Big data is dead – long live cognitive marketing!

Perhaps it was just me, but yesterday evening’s London rush hour was punctuated by a loud popping sound. This unexpected noise was the final bursting of the ‘big data’ bubble, which has been one of the biggest hype bandwagons in marketing for several years, and yet which was resoundingly panned by the expert panel at IBM’s Marketing Leaders event, at it’s South Bank HQ.

Big data always seemed too vague and unrealistic a proposition for most B2B organisations to practically address (with a few exceptions) and so it was heart-warming and affirmative to see the disdain with which the concept treated by the (mostly B2C-focused) luminaries who were holding court.

Right, so big data is over, so what’s next? Because this is marketing, and there’s always something next, right? Fortunately, our hosts being IBM, they’d already come up with the answer: Cognitive Marketing.

This sounds awesome, doesn’t it?! It just sounds achingly clever, sophisticated and zeitgeisty… but what does it actually mean? And how can it benefit brands? And – most importantly of all – how do you actually do it?

Well, in a nutshell, it’s about driving deep level but practical customer insights through the use of all the unstructured information that’s available about markets and individuals in today’s digital age.

As panelist Mark Herd of Herd Consulting put it, “cognitive marketing is about doing more with less, and doing it quicker.” And as Jeff Ramminger from Brand Publis also pointed out, you can’t do this with data scientists (who we’re often told are going the saviours of marketing) because they simply can’t crunch data fast enough.

Okay, great – so far, so IBM. There’s a slight problem here though, and that is that to do ‘cognitive’ you kinda need to have a supercomputer just kicking around. And perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t know many people who do… with the obvious exception of IBM, of course. Big blue has done a fantastic job of branding and positioning Watson as the acceptable (and not scary) ‘face’ of the supercomputer age, and its deploying this asset to give itself a head start in the new age of marketing that it has just defined. (And they’ve done a great video using Carrie Fisher from Star Wars and a host of robots from sci-fi over the years to bolster this.)

So what does this look like in reality? IBM had thought of this too, and had Marianne Schoenauer, Director of global marketing excellence at Unilever on hand to tell the assembled audience of senior marketers and influencers about the impressive test programme they’d developed with IBM for its Knorr brand to profile consumers based on their taste preferences and serve up product related recipes to them. Schoenauer was inadvertently highly amusing in the extent to which she went out of her way to tell everyone how much she dislikes data and technology companies… and yet, probably contrary to her better judgement, how thrilled she is with the results, and how she genuinely believes this is going to be the start of something that will change how they do marketing for all of their brands around the world.

(She was almost, but not quite, as amusing as event host Nick Robinson of the BBC, who at one point or another managed to make hit most of the audience on the head with his misthrows of novelty IBM’s pass-around sponge microphone cube.)

But what about B2B, I hear you ask, where most organisations operated in a very different world Unilever? The perspective of the panel seemed to be whilst B2B brands aren’t dealing with millions of consumers, there is the potential to leverage the benefits of cognitive computing in a B2B buying environment with multiple stakeholders and potentially hundreds of influencers, who are typically millenials.

That’s the theory, anyway. Whether this becomes reality or not, we can all expect to hear a lot more about Cognitive Marketing over the coming months and years. IBM has made a bid for leadership in this emerging area, which is very sensible given their obvious expertise here. Where they lead, others in the marketing sphere will undoubtedly follow. Whether anyone else can compete credibly in this space, without Watson, is the more interesting question. Either way, the bandwagon is rolling.