Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Marketing Dive.

Consider this: Many of the ways you travel from point A to point B (Lyft), prepare meals for your family (Blue Apron) or purchase baby products (The Honest Company) did not exist five years ago.

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Consumers have more options at their disposal for their everyday needs than ever before. This abundance of choice means purchases are being made based on availability and convenience, which has caused a shift in the customer-brand relationship. Consumers are in control by demanding that brands understand who they are, reflect their ideals, allow them to express their individuality and most importantly, cater to their needs in a sea of millions.

If brands want to break through this sea of choices, they must understand the context that drives their customers’ behaviors at any given moment in order to deliver relevant content across mediums and moments in time. Brands that fail to reach consumers in their moment of need will fall short of their goals.

Furthermore, brands increasingly require the technical and creative chops to recognize consumers at their various stages of the journey and across a diverse set of products, services or propositions.

It’s the marketing agency’s job to be the agent of the consumer, not the brand. Brands that want to rise to the top, and stay on top, in this era must focus on their customers by doing three things well — empathy, strategy and creative — and understand the technology required to get them there.

Bridge the empathy gap

One of the key mistakes we see today are brands that misinterpret data as empathy. The rise of technology has inadvertently created a disintegration: Brands think they know the consumer, but technology has removed the qualitative voice.

While brands once built an identity that they were able to project onto consumers, the modern era of marketing now focuses on the consumer identity. Marketing is less about persuading minds and more about allowing brands to be a vehicle for customers’ self-expression.

One of the key mistakes we see today are brands that misinterpret data as empathy. The rise of technology has inadvertently created a disintegration: Brands think they know the consumer, but technology has removed the qualitative voice. Marketers need to recognize that data does not tell the full story. Data must be paired with a story to be relevant. If there’s a disparity between the data and consumer anecdotes, trust the anecdotes, because humans will always be human, and data cannot predict human emotion or desire.

It’s exactly this reason that empathy may well be the strongest job security for human marketers in the rise of artificial intelligence (AI). AI is still in its infancy and is subject to significant and inherent biases, which humans are far more equipped to recognize and react to. Need we recall Tay? Tay was Microsoft’s chatbot in 2016, which was coached by some of the more ornery corners of Twitter into becoming a completely prejudiced maniac in less than 24 hours.

AI and machine learning will undoubtedly continue to change how brands connect with consumers, but it will be a long time before technology can interpret data with the same degree of empathy as a human can interpret behavior.

Personalize your cross-channel approach

For the longest time, the marketing industry has relied on personas and the characteristics outlined within, as the driver of messaging. But that can only get you so far. Don’t waste too much time on fictional personas when your strategy should be based on context, which is created from a single customer and based in data. Personalization is quickly becoming the default expectation, so your strategy must address the millions of markets of one and be scalable to the overall target audience.

Contextualized messaging across channels results in greater conversions, return on spend and satisfaction scores. It’s also providing signals and solid insights into the creative process. Better creative comes out of a strong strategic planning process where you truly understand your customers and the context around them.

Technologically, brands face the strategic imperative to more readily and accurately recognize consumers in an otherwise anonymous context. Most consumers don’t do marketers the favor of explicitly logging in or identifying themselves before browsing.

Technologically, brands face the strategic imperative to more readily and accurately recognize consumers in an otherwise anonymous context. Most consumers don’t do marketers the favor of explicitly logging in or identifying themselves before they begin browsing online. Identity management and resolution technologies and tactics specialize in coalescing users across disparate channels, mediums and devices into one known user profile via deterministic and even probabilistic means.

Customer data platforms (CDPs), data management platforms (DMPs) and experience personalization vendors alike allow brands to couple those robust digital behaviors with rich CRM-like profiles and preferences for a more holistic and actionable view of a consumer.

These technologies are likely to be critical components of any leading brand’s mar-tech stack when it comes to delivering a personalized approach across channels.

Identify the right creative

A brand can have all the insights and automation in the world, but unless those tactics are paired with impactful, creative messages, a campaign will fall short. Brands will always need big creative ideas that are distributed in more personalized ways.

Creative goes beyond picking the right image to use. It’s finding engaging ways to stand out from the noise and providing value to customer experiences beyond the product. Creativity can be defined as problem solving with relevance and novelty. But, to be relevant at scale, automated and programmatic marketing require a degree of structure and rigidity that often flies in the face of novelty. This makes it difficult for brands to leverage these techniques while maintaining a unique take on the consumer-brand relationship.

For this reason, brands must maintain a wide array of channel and medium modular creative that can be stitched together into coherent stories. Furthermore, brands must balance creative production to reflect the brand’s big idea with user affinities and interests, as well as explicit or predictive user-level intent, inertia or momentum toward conversion.

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Evolution and change are the only constants in life. The customer journey will continue to evolve, with more data required to meet the needs of customers, and consumers continuing to expect personalization in their marketing messages.

Brands and agencies must strive to understand the intersection between empathy, strategy, creativity and technology. At that intersection, they will uncover consumer loyalty.

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