Opinion: The Marketing Society Forum - Should brands help the government by handing over their customer data?

Marketing Society Forum
Marketing Society Forum

Should brands help the government by handing over their customer data?

Whitehall officials are in talks with brands as a possible precursor to the abolition of the national census and the use of loyalty cards and other customer records to gather information instead.

NO - Janet Smith, Clubcard director, Tesco

One of the key reasons our customers trust and use Clubcard is because they know Tesco would never compromise on the promise we make - that all their personal details will be kept safe and confidential, and never given to organisations outside Tesco. There's no wriggle room here, we just don't break that promise. To do so would be to jeopardise our customers' trust, and the Clubcard's future success.

In any case, I'm not sure the data would be of much use to the government in terms of replacing personal census data. Clubcard data is compiled with a view to analysing consumer trends to help us improve the service and products we provide.

Our data is really just a list of products bought when using a Clubcard and the location of the transaction, along with the name and address the Clubcard is linked to. It does not include specific data on the number, ages or occupations of family members living at the address, and is therefore unlikely to be a substitute for personal census data.

YES - Alex Batchelor, Chief operating officer, Brainjuicer

The census is one of the best-known and longest-running data-collection exercises. It is even in the Bible. They are important because governments need to know how many people live in the area that they govern - and their age, sex and location. The data is used to help provide houses, schools, roads and hospitals.

Part of our social contract with the state is a system of taxation that allows us to share in the benefits and costs of things provided for the common good - and it requires societies and governments to balance the competing needs if they are to prosper.

Companies are an increasingly important part of these societies and many have turnovers that exceed the gross domestic product of all but the biggest countries' economies.

I am confident that a better and more efficient allocation of resources would be possible if government and companies shared their data to this end. I doubt, though, that the level of trust that is needed between governments, the public and companies exists.

NO - Colin Bradshaw, Managing director, Rapp Data

It's an interesting idea, but one that may not have been fully thought through. How much and what sort of data? Where do you draw the line? Address verification, purchase history, bank balance, energy consumption, browser habits? What does the government want with all this additional data? Where would it stop?

There are other areas of concern, too, most notably, privacy. With Facebook and Twitter, we choose to share this information. When you transact with a company, though, you expect it to be a private matter. You do not sign up for the sharing of your activities and interests with the government. There are also factors around data sharing - specifically on costs and formats, not to mention possible brand implications and public perceptions.

When in opposition, the Conservatives described plans for the national census as 'increasingly invasive and intrusive ... and will erode public support'. It's a criticism that could come back to haunt the Tories if this particular idea comes to fruition.

NO - Andrew Ground, Former chief commercial officer, LoveFilm

Brands must help the state in some instances (for example, with criminal investigations), but saving money with the census is not one of them. I don't think collaborating with brand databases will cut anything from the £500m cost of the census.

The census attempts to count every single person in the UK. This is fundamentally different from the brands, which mostly collect data on households - not individuals.

To reduce the costs involved, the government needs to get more first-time response to the census. It must convince people their replies will not be used by government enforcement agencies. 'Big brother' exercises with brands would be exactly the wrong way to encourage people to respond promptly and honestly.

There may well be ways the government could work with brands' data to help drive innovation and competition, but that is another story.

- For more discussion, visit marketingmagazine.co.uk

The Marketing Society is the most influential network of senior marketers dedicated to inspiring bolder marketing leadership. www.marketing-society.org.uk

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