Merkle Ties Emotions to Consumer Data for Under Armour

Agency Will Apply Merkle Personal Values Research Across Its Own General Database

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Merkle's Ron Park, VP-analytics, and Leah van Zelm, VP-digital strategy
Merkle's Ron Park, VP-analytics, and Leah van Zelm, VP-digital strategy

Merkle is adding a bit of sensitivity to its consumer data. Taking a cue from the political data sector, the digital marketing and data management consultancy has scored consumer profiles based on the emotional underpinnings of their purchase decision making. The company is taking the psychological research process it has developed on a custom basis for clients including Under Armour and will be expanding it across Merkle's entire customer database.

"We're tying emotions to big data," said Leah van Zelm, VP-digital strategy at Merkle. "We all have personal values that drive our purchasing decisions."

All purchase decisions encompass emotions, when it comes to products as diverse as orange juice, auto insurance and fitness trackers, suggests Merkle. In March, the company completed research involving quantitative surveys of a panel of 500 people who had purchased a fitness tracker in the last year, complemented by 30 qualitative interviews with psychologists on staff at the agency. Participants were broken out by three generational groups -- half were millennials, 35% Gen X-ers and the remaining 15% baby boomers.

The work was especially relevant for Under Armour, which acquired health and fitness platform MyFitnessPal last year, drastically increasing the amount of consumer data it collects. With this in mind Under Armour launched its Connected Fitness division in January.

The questions helped Merkle isolate the reasons why people buy what they do, the end result being around 15 different value categories describing the motivations behind purchase decisions, such as individuality, sense of duty and sense of achievement, piece of mind and family love. Consumer profiles are tagged with relevant categories, in the same way that political data is often tagged with a voter's likelihood to support a candidate or cause.

One discovery: both Gen X-ers and millennials base purchase decisions on a desire to express their individuality; however, Gen X-ers tend to do it simply for the sake of reaffirming their individuality, while millennials often do so to feel more connected to their peers. Ms. van Zelm and Merkle VP-Analytics Ron Park will discuss their research here at the I-Com Global Conference on Thursday.

Those emotional tags, along with third-party social and demographic data, could be used to better understand consumers outside Under Armour's core base of hardcore athletes, and to refine targeting of ads or alerts in their apps. It might also be used to target specific creative and communications to each group. Under Armour might show people as part of a group of friends in ads for its clothing or apps aimed at millennials, for instance.

"We've identified the emotional value, but what we've done is connected it to the product," said Ms. van Zelm. "Some creative folks hate this. You're being very prescriptive with the technology," she continued, adding, "But we're taking the guesswork out of it."

Now that Merkle has tested and applied its research on emotions for multiple clients and their proprietary data, the company has modeled look-alikes based on the research, and plans to add emotional categories to all the consumer records in its general database by sometime this summer. It will also conduct more surveys with around 10,000 people.

Each profile will be marked with one primary value and scored for others. Those records can then be mapped to Merkle's publisher partners including AOL, Facebook and Newscorp properties, allowing advertisers to target ads to people based on the emotional categories they fall under. Ultimately the way people are categorized will be used to inform targeted ad creative for things such as performance marketing.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said Merkle's emotion research has enhanced Under Armour's app usage data. Under Armour has not used the research that way, Merkle said.

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