Confidentiality, insensitivity, misuse and sheer creepiness: When personalisation goes wrong

Personalisation is set to be the hot topic of 2020 in the marketing world and will become essential for businesses wanting to grow and succeed.

Research from Epsilon says that 80% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase when brands offer personalised experiences. And research from Segment says that 71% of consumers feel frustrated when their shopping experience is impersonal.

All good stuff.

Yet businesses are struggling to implement true personalisation into their marketing strategy. One of the barriers is that personalisation is easy to get wrong. Here are some of the top reasons personalisation can fall flat.


US supermarket giant Target gives its customers a unique ID which contains personal information and tracks buying behaviour. Over time, the company builds a full data profile and when something changes in the individual customer’s buying habits – they know about it.

Target’s marketing analysts created a “pregnancy prediction” score, which, when triggered by a purchase outside your usual habits, means you will receive special deals on baby items.

This technique garnered plenty of press attention when an angry dad accused Target of encouraging his teenage daughter to get pregnant by advertising baby related products, only to find out later that she actually was pregnant.


Photo gift company Shutterfly crossed the line when sending customers that they deduced had newborn babies marketing emails saying ‘Congratulations!’ which would be incredibly thoughtful - had many of the recipients actually given birth.

For many, this was an hilarious gaffe but for some who had struggled with miscarriage, infertility or the loss of a child the mistake was no laughing matter and Shutterfly soon issued an apology for causing offence.


Lovely Gary Lineker was caught up in a social media storm when Walkers Crisps launched a personalised video campaign with the best intentions. However, #WalkersWave quickly turned into a PR nightmare.

Fans were asked to upload a selfie to win tickets to the Champion's League final, which generated a video of poor old Gary holding up a picture of the selfie. Great - shareable video content - a brilliant way to snowball a campaign organically...

But instead of uploading selfies, people sent pictures of notorious killers and sex offenders.


Sheer Creepiness

To advertise the new Alien movie, Channel 4 dabbled in audio personalisation as part of a digital ad campaign.

David Amodio, Channel 4’s digital and creative leader said: "The most attention-grabbing word for anyone to hear is without doubt one’s own name, so to be able to offer advertisers the chance to speak directly to our millions of viewers is not just unique, but an immensely powerful marketing tool which adds even more value to All 4’s increasingly personalised experience.”

Creepy? Yes.

But then it is the new Alien movie.

Personalise like a pro:

1. Consider the context - make sure your personalisation is within customers' expectations.

2. Use data wisely - don't be greedy with your use of customers' personal data or personalise for the sake of it. Consider how it sits within your wider marketing strategy.

3. Avoid sensitive topics - and check carefully that your content cannot be misconstrued.

4. Protect against hijackers - think how your automatically generated content might be used against you.

5. Be transparent - some may not feel comfortable with their data being used in certain ways. Make sure you are transparent with the use of customer data and don't overstep the line into creepiness (unless that's your goal).