I was lucky enough to spend some time in Kerala working with Indian classical musicians many years ago. I first arrived during the monsoon season, and along with the world-class thunderstorms that I watched from a thin rubber bath mat on the roof, I could see the jungles getting greener and the people happier. For thousands of years, monsoons have had significant economic, emotional, and cultural importance in India. Rain determines whether there will be food to eat, and monsoon season typically used to signal the long-awaited return home of soldiers to their wives. Classical music in India, unlike its Western counterpart, is always very attuned to time, place, and mood. Rāgas, the name given to Indian classical forms, have rules to help guide improvisations in the moment and the monsoon season has inspired the Malhar group of ragas, a formulation specifically attuned to the emotions, environment, and context of the monsoon season.

Marketing and advertising, like Indian music, has always been contextual. As far back as 1867, billboards were being rented by marketers in dense urban areas outside train stations, and even earlier, direct mail took demographics into account to determine which regions and people to deliver flyers to. The truth is, though, that targeting brush strokes were broad, with flesh and bone staff doing a much better job of understanding a moment, a customer’s intent, and what the best thing to say would be. 

The game has changed over the years, in large part to the use of digital technologies and improvements in modeling groups, segments, and life stages of consumers. Context marketing represents a new pinnacle of what marketers are striving for – modeling the internal and external worlds of the customer in order to deliver meaningful, real-time experiences.

The characteristics of this new approach consider that:

  • Context is more than location. Context is derived from a wealth of signals pulled from environmental, social, emotional, cultural, and economic factors. The current SMS push messaging campaigns, where an offer fires based on a customer's location, is just the beginning. As marketers mature in handling context, they will come to know that Mrs. Smith isn't interested in the store nearest her home, where the area has poor lighting and bad parking, but the one you have in the mall 10 miles further out. Why? Because she can visit your shop, along with six others, in the stress-free mall; leave her infant in the crèche; and pick up her husband from work on the way back. 
  • Smartphones and wearables are the Trojan horse for opening up real-time context. The availability of real-time (or near real-time) data has become a flood. Signals from consumers do not solely come from keyboard clicks and thumbs on virtual keypads with methods of obtaining data from the physical world expanding through sensors, video, and audio technologies. Smartphones and wearables are the Trojan horse for bringing this new data to brands, with the new Samsung S4 smartphone having nine built-in sensors, and Google Glass a staggering 13. These devices bring more environmental and emotional real-time data about location, orientation, movement, temperature, humidity, light levels, and other golden cues to help remotely view a moment. However, this data is precious and highly personal to consumers and can only be successfully unlocked with permissions and real value exchange.
  • Context requires brands to respect consumers' time and to provide value and utility. With consumers increasingly demanding that their time is valued, brands need to make holistic decisions that are customer-centric. A survey by Upstream shows that two-thirds of consumers would unsubscribe from brands promotions if they thought the messages were too frequent — in the UK, 27% said they would stop using the product completely. It's clear that brands have to respond by understanding context in order to set the appropriate cadence of messaging. This invariably shifts marketing into a new modality of providing utility – whether that be timely information, entrainment, or by supporting customers' goals. Unless brands can appraise customers' context, they cannot work out how to help them. 
  • Context requires improvisation against a massive data set. At Forrester, we have been tracking the rise of what we call the perpetually connected customer – consumers using more devices, in more locations, more often. As consumers become more connected and their devices begin to generate richer context data, the ability to process it in real time becomes harder. Responding continuously in real time to an incredible array of variables needs a different approach than Boolean business logic, so real-time analytics and recommendations engines are using AI techniques to narrow the exploding possibilities down and provide offers moment by moment – click by click.

Indian classical musicians are the left-field cousins of modern marketers and can teach us a lot – about the importance of sensitivity and mood, flexibility in following rules, and improvisation in real time. Context isn't an optional approach for brands; it is one increasingly mandated by a connected smart consumer. In my upcoming Marketing Leaders EMEA Forum speech, I will be exploring this context challenge for brands, how to view the paradigm shift, and what to do about it.  

I look forward to seeing you there!