We read a lot of nasty things about what forces of evil are at work with our personal data. Generally, the headlines are full of privacy concerns – government spies, retail data mining, digital retargeting, political allegiance analysis and even just pure theft of personal material from the cloud. According to a new survey from Survata, data-driven businesses such as Google are causing real concerns. Internet users are more afraid of their personal data being used by Google than the National Security Agency.
All this provides a pretty gloomy backdrop to the fact that we all find ourselves living in a new age in which data is fast travelling towards the very heart of the relationships that we have with brands as consumers and with governments as citizens. However, there is a far more positive view we can take of where the world of data is going and a way to clarify the fact that, in some contexts, the value exchange is not always loaded in the favour of the data-holder and against the individual.
Not so many years ago, there was really only one way to ensure that you received a personal service: to be rich. If I wanted a customised grocery shop, I needed an account at Harrods or, at the very least, a close relationship with the poshest butcher, baker and candlestick-maker available on my local high street. My customised shoes would probably come from the likes of John Lobb on St James’s, from where I could wander up the road to obtain my perfectly fitting fedora from Lock & Co before finishing off with some handpicked wine to suit my palate at Berry Bros & Rudd. Only the privileged and favoured few could access that degree of personal service; indeed, it was pretty much the definition of luxury – certainly in the retail world.
But the retail world has changed. A lot. To the extent that we all regard a more personal experience and service as a basic consumer right. For example, my weekly grocery shop is now built around data on the purchases I have made in the past, which provide me with a sophisticated set of relevant personal offers, easy-to-use services (repeat last week’s basket, add your favourites) and access to tailored help and inspiration. Those customised shoes can come from NIKEiD for a few tens of pounds extra, no cobbler required. That hat – why not get yourself something bespoke online, made to fit your unique shape? All you need is a tape measure and a steady hand. My expert wine advice is freely available from the likes of Naked Wines or Virgin Wines, which will tailor recommendations based on what I like and can afford.
We recently sent some of our rising stars to spend time with the concierge at an internationally famous London hotel, a tailor at Savile Row whose family have been cutting cloth to fit for generations and a Master of Wine at London’s oldest vintner. In conversation, it quickly became apparent that data lay at the heart of the experience they create for their customers. A fascinating ring binder full of the dining and entertainment preferences (I use the term loosely) of frequent guests. Leather-bound volumes with the inside leg and fabric preferences of those who regard off-the-peg as beyond the pale. Copperplate writing in vast ledgers recording which region of Bordeaux suits Sir or Madam’s palate. This data powered the unique and luxurious experience provided by these bastions of the wealthy, just as it is data that has now made a much more personal experience accessible to millions of us.
Of course, the absolutely bespoke human touch of experts and artisans may continue to be the pinnacle of high living, but the fact is that the data can now be captured and used in a way that far exceeds those pages of notes. It can generate a degree of personalisation and relevance that is accessible to millions – not hundreds – of us.
So ask the data-naysayers a question. Do we want to go back to a consumer world in which the privilege of a more personal experience is the preserve of the wealthy? If brands are respectful of the personal data entrusted to them, then they can continue to democratise what was, not so long ago, regarded as the luxury of the few. We may, rightly, want to be protective of our own data DNA, but we also enjoy the way in which it opens up better and more personal service for all.
Matthew Heath is the chairman and chief strategy officer of Lida