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When scrolling through the canon of iconic marketing moments, this scene from the holiday classic A Christmas Story perfectly encapsulates the modern consumer’s emotional reaction to most brand experiences.

We’ve all been in Ralphie’s shoes before. We get our hopes up that a company, at long last, has created something valuable, something that’s creative for the sake of being creative, that we can enjoy without feeling compelled to buy or sell anything. And then… the crushing moment of disillusionment.

“Drink more Ovaltine?!” we cry, disgusted. We trusted the brand to deliver something meaningful, and they betrayed our trust in favor of self-promotion. In a split second, that precious moment of connection is terminated. It’s unlikely we’ll ever give Ovaltine the chance to let us down again.

While it’s easy enough to poke fun at a 1940s radio play sponsored by a consumer brand, the sad truth is that brands continue to do the same thing to their audiences today. They distribute content that promises education, entertainment, and value. On the surface, it glimmers enough to attract clicks—but when consumers dive into the depths of what’s offered, they’re often disappointed. Sometimes, the content is just a thinly-veiled product marketing pitch; other times, it’s well-meaning information that simply falls flat from an execution perspective.

Why does this keep happening? Are marketers getting worse at their jobs? No, not exactly. Rather, in the transition from the “golden age” of marketing in the 1950s and 60s to the vast new digital marketing landscape, something interesting occurred.

Digital properties provide us with a wealth of data about who our audience is, where they go online, and where their interests lie. It even tells us how they engage with the content we put out there on the web. There are thousands of tools that can help us track everything from page views to scroll depth to conversions to viewing history to eye color. (Maybe not the last one—yet.)

These tools are extremely useful because they reveal insights that force us to step outside our echo chambers and pay attention to what users prefer. They provide us with unbiased data with which to check our gut instincts. And they help us break a very complex ecosystem of interactions down into understandable metrics that we can measure and act upon.

But the crux of the issue is this: Science can’t fix the problems it uncovers with our content—it only reveals where things are broken. Without an investment in creativity, we’ll never be able to improve our experiences.

How do we start?

By fixing our eyes on the dreamers, the rebels, the artists who’ve made a living by breaking the mold.

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