McDonald’s Dynamic Yield

I want to be a non-conformist like everyone else. That, combined with a large dose of creepiness, is where society seems to be heading.

Thanks to Big Data, companies are now racing to “personalize” the experiences of each and every one of us.  When I’m in certain airports I don’t need to deal with humans. I can order my food and drinks on one of the many iPads bolted to the tables and bar. An extra lime in my club soda or hold the tomato on my burger? No problem. I’m having it my way! That’s personalization, right? Let’s not let a real person get in the way to screw it up.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about new retail technology that leverages facial recognition to alert a retailer of your identity when you enter a store with instant access to your past purchase behavior and any other of your personal preferences previously captured. That’s personalization too.

If I love chocolate shakes with my large order of fries or have a thing for shirts with stripes, the retailer, perhaps represented by a real person, will be right there to “help me” by teeing up a recommendation.  Hello Mr. Hirsch! We have some lovely new stripes in! And can I suggest some these beautiful Italian-made wool slacks to go along with them?

One could argue that they are using my personal information to make good choices and keep me happy. A more cynical take would be that they’re focused far more on upselling than customer satisfaction.  And it’s all creepy.

The paranoid among us – and I’ve read quite a bit about this lately – believe that Google, Apple and others are using our phones or Alexa-type devices to eavesdrop on all our conversations, even the ones not on conducted over the phone. There are claims along the lines of “my wife and I were talking about taking up yoga at dinner one night, and the next day we started to see yoga mat ads!” This, despite never having searched for or ordered any yoga related merchandise online or ever attending a yoga class.

I don’t quite buy into that premise. Not yet, anyway. But there is something very disturbing, in a Big Brother kind of way, about machines and strangers knowing any intimate details of my life. I don’t want some random retail salesperson (if you can actually find one) knowing what’s in my closet, literally or figuratively

So called benefits, like personalization, aren’t always benefits. My friend and frequent collaborator Tom Lazaroff wrote about that this week in his blog, FYI – Your Prospect Doesn’t Care About Automation.  He argues that in B2B tech businesses, automation has become an empty, generic claim that often carries more negative connotations than positive. As in automation equals job cuts. I think of digital personalization the same way,  where there’s no “person” in personalization. Yes, I understand that the word refers to its intended target, but I’m not sure that people really feel that anything is truly personalized without some kind of human element.

Which brings me to McDonald’s, the company that now wants you to have it “your way,” the old Burger King slogan notwithstanding. The Wall Street Journal reports that McDonald’s will pay more than $300 million for the Israeli personalization company Dynamic Yield, a deal that’s “the fast-food giant’s first acquisition in years and its biggest in two decades.” According to Adweek, “McDonald’s plans on using Dynamic Yield’s technology in its digital drive-thrus and personalize it by recommending food based on the time of day or weather as well as showcase “trending menu items.””

From what I’ve read so far, and I could be very wrong, this is more customization based on environmental factors than the kind of personalization I described earlier. It’s more about pushing cold items on hot days and hot items on cold days, something we desperately need machines to figure out for us.

Still, this is a smart move by McDonald’s. They’ll collect more and better data directly, and no doubt figure out a way to recognize you in order to facilitate your order and sell you more.

“From a marketer’s perspective, I think it’s really interesting for companies like Amazon or really any CPG-type partner to think about this idea that a screen is almost like a virtual store shelf where, at any moment, if you knew enough about the audience behind that screen and you had mobile data, you could change what’s displayed based on past purchase history or movement patterns. It’s very similar to the way CPG clients pay for shelf positioning in retail.”

That’s a quote from the Adweek article cited earlier. True but kind of obvious. And creepy. Unfortunately, that’s the best of the punditry I’ve seen so far. Here’s another, more mindless let’s drink the Kool-Ade type observation from a gung-ho Forrester analyst:

“Dynamic Yield fills a gap for McDonald’s: personalization across digital channels. McDonald’s realizes that in the Age of the Customer, it can no longer offer a one-size-fits-all experience to its customer, who increasingly want to engage digitally.”

Is this really the age of the customer? Your call is very important to us! Please hold for the next 40 minutes or so and the next available representative will be right with you.

And yes, there are many areas where we “increasingly want to engage digitally.” Is retail one of those ares? Is this why Amazon and Warby Parker are opening brick and mortar stores? Is it really good for the long-term health of retail to suck the humanity out of the experience, even in fast food?

Let’s be clear about why all this is happening. Personalization and automation are wonderful things when they provide real value for customers. Again, call me cynical, but it seems that the great majority of these operational advances are focused almost entirely on the benefit to the business, not the customer. Yes, it would be nice not to wait as long at McDonald’s. But really, is this a big issue? How much better will my life be if they recommend an ice cream cone on a hot summer day? The purpose of personalized, digitized menus is to move more people through faster, upsell and reduce headcount.

While I am not a candidate (yet) for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, I will go on the record as being an unapologetic capitalist. Businesses should always be looking for ways to sell more and increase profit. However, they need to be honest about their motivations. Old people want to talk to real human being. Gens Y & Z might prefer digital interaction. Regardless, the pursuit of “speed,” “convenience” and “personalization” needs context and the new consumer benefits, the true benefits, that is, must outweigh long-term risks to the business.

What concerns me as much as Big Brother and person-less personalization are the implications of the Pandora type algorithms that will result from this application of technology. If everything is based on past behavior, how will we ever innovate? Please, personalize my order. Because I’m a unique individual and I’m never going to change.

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