The Paradox of Mass Personalization

Franco Varriano
April 13, 2021
 min read

Paradoxical truths are everywhere...

  • The most authentic marketing never feels like marketing.
  • The most authentic sales person never feels like a salesperson.
  • The most authentic and incredible art feels simple and obvious.

We've covered some of these paradoxes in previous posts:

  • The paradox of choice (limiting options to increase happiness).
  • The paradox of modern luxury (increased accessibility [awareness generated by technology] but made limited or restricted [sometimes in appearance only] by artificial scarcity or other mechanisms like drops).
  • The paradox of cults (cults actually accelerate the sense of individualism within cohesive communities).

In this post, we explore another paradox that we foresee becoming important in the years to come: the paradox of mass personalization.


"It's a marketing paradox: the need to create individualized experiences, delivered en masse to an entire audience of individuals."

Find that quote in Freeman's report: The Next Big Opportunity: Mass Personalization and the Art of Brand Experience

Millennials and Gen-Z

The internet is a fundamental invention of mankind and is definitely one of the most important technologies to come out of the 20th century.

In just a short time, the internet has shaped and evolved our culture in unprecedented ways. When talking about these changes, we often dive into the effects this technology has had on economics and marketing. But the societal transformations that the internet has enabled or accelerated are a part of the puzzle that cannot be ignored.

Author Daniel Pink writes:

"In short, we've progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now we're progressing yet again—to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers."

Millennials were the first generation to break career norms. They’ve embraced ‘multi-hyphen careers’ where they make a living working a series of jobs that play to their various skills and interests and create multiple revenue streams. According to one study, 37% of Millennials have a secondary business or ‘side hustle.’

Gen Z is pushing this trend even further.

Tiffany Zhong is known as the "Gen Z whisperer." A Gen Zer herself, Tiffany was previously a venture capitalist, joining Binary Capital at the age of 18 where she helped manage a $300 million consumer fund with investments in companies like Snapchat, Instagram, Stitch Fix, and Grubhub.

She went on to run her own fund and launch a startup, Islands, which builds new tools for the Creator Economy, all with a focus on Gen Z creators.

In 2020, Tiffany was a guest on the a16z Podcast (hosted by VC firm Andresseen Horowitz). The episode was titled: "Designing for, Marketing to, and Partnering with Gen Z," and she shared lots of interesting insights.

While we recommend listening to the entire episode, here are a few tidbits:  

  • Gen Z cultuire is constantly evolving.
  • Gen Z grew up cultivating and managing multiple profiles and identities. Each is dedicated to a different part of their personality and is centered around friend groups, interests, and more.
  • Gen Z is a side-hustle generation, often the first to leverage new tools to build audience and distribution or alternative assets.
  • Gen Z creators heavily leverage remix culture platforms. Those who will excel are amazing storytellers who also have skills in marketing/distribution and can make the jump to multiple platforms (where more monetization options exist).

These trends point to a new reality for Millennials and Gen Z—but especially the latter.

In early 2020, UK-based agency Dazed Studio put together “Monomass,” an incredible report examining the future of several trends, including (virtual) self-identities, commerce, influence, and more

Many parts of their analysis overlap with the insights shared by Tiffany.

It starts with their coining of the term "monomass":

“Monomass is a catch-all for the times we are living in, whereby hyper-individualism and mass trends sit side-by-side within the very same person.”

Part of what's interesting here is the apparent contradiction between mass-production and individualism. But the authors of Monomass go as far as saying that paradoxes are dead and contradictions are the new way of life. This is exactly what technology has (and will continue) to enable.

Relationships, media, products, and consumables of all kinds are quickly becoming personalized at a very deep and intimate level.

Consumers are increasingly enabled and empowered (with the rise of superpower apps) to make choices and truly personalize experiences in the physical or digital world. It won’t belong before we’re able to completely design our own immersive environments.

Mass personalization and personalized products

So where does this leave us in terms of personalized products? Ana Andjelic, author of The Business of Aspiration, shares this relevant insight:  

"To answer the question of how to get something to resonate with the atmosphere of the times, we should look for contradictions, inversions, oddities, and coincidences in our culture, society, and economy."

Monomass is exactly this: a paradox.

Once again, Ana is almost prophetic in her analysis:

“The most visible cultural contradiction maybe is the simultaneous presence of cultural niches and the monoculture.”

From determining what memes are relevant, to tiers of cult-like fandom across multiple niches, to modern luxury products, consumers specifically create and curate to reflect their identities and values.

Gen Z doesn’t want to be downstream consumers of culture and mass marketed products. Instead, they crave co-creation and collaboration directly with creators and brands—as well as with their peers.

Dazed Studio captured this emerging reality in a single graphic:

Gen Z and Millennials (but especially Gen Z) are accustomed to managing multiple identities and communities at once and are increasingly blending them for ultimate creative input and personalized output.

Industry 4.0 leverages on-demand manufacturing and emerging technologies like 3D printing to create production runs of single units (a model that was previously too expensive). We’ll do a deeper dive into this topic in the weeks ahead.

However, there’s much more at play.

Here are a few examples of the accelerated blending of digital and physical worlds:

Digital personalization

  • Stemming from digital metaverses and the Creator Economy, with new asset classes like non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and social tokens.
  • Creators, entrepreneurs, influencers, and forward-thinking brands are just starting to leverage these new technologies in different and experimental ways.
  • A great round up of progress in this space can be found on the Andresseen Horowitz podcast. Some of the most interesting use cases of digital personalization include:
  • Musicians/bands selling NFTs as physical event tickets (which can also be used like a traditional ticket).
  • Artists selling digital art asNFTs, but also enabling a physical version.
  • Sneaker companies selling digital sneaker NFTs that can be redeemed ("forged") for a real-world pair.

Physical personalization

  • Creative Layer is pushing to build true product personalization that is more than just printing a logo and some text on a shirt.
  • Analysts predict some elements of Industry 4.0 will evolve into modern manufacturing systems that can handle very limited or individual product runs using emerging technologies like GenerativeDesign, 3D printing, and others.
  • Cambridge Consultants released an article on the promising technologies that are driving the "last foot of personalization." They write:

“I believe that genuine hyper-personalization in the future will be enabled by customization in the ‘last foot’—the product adapting itself between you unpacking it and using it. A digital service will orchestrate that real time adaptation.”

While these product personalization experiences are still very experimental, demand is rapidly increasing from savvy, modern customers:

"Whether we're shopping, streaming videos, or attending an event, we are now accustomed to experiences that are expertly tailored to our wants and needs."

- Freeman, The Next Big Opportunity: Mass Personalization and the Art of Brand Experience

Brands, entrepreneurs, and creators are developing innovative solutions and approaches for this new world. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to become part of the future of commerce.

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