Customers today have access to a seemingly infinite stream of media content. Now that the floodgates have been flung open, companies are realising that offering highly relevant and curated content is more meaningful than having access to this all-you-can-eat buffet. Time is a scarce commodity and the challenge consumers are grappling with is how to watch, read and listen to everything.

Companies like Amazon, Netflix and Spotify are leading the pack in the world of relevance-driven AI. Take Amazon’s recommendation algorithm as an example. If I start to buy DIY tools online, it will try to anticipate the nature of my project and recommend items around it. Netflix has demonstrated that data and creativity can work well together. They famously used data to figure out that viewers who liked the actor Kevin Spacey also liked the director, David Finchley and political dramas. These correlations gave consequent birth to the hit show ‘House of Cards’. Since the platform also holds data on individual viewing patterns, they know what content to push at what time. The result is very powerful, influencing macro consumption trends and micro user behaviour.

What companies like Netflix are doing is clearly resonating with customers. This is not just demonstrated through the increasing subscription figures – who doesn’t have Netflix? – but also in the gains the brand has made in Prophet’s Brand Relevance Index. Ranking brands on how indispensable they are in consumer’s lives, it’s clear in this year’s results that those brands that ‘enable’ customer’s choices through relevant personalisation are the ones on the growth trajectory, creating significant brand loyalty.

The dominance of technology-led brands like Netflix, Amazon and Spotify ranking in the top 10 proves that the most compelling brand experiences do not happen in a single space or interaction. There’s much to be learned from these pioneers on how to sustain relevance by putting the customer at the centre of the experience:

  1. They’re smart and synced. They give us what we want, when we want it, acknowledging the need to integrate their efforts into mobile functions that can be accessed ‘on the go.’
  2. They embrace the new personalisation paradigm. They are responsive and address customers proactively throughout the lifecycle. Personalisation now extends to much more than just welcoming back a returning customer.
  3. They have us hooked. They make us want to engage repeatedly. Serial form is now a thing of the past, with complete access to entire boxsets there’s no more waiting for next week’s episode.

The types of powerful algorithms used by companies like Netflix and Amazon found their original applications in the B2B sector. With the advancements in AI over the last ten years, customers now have these engines at their service. Netflix uses a home-brewed recommendation algorithm called CineMatch. Amazon has refined its algorithm multiple times landing on item-to-item collaborative filtering as the best way to deliver speed and accuracy.

But what does it say about us when algorithms know our preferences better than we do? We no longer choose from scratch, we instead choose from a curated selection presented on a digital platter. Google, Netflix, Facebook and Amazon suggest carefully curated content based on browsing history. They not only tell us what content to consume but when to consume it. How do we break free of the echo chamber? And more importantly, do we want to?

My seven-year-old son is at that amazing age where his curiosity is boundless. He reads a book a week and begs us to stay up late and study the encyclopaedia. He is in awe of the world and desperate to discover what interests him. But his research is arduous; it takes time and energy. Most customers are more like me than my son. We don’t have the time and energy to acquire new information, organise our thoughts and process our tastes. The deluge of content we have access to feels overwhelming and scary. We want the help of an algorithm to clear out the noise and do the thinking for us.

Take Spotify’s ‘Discover Weekly’ as an example. If I listen to Nora Jones on a Friday night, my choice will be linked to a cluster of artists and micro-genres using technology from Echo Nest. I have no idea what these groupings are called, but essentially Spotify has just learnt that I like ‘unwinding music’. The following week when I get the ‘Discover Weekly’ playlist I’ll be provided with other examples of ‘unwinding music’. The app will automatically assume that I’ll be in the same mood for the same kind of music as last week. This is nice, right?

Well, what if I am not looking to unwind or if I don’t want the AI to influence my mood?

Part of me thinks these advancements are great; I’m in awe of them. But as I put my curious seven-year old to bed, I also worry they might be the enabler of some kind of dark Orwellian future where we lose our genuine curiosity and free will. Back at work, I scratch my head and wonder how traditional players, without AI capabilities, will compete and sustain relevance.

Companies who are winning the relevance game are creating brand loyalty by delivering personalisation and removing some element of choice. The endeavour to provide consumers with an easy, uncomplicated experience is not just confined to the tech industry; it’s a bigger idea seeping through our culture. Just look at the rise – and success – of the single dish restaurants like Flat Iron, Burger & Lobster and Bubbledogs. A world of increasing complexity is causing us to seek the simplicity of reduced options. They make our lives feel simpler, and we love them for it.

Traditional players should be working to figure out where they fit into this new landscape, how to use their existing reputation to stay relevant and broaden their network of influence. Opportunities for strategic partnerships, post-purchase loyalty programmes and community-led engagement should be explored. For instance, most people view programmes on Netflix in isolation, and it takes time away from other essential things in life, like connecting with friends and family. In this context bringing people together, and offering participative experiences where we can share real-world moments together is key.

In a knowledge economy, on the outset, it seems that unlimited access is great, but what we truly want is simplicity. For customers, relevant personalisation is the only way to survive the all-you-can-eat content buffet. The brands who define – and redefine – what’s possible in this arena will be the ones who grow.