Interviews/ General Management

The Interview: Alcatel-Lucent's Allison Cerra

by Jake Widman
Contributing Writer

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You can call Allison Cerra the vice president of marketing, communication, and public affairs for the Americas Region at telecom giant Alcatel-Lucent. Or, since "that's the highest marketing position in the region," she says, you can just call her the CMO. Alcatel-Lucent is in the networking business, and part of Cerra's job is anticipating how our increasingly networked world is changing consumers' mindsets and expectations. To try and get a handle on those answers, Alcatel-Lucent recently conducted research involving more than 5,000 consumers across the U.S. Based on the research, Cerra (with Christina James) wrote Identity Shift, a book that examines how technology is changing the way people perceive their relationships and define themselves. It turns out that the same technology affects different people in different ways, depending on their stage of life. associate editor Jake Widman spoke with Cerra to learn more about the book, which launches Tuesday, and what its findings mean for marketers.

Q: Why did Alcatel-Lucent undertake the study?
A: What we do is build broadband networks that connect us every day to the devices and the networks that we love. We look at research like this to ask how these networks are being consumed and how that might change in the near future. What might be the implications for the networked ecosystem at large and for our company as part of that ecosystem?

When you look at how much is exposed about us every day through these networks and devices, it's apparent that if I can get access as a marketer to a lot of this behavioral data, I could be much more precise in my messages to my target audience. But obviously there's a privacy debate at the center of that. So this research is about understanding how a user will perceive those actions by companies and marketers that attempt to serve up very targeted offers. Assuming that a consumer opts in to those opportunities, marketers can serve up serendipitously personalized goods, services, and offers that resonate with that user at that particular time and create new value chains. You can now have new advertising models rather than the "spray and pray" that has been the history of traditional media.

Q: Why did you turn the research into a book? Who is its intended audience?
The book is for a broad audience. It speaks to the intersection where identity meets technology and is laced with rich quotes from our ethnography subjects. If you're a concerned parent with a teen in your home trying to figure out if I should be worried about raising a gaming addict or if I should put controls over Facebook and the like, you're going see yourself in some of the stories. And certainly the book is for anybody in the technology space and those who are looking at how to regulate that space. Typically when you think about this topic, you immediately go to the privacy debate. We think there's some fodder in the book that could help illuminate that story in a more nuanced way.

For a marketer, it's about understanding the mindset of the user who's at the end of the device that increasingly connects them to the brands and the companies they love. By understanding psychometrically how consumers align, and where and how their identity is shaped by the network and the life stage they're in, a marketer will be able to leave the book with information that could be useful in their next campaign as it pertains to targeting, or useful in their next conversation with a technology company about how to access some of this data that exists out there.

Q: In your Connected presentation at Abilene Christian University, you divided the online audience into Boomers, GenXers, and Millennials. It makes sense that this identity shift would apply to the Millennials--the true "digital natives." Did you find that the sense of identity of Boomers and Xers is being shifted by the connected technology, too, or is this just about the next generation of consumers?
A: It cuts across all life stages and generations. While we're quick to think of the Millennials first, certainly Boomers and Xers are being affected, as well. Boomers are the consummate idealists, so they look at the technology as a means to reinvent themselves. Many of the middle-aged folks we spoke with are looking at starting up new businesses or taking up new interests, directly through the networks that connect them.

Millennials, on the other hand, have never known a life that wasn't connected. The Millennial generation are the "We" generation: The technology is about unification--about giving them a voice and, through that voice, allowing them to affect the environment around them.

Next Page: Changes in perspective, and the opportunities that follow.


Q: So the same technology can play a different role for different people, depending on their generation?
A: Absolutely. But we don't talk about generations in this book; we talk about "life stages." When you consider how parents view technology, for instance, it's radically different because your priorities change when you become a parent. We talk about Millennials as a generation, but the first of the Millennials are now in their thirties. They're entering the workforce, they're having kids, and at that defining moment when you find the job or have a child, your perspective changes, and the way you see the technology around you shifts accordingly. You start to identify with new ways that technology could be used, and you begin to potentially discard some of the ways you used to use it. What you're seeing through Identity Shift is that through these life stages, these defining moments, there's an opportunity for the technology to enhance who we want to be.

Q: My teenage son is a digital native, and he has a different sense of privacy and identity than I do. Do you find that Boomers are also becoming less private and more open, or are they demanding tools for maintaining the sense of privacy they've always known, even in this connected world?
What we find is that Boomers tend to be a bit more what we call "protection-oriented" than Millennials are, in terms of what they choose to reveal about themselves. That said, if given the tools, about 80 percent of those same protection-oriented folks are willing to reveal things about themselves, assuming they remain in control of who sees it. By giving them the right tools, you begin to change their mindsets about what they're willing to expose as the context changes.

As for your son, we talked to subjects who were in their mid- and early-20s--so they'd either just gotten out of or were about to graduate from college--and it was pretty profound to us how the narrative changed. There's all of a sudden an overwhelming sense of reality, that what I've been posting online about myself is now open to recruiters and suitors to make judgments about me. There's a consciousness that seeps in at that defining moment that finding my ideal--which is what that particular life stage is all about--requires being my ideal.

Q: In practical terms, is there a way these generational differences affect how marketers should approach each group?
Absolutely. You want the respondent to identify with those cultural forces that influenced their formative years. Boomers understood that they could affect their government with things like civil rights and Vietnam. When you talk to a Boomer, making them feel like you're not putting them out to pasture is pretty important because they're the generation of reinvention.

GenXers had a very different childhood experience--the rise of AIDS, the increase in divorce, the space shuttle explosion. They're the cynics and the survivalists of the generations. For the Xer, it's all about "how are you going to help me because I have to rely on me to survive?" With the Millennials, you've got these moments in time, disasters like Katrina and 9/11, that really unified the nation. Millennials are digital natives and share the ideals of their Boomer parents, and all of a sudden they have the power of a collective voice. It's all about collaboration, unification, and social consciousness.

There are scores of books that talk about these kinds of generational marketing issues. What Identity Shift does is to look at these life stages--what happens when I'm 18 to 24 years old, and how is that fundamentally different from what I was when I was a teen?

We were amazed when talking to folks 19 and 20 years old who lamented the "good, old days" when they were teenagers. Within the same generation, the life stage and the maturation is accelerating at a staggering pace, and the way people see the world around them is influenced by their life stage, not just their generation.

Q: As a CMO, what are you going to do with this information?
The first thing we're trying to do with this book is to start a dialogue and make sure we look at all aspects of identity--not just the privacy debate, but also how I present myself online and how I get access to things I want.

Secondarily, Alcatel-Lucent serves service providers around the globe. And so our job there is to help them understand the power that the network has and where some of this Big Data opportunity could come from, and then find ways that the broader ecosystem can benefit from that. But in order to do that, we have to remember who stays in control at all times, who's the boss: It's always the consumer.

As long as the consumer feels that he or she remains in control of the situation and can enable or disable privacy settings in an easy, conspicuous way, you start to create new opportunities for those consumers to become more comfortable, and new services can be added into the mix as a result. That results in more sales, which allows further investment in these broadband networks that we know directly correlate to a nation's GDP growth. So it's all about finding where the value chains can come from to help encourage future investment.