Think of a product you really feel attached to – food, makeup, an electronic device, anything. What makes it feel so special? The chances are it will be the mixture of convenience, efficacy and history that creates an emotional reaction. Making you feel special. In my case, it’s my Fitbit, maybe because I’m training for a half marathon. It feels like my very own trainer. It’s personal. 

Explore the future of personalization

Now imagine a future in which every product experience, every touchpoint with a brand you routinely use, feels that personal and special. I believe that’s possible, through the convergence of personalized physical and digital experience. It is the blend of physical products and digital services that will capture the market. Let’s explore how.

Hyper-personalization in the ‘last foot’

A level of personalization is common in the curated purchasing experience with which we are all increasingly familiar. Omnichannel retail allows you to buy the product that most fits your needs from all those available. But genuine personalization relies on the product being actually customized for you as an individual. Currently this typically means it either needs to be mass-customized, adapted at retail or even bespoke manufactured, rather than adapted dynamically to meet your needs.

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. Color, flavor, smell, texture, fit, sound… all shaped to suit you seamlessly, intuitively and without complexity, on an ongoing basis.

Oh, stop it Duncan you just created an Iron Man suit, didn’t you? Actually no, this isn’t science fiction. Some of these adaptations will be enabled by technologies within a decade. In fact, brands like L'Oréal’s Perso and Nike’s Adapt are already  showing the path to blended digital/physical hyper-personalization.

Why is this a business imperative?

All conventional product companies are directly or indirectly under threat from the tech giants (or FAANGs). The FAANGs’ indirect power comes from their ownership of consumer journey datapoints, hence their dominance of the consumer relationship over the product brands. Direct attacks come when FAANGs build physical product brands to compete with traditional ones. They can buy or develop their way into hardware, CPG[1] categories or even medicine, and may undercut traditional pricing to buy the data ownership. From Amazon Beauty to Verily, Apple earbuds to Kindles, traditional product categories are being disrupted by tech giants using their data advantage to win market share or offer increased value to consumers or patients. 

FAANGs can’t do everything on their own. Unless they believe they will own every brand, or that consumers will want a white label future, they will need to partner on technology innovation, especially for markets like medical technology which have high barriers to entry.

Whether you are a FAANG or a product brand, the opportunity is huge. Three quarters of US and European businesses are already seeing ROI from their marketing personalization efforts[2]. This inevitable move to blended digital/physical personalization has already begun. Brands across all categories can develop highly differentiated, unique experiences that personalize in the last foot. And by unique, I mean protected by novel, patented technology that can’t be copied – increasing defendable market share and ROI. And as we’ll discover, the technology to enable this can reach a mass, inclusive market – and our aim as innovators should always be to democratize and to scale globally.

Five technologies for the ‘last foot’ future

Let’s consider a person going about their daily life in 2030, interacting with your brand, which they love, through a blended digital/physical experience. How can we begin to imagine experiences that aren’t just science fiction? We won’t be wearing iron man suits, so what is within the realms of reality?

One inspiration is to talk to experts in technology areas that will underpin this future, either because they are driving disruptive change now, or because they will by 2030. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by tech experts so I can get a first-hand view.

1 AI and privacy

Brands like Spotify and Amazon are already using AI to infer consumer intent. The next steps will involve drawing out deeper situational context to improve that inference. According to Tim Ensor, Head of AI at Cambridge Consultants, this will include multiple data sources – weather, location, social media, web history, conversational interfaces – aiming to infer pattern-of-life to make predictive recommendations based on a segment of one. He told me: “It will require the convergence of the physical and digital – some information must come directly from the user and sensors in their environment, some information from the cloud, and the processing to make sense of it.”

Worries about personal data privacy (a recent study said 64% people worldwide have concerns about misuse[3]) could be relieved by 2030 by the rise of edge processing. Says Tim, “Approaches like federated learning will allow us to train AI models at the edge and to combine the learning from many users into a single cloud model without compromising individual privacy. Edge processing is also desirable because users want a good experience even when not connected to the cloud. Overall, edge processing will mean that far less personal data needs to be shared to the cloud.” This is good news. We shouldn’t have to rely on users being prepared to share their data just to get a benefit, which will never be a fair value trade-off with, for example, Google.

Another attractive aspect of the AI future is the prospect of digital twins to build predictive models of complex but very individual systems, such as human skin. Brands will use AI to test multiple scenarios and outcomes before recommending a course of action to the consumer. Then there’s the concept of minimum viable intelligence (MVI) – rapid deployment and testing of AI in the field. “The only way to get enough training data to hyper-personalize is to launch, and the only way you'll get to launch is to offer the value to the consumer. An MVI approach helps to break this otherwise catch 22,” says Tim. For those of us developing experiences for last foot personalization, this sounds perfect for consumer trials – a lower barrier to starting fast, learning fast and, if necessary, iterating fast.

2 Connectivity

Paul Beastall, UK5G advisory board member, assures me that device connectivity will be much more straightforward and consistent in 2030.  “5G is about enabling the physical internet – once known as IoT – where direct-to-cloud connections from low cost devices will be normal and will just work. Adding connectivity to a product today requires choices of Bluetooth versus Wi-Fi versus 4G, and often poor UI for configuration. Mature 5G will sweep that away, allowing brands to focus on the experience and take the cloud connection for granted.”

He cites the example of Levi’s Jacquard by Google[4] as a pointer towards this physical internet of the future, which blends textiles with digital. What should brands think about when they are imagining experiences? “The combination of lower cost processing and direct-to-cloud will allow over the air upgrade as standard – the equivalent of downloading an app on a smartphone. We can’t predict what business models will be enabled by the physical internet, any more than we were able to predict Facebook’s extraordinary growth before smartphones happened. But the promise of the physical internet is just as revolutionary as that of smartphones, as brands will be able to sell capabilities to consumers, enhancing their physical products, as apps do on a phone.”

3 Miniaturized electromechanics

Just how small and low cost will the electronics embedded into products and packaging get? I spoke to Kate Richmond, VP of Electronics at Synapse. “Electric car development is driving a lot of innovation in new battery chemistry and architecture,” she says. “While aiming eventually for the vehicle market, scaling has begun with categories like wearables, where the total energy capacity needed is much smaller.”

What of the electronics themselves? “The next stage of miniaturization will come from heterogenous integration. This is a technology we call chiplets. The platforms let you build custom integrated circuits for whole systems, not only the processing and connectivity, but sensors and other devices as part of the chip thanks to silicon interposers that form connections.”

And what about the contextual sensors we discussed as part of the AI future? “We're also going to see more very low cost, potentially battery-less sensor nodes. We're starting to see battery-free Bluetooth low energy tags built on RFID technology that scavenges power from RF[5]. This is something that can be produced at a cost point that will make the number of connected sensors explode,” says Kate.

So lower cost and safer batteries, coupled with much more highly integrated electronics, will change the economics. Categories which currently can’t participate will be able to add electronics to enable connected last foot personalization.

4 Input… biological sensors

What of the sensor technologies themselves, beyond the further integration of physical sensors? I spoke to Richard Hammond, Director of Bioinnovation here in Cambridge, about the prospects for biological sensors. “You’ll probably have seen DNA sequencing starting to be used to give dietary or fitness advice[6],” he says. “The decreasing cost and miniaturization of sequencing – look at Oxford Nanopore – will make this far more accessible at the point of testing. At the moment, the advice is quite generic. The science needs to catch up to give insight that is truly specific to your genome, and the link from genetic sequence to the advice to the beneficial outcome still needs to be validated.”

Biological sensors are not limited to DNA, however. Our increasing understanding of the microbiome world – the ecosystem of microbes that live in and on us – opens up new possibilities for cellular sensors. Says Richard: “Interrogation of the metabolites and proteins expressed by the biome on the skin or in the gut will give insight into our health and wellbeing. Cells are particularly good at detecting these tiny molecules, and with engineering we can program cells to interface to the digital world. For example, the cells could cause a color change of a sensor patch attached to your skin, or in your urine, which could then be detected optically. Cells are possibly the ultimate low-cost sensor to manufacture – just grow some more.”

Broadening the possibilities, there is increasing research linking the biome and mental wellbeing indication. “This leads to the intriguing idea of biological sensors to monitor and manage your mental as well as your physical health – truly connecting all aspects of wellbeing.” For the last foot, this could open up new ways to understand and enhance consumer satisfaction and intensify brand loyalty.

5 …And output – XR

“On the hype curve, VR is already over the hump, whereas AR has yet to reach it,” says Jake Sprouse, Head of Technology at Synapse. “VR has more potential beyond gaming than many realized, mainly for enterprise use cases. But for consumer applications, Augmented Reality really does have impact potential to because it suits everyday scenarios and will be far more readily integrated into our daily lives.

“There are still hard problems in the optical physics for AR – MEMS mirrors and lightguides for example – but it is amazing how quickly these challenges are being overcome. By 2030 AR will have matured. Display technology will be exceptional by then. The main barrier to mass adoption will be whether someone is prepared to wear a pair of glasses to get the benefit that is being offered.”

Edge computing will also bring huge benefits to AR. “Understanding what the world around means, for example where to place arrows on the street for directions, requires processing that is currently only available in the cloud. For real time AR this won’t work – you need a response time in milliseconds, so the computation can’t be more than one 5G hop away. Architectures such as neuromorphic processors for image recognition, as well as rich graphical rendering engines, will become low cost[7]. Heterogenous integration will make that possible on a single embedded device, and at relatively low volumes.”

And finally, let’s not forget audio AR. “Consumers are already prepared to wear headphones so audible AR, as pioneered by Bose for example, is not to be underestimated in terms of both early adoption and experience potential,” says Jake.

The real value is in what we imagine and create

These visions of 2030 are not for the sake of fantasy. They represent vital insight to allow us to begin plotting an investible path today. And of course, the tech isn’t the point, it’s simply the personalization enabler. Last foot personalization will be brought to life by the brilliant blending of physical and digital experiences, the product and the service, that we designers and developers will imagine and create.

Another inspiration is to learn from others already on the journey. At SXSW, I’ll be moderating a panel of experts from the beauty, audio and beverages sectors. Representing L’Oréal, Bose and Drinkworks (a joint venture between Keurig and AB InBev), they’ll be looking ahead to personalization in 2030 and discussing the lessons we can learn for designing experiences now. Join us there if you are in Austin.

I’d like to end with a note of reassurance. You might be concerned that personalized products might create more waste. Are we just going to end up tempted to buy and then discard more products? Not necessarily, according to my colleague, circular economy expert Catherine Joce: “If personalization delivers experiences that consumers value highly, that will mean that they want to keep products for longer. Durables will become more durable”. I agree. That personal experience, that product and service we love, are things we’ll want to keep forever.

Instagram: @duncan_tech. Twitter: @_Duncan_Smith


[1] CPG = Consumer Packaged Goods, known as FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) in some other countries.

[2] Ed Jefferson, “Personalisation – Why your strategy needs a shake-up”.

[3] Oxford Economics study, 2019.

[4] This is also a great example of a tech giant partnering with a brand to innovate.

Duncan Smith
EVP, North America