketers into different mixes. And until very recently, the choices we make as marketers have been appreciated as the work and choices of "artists." It's not exactly a compliment. It's code for "great marketers are creative (right brain), but not quite rational (left brain)."

Fact is, this has never been true. Marketing has almost always been part art and part science. But today, science has come to the fore of our profession. And it's not just the most wonky, digitally savvy, "growth-hacking" segments of the profession. Science is challenging everyone in marketing to test their assumptions.


Assumptions like the preeminence of the old marketing mix. Of course, the four p's still matter, along with other p's that arrived later on the scene (although a newish p, personae-based marketing, will have to go; because it is neither smart art or good science; next article). But in the age of intelligent machines -- ubiquitous computing in the form of an ever evolving succession of mobile devices -- we need to reassess what matters most. As I said, 1953 was a long time ago. At the bottom of the pyramid today is the concept of permission to engage with the consumer, an idea first popularized in the early Web marketing era by marketing strategist Seth Godin. Why: because with the emergence of mobile devices, interaction with companies via proprietary apps is fast becoming the most intimate way to engage.

And this changes everything. In the pre-mobile era, brands earned permission to engage with the consumer -- mostly via email -- by allowing them to opt out. In the mobile era -- via apps -- brands earn permission to engage the consumer by asking them to opt in. The latter is more trusted, and more effective (by the time one opts out of email, she's done). But more important to note: permission to engage may have finally become the most foundational value in marketing (congratulations, Seth).


And this is where things get really interesting. While permission is a must -- tablestakes -- for marketing today, personalization is the first point of differentiation. Why: the proliferation of mobile devices -- each attached to people who have given brands permission to engage with them -- the challenges for marketers accelerate. Think about it. Increasingly, mobile devices are embedded into our lives. We go to bed with them. We wake with them. They are with us when we work, when we play, when we exercise, when we don't. If we get interrupted by a brand -- even with permission -- we will expect that it will have something to say that is timely, relevant, that matters to us, not just anyone. For in the end, if permission-based marketing -- which takes the form of push -- is not personalized, it's just plain pushy.


That's where the entire market I am in -- it's called marketing automation -- is going: personalizing with permission. And it's a huge technological feat. But it's not enough. Because if the entire market is moving in this direction -- leveraging technology to engage intimately with customers at scale -- then how does anyone differentiate? How does any brand win?

While technology, in the form of intelligent machines, enable brands to engage us, we will only care for them in the end if they care for us.

I don't mean care in the psychological sense; I'm not asking whether computers will ever "feel."
What I am asking is how the smartest brands -- I mean brand managers -- will engage people using intelligent machines to help them achieve the things that matter. We've seen lots of experiments in weight loss, exercise, and other aspects of wellness and healthcare. And, lately, we've seen lots of experiments in mental wellness, as part of a new movement called "positive computing." But this is just the tip of the iceberg of the transformation we will see with brand managers who understand that to remain relevant they will need to align with the goals of the people who so generously allow them into the most intimate places -- the original fourth p -- of their lives.

In the end, if permission without personalization is just pushy, personalization without purpose is just pointless; people will stop listening. But will marketers use art or science to get the job done? I'm betting it's both. Machines may have become intelligent enough to help us engage with customers at scale. But to be purposeful at scale requires humans, and it may represent the next wave of marketing innovation. It will command a central place in the new marketing mix.

[Next in this series: The End of Personnae-Based Marketing].