Alan Mitchell on Branding: The information exchange

LONDON - Political parties are showing brands the way on handing consumers control of their personal data.

Being a naive sort of fellow, I thought that in elections contending parties are supposed to disagree. Yet, if you read the Labour and Tory manifestos, buried in the small print, away from the sound and fury of the sloganeering, you will find a surprising consensus on one thing.

This one thing happens to be central to the future of marketing: the management of personal/customer data. Labour kicked it off in its manifesto, saying: 'We will explore how to give citizens direct access to the data held on them by public agencies, so that people can use and control their own personal data in their interaction with service providers and the wider community.'

The Tories went a step further, declaring: 'Wherever possible we believe that personal data should be controlled by individual citizens themselves.'

Both parties have rejected a default position that has dominated government and commerce for the past 50 years - the assumption that personal data should be controlled by the bodies that collect the information. This underpins virtually everything CRM managers and database marketers (and marketers generally) do.

The politicians are putting a spanner in these works because they have experienced the painful effects of its intrinsic flaws. It's not just those massive data losses. It's the endless struggle with inaccuracies and errors (individuals know more about their lives than organisations do). In addition, there is the debilitating loss of trust; when your data is being collected and pushed around by other people behind your back, and without your permission or control, you feel disempowered.

So re-empowering people on this front makes both political and operational sense. It's not the subject of electioneering because it actually signifies a genuine turn in the intellectual and policy tide that, sooner or later, will wash up to your doorstep.

For far-sighted brand managers, it also represents a huge opportunity. The old organisation-centric approach to managing personal data is a dead duck (read my blog for more on this). Brands need to replace it with an 'information contract' with their customers.

The starting point for this is the simple recognition that unstoppable technology trends are putting the power of information management (collecting, storing, updating, correcting, analysing, sharing) into the hands of individuals. If we stick with past approaches, this could trigger an ugly adversarial boundary dispute (who 'owns' and controls customer data?). However, if we go with the flow, we could create rich new win-wins.

What will these win-wins look like? First, there's a win-win mindset. Is information something you hold close to your chest because it may give you some advantage over the other party (the trust low road)? Or is it better shared, so that both sides can add value to it and enrich it (the trust high road)?

Brands that take the trust high road will innovate in many ways: eliciting ongoing streams of rich, volunteered data from customers (because they know the brand will use it positively); handing personal and other data back to these customers so that they can add their own value to it (by mixing it with other data sources, for example); using the resulting insights to personalise services; synchronising the two sides' data to eliminate errors and waste.

The politicians have opened this door because they had to (centralised government management of personal data is bust). Brands now have the opportunity to charge through it.

Alan Mitchell is a respected author and a founder of Ctrl-Shift and Mydex.


- A 'State of the Nation' survey conducted by ICM for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust earlier in the year found that a high proportion of respondents were concerned about the types of personal data held by the government.

- For example, 65% of those surveyed said they would be against the idea of this type of information being brought together in a centralised database for use by a range of public bodies.

- The poll also found that 61% of people believed the police should not be allowed to keep a person's DNA profile if they have not been charged with an offence. This was compared with 45% who took the same view in a similar survey in 2006.

- The proportion of respondents opposed to ID cards also rose, from 33% in 2006, to 52% in 2010.

- According to the survey, more than half of people are against storing medical data on a centralised computer system, although such systems are currently being introduced for Scotland and England.


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