Enough is Enough?

by Ben Perreira

In the quest the quantify everything we do, we find ourselves obligated to question what our endgame is.

Yesterday Google announced that it had bought Nest, a producer of smart thermostats, for $3.2 billion. The deal will most certainly turn out to be worth the price for Google. The question is whether it will be good for consumers.

Google’s raison d’etre is data. The more they know about us, the more they’re about to serve us ads that reflect what we may be in the market to buy. Better yet, they may be able to predict (or at least triangulate) based on (1) our personal demographics, (2) who we interact with and (3) things we search for on our Android phones, through Google Maps, watch on YouTube that we need a vacation, are looking to go to graduate school, or are considering proposing to our girlfriends.

There are a couple critical problems with this “quantify everything” perspective:

  1. Data can feel creepy: One of the things that makes buying things enjoyable is the discovery of a shared perspective with a brand. It’s sort of like falling in love: “We both went to Yosemite as kids and would love to go back!” When I search for a specific suit then three companies serve me ads for that same suit, I’m left without the ability to discover what makes each of those sites unique. I get the transaction without falling in love, sort of like meeting someone on Tinder.
  2. Data has diminishing returns: Marketers use data to better understand consumers and this information can be very valuable. But after a while more information can just be distracting. Jumping at every “signal” just means being distracted by the “noise.” More and better are seldom suitable bedfellows. 

Of course, we don’t have to do it this way. Great companies know that building a brand and building a company are not the same thing. They know that they need to take calculated risks to find new ways into the hearts and minds of consumers (see: the iPad and even the Galaxy Note). We should use the information we have to do things in new ways rather than just remove risk from doing things we think once worked. The underlying paradox is that this illusory removal of risk is perhaps the riskiest move a consumer brand can make.