By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. The onrush and overwhelming compulsion to get Big Data and distill it down to digestible bits that car company marketers can leverage to reach consumers in a meaningful and effective way is the hottest buzz in the auto marketing business at this very moment. And it has been for quite some time.
Big Data is everywhere, to the point that insiders are already tired of hearing about it. But make no mistake, Big Data will dominate everything auto marketers think, do and say from here on out.
The desire for Big Data on behalf of marketers has now officially become insatiable. If they have it, they still want more of it. They can’t seem to leave the house without it, they don’t want to go into meetings without a pile of it to refer to – pity the agency fool who doesn’t have it at his or her fingertips in a client meeting – and they have become so paralyzed over it that it has started to get in the way of rational thinking.
How so? No matter how much Big Data is floating around for car company marketers to tap into it will never replace the Big Idea. I can assure you that a boatload of marketers has lost sight of this one crucial fact: Even with all the data they desire at their fingertips, if there isn’t one good idea in front of it nothing good will come from it.
But that will not dissuade automotive marketers from craving it even more.
At any rate, what about Big Data? Where is it? For something that’s bandied about in this business does anyone really know – really know – about it other than those two words? It’s information. Detailed information that’s distilled down to focused details that allow marketers to target consumers in such a personalized way that they increase the likelihood of reaching them, so that they’ll actually buy something. Yes, social media and the digital age fuel it, but now it has become much bigger than that. It’s the be all and end all of the business. It’s also a panacea that is starting to stunt creativity, from where I sit.
But it doesn’t really matter, because Big Data is the runaway freight train to targeted consumer success. Or it could be the train to nowhere, depending on how you look at it.
But is there something more to Big Data? Is there something or someone behind Big Data? Is it sinister? Or just vaguely elusive?
After months of cajoling with Big Data’s PR operatives in an endless series of back-and-forth emails - an arduous dance filled with misdirection and obfuscation to the point that it took me weeks to even determine the general geographic region where Big Data resides - I recently traveled to an undisclosed location to finally meet the entity behind Big Data.
Since I was sworn to secrecy, the only thing I can say about the location is that Big Data resides in a bunker-like facility sheltered in a deep forest in one of the states surrounding the Great Lakes. You’d never know that it exists, because there’s a popular bar in front of it that’s a favorite of the locals. Little do they know that the guy they know as “B.D.” is in fact, the man himself: Big Data.
After the comely PR woman (complete with plaid shirt, tight jeans and a pair of kick-ass boots) plied me with Leinenkugels and a couple of brats, I was ushered out back and then guided down steps to a well-lit tunnel that I’m guessing was about 100 feet in length.
As we got closer to the end, I could see a humungous red steel door with a couple of old hot rod stickers placed haphazardly on it – Moon Equipped, Thrush mufflers, Amalie oil, a Rat Fink decal, etc. – and my PR escort abruptly said: “This is as far as I go. You’re on your own from here.” With that she turned around and went the other way saying, “Just knock – hard” over her shoulder.
I did, and after a couple of minutes the door opened. Looking to be in his 60s, with a full gray beard with black streaks, a mess of hair almost down to his shoulders, a Stooges T-shirt under his faded denim bib overalls and a bit of a gut, here in the flesh was Big Data, or “call me B.D.” as he said while shaking my hand.
After exchanging pleasantries, and B.D. insisting, “we got about 20 minutes before Mrs. B.D. gets home and I have to do stuff,” I proceeded with the interview.
AE: How does it feel to be the talk of the advertising industry and the reason for being for marketers – especially automotive types – all over the world?
B.D.: It’s weird, to be honest. When my dearly departed partner – Willie B. - and I first started playing with the idea, we had no idea that marketers would be stumbling all over themselves trying to get their arms around it.
AE: Your partner? Tell me about him?
B.D.: We were buds since grade school. We cooked the whole thing up one day while getting stoned in our dorm room at the University of Wisconsin, back in Madison. He was a frickin’ genius.
AE: Well, what was the idea, exactly?
B.D.: We were walking back from a statistics class and he blurted out, “What if we started collecting data on everything, I bet there would be a huge market for it one day.” And since I fancied myself as a future advertising star, I said, “And then we could package it so every ad agency type in the world would want it more than beer.”
AE: That was it?
B.D.: Pretty much, yeah. We both graduated and kicked around playing in our band – The ‘Baters – at night and during the day we started accumulating mainframes - hocked everything we had and then some – and then started entering data morning, noon and night after we got back from our gigs. And then pretty soon, we were sitting on a treasure trove of info, enough data to sink the Titanic all over again. And it was all geared to advertising and marketing types.
AE: And when did you get discovered, exactly?
B.D.: Well, right before Willie passed, in 2003. Some guy in New York tracked us down – he had been up here on a road trip – and asked, “Do you have anything that could help me determine why people buy Saabs?” And we produced a two-page document arming him with all the info he could have hoped for or even imagined. From then on it was word of mouth and pretty soon we had marketers beating down our door day and night.
AE: Wow, really? I’m sorry to hear about Willie. What happened?
B.D.: Well, his widow, Cheryl, thought he was an intruder late one night – he had gone deer hunting but got bored and decided to just come home early - and she shot him. Terrible thing.
AE: Oh, that is terrible.
B.D.: Yeah, it really sucked. But we all survived it and here we are.
AE: So, let me get this straight, at first you and Willie, and now just you are, I mean, “Big Data?”
B.D.: Yes, sir. And I got data to prove it. For instance I can tell you about a girl named Sandra in Frisco, Texas. I know what she drives and when she’ll be needing a new car, where she shops, what color she likes, what her favorite fragrance is, how often she goes to the salon, what nail place she likes, what she orders at Starbucks, how many times she eats out, what her and her boyfriend like to do in their spare time, what their pet’s name is, how many times she buys pet food at the pet food place and what brand she likes, what she likes to drink on a Friday nights and what she wears to bed. That’s the power of Big Data. And when marketers come to me wanting to know how to target a consumer like Sandra? Big Data, baby.
AE: Wow, that’s… impressive.
B.D.: Yeah, and let’s say a car company needs to get at the real buyers, not tire kickers, but the ones itching to buy. We can tell them what these people have been looking at and where, which Internet sites they frequent, what articles they’ve read, what they like to do in their spare time, what their interests are, and the same sort of stuff I just told you about Sandra. Then they take that info and tailor specific messages for them. Did you hear what Toyota is doing now?
AE: No, what?
B.D.: They’re using subscriber data from DirecTV to target tech-geeks in L.A., San Francisco and San Diego, enticing them to look at the all-electric, $50,000 RAV4. Toyota doesn’t have to screw around with mass-market messages at all, instead they can get right at these early adopters who subscribe to DirecTV and who would have a tendency to consider the car in the first place. And where did they get the tool that allows them to do all that?
AE: Big Data?
B.D.: Correctamundo. Listen, this has been fun, but when Lurlene comes through the door you best not be here.
AE: Well, okay, thank you for your time, B.D. It has been a pleasure.
B.D.: Nice chatting with you. Oh, and one more thing?
AE: What’s that?
B.D.: There’s one thing Big Data can’t do.
AE: Really? What’s that?
B.D.: Big Data can’t compensate for a shitty, ill-conceived product or a really dumb idea.
AE: Truer words were never spoken.
With that I was out the door, through the tunnel, back in my rental car, and down the road.
Memo to Marketers: Big Data is all well and good, but if you don’t have an idea to begin with and you build resolutely piss-poor products, it will be of little use and it won’t matter.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.