Unilever braced for the ‘titanic shift’ in media it predicts will come once the customer owns their data

Unilever is trying to work out how personalised marketing works in a fast-dawning market where it has to effectively rent data from customers who are in control of how they monetise their personal information.

It forms the crux of how the world’s second largest advertiser adapts to a FMCG space where product is no longer king.

“Any guy with a garage can go out and get distribution, [buy] advertising and get a product made to do all the things that an FMCG does,” said Unilever’s vice president of global data and marketing analytics Shawn O’Neal on the need to find a new competitive advantage.

Speaking at the CtrlShift Personal Information Economy conference yesterday (8 December), the marketer said future growth, a hard to come by objective for most global manufacturers, would come through its ability to adapt to the paradigm shift of personal data becoming a personal asset. Every day data was a tool for brands but with the people becoming more connected it’s also becoming a tool for the individual. This is a shift likely to be quickened by the arrival of the EU’s long-awaited data protection reform early next year.

“Where at a point of thinking about the titanic shift that happens in the media space when you factor in the changes legislation, peoples’ desire to control their own data and ad blocking,” revealed O’Neal. He went on to explain the company's response will not only alter how it collects and uses information but also how it markets its brands through “entertainment, recommendations, apps and everyday recommendations”.

This rise of the so-called ‘Personal Information Economy’ is one Unilever expects will make it less reliant on its owned data or “casting the line everyday just to get limited amounts of information” that has made O’Neal “envious” of the amount of information Facebook has on its users and “even more envious” of Google.

One of the big issues for Unilever and its peers is the dearth of quality information they have on people, which is making them increasingly reliant on the advertising tech stacks being assembled by Facebook et al. What they want is to be able to target people as they move between these networks instead of being forced into investing more in each specific platform, with Facebook arguing that it's unwilling to be that transparent due to the risk it would post to users’ data. Once people start thinking of their information as a commodity then that whole dynamic will be transformed.

Consequently, many marketers are trying to find ways they can reduce their reliance on third party data. Critics argue that this type of data is uneconomic, inaccurate and overpriced and will be practically made redundant by the advent of personal data.

“We’re seeing the resetting of the playing field in how personal data is accessed across the entire population of the world,” he added. “The anxiety and the trend of people’s desire to have their own data because they don’t want others to have it will draw data into places where we can actually access it beyond what corporations have done.”

In the US alone, the media industry is tipped to be worth over a $4trn, making it the fifth largest economy in the world. “What we’re about to do is change all the rules and all the ways in which marketing is done in a matter of years through legislation and fundamental tools that going to come around. If that’s not a reason to pay attention, then I can’t come up with one.”

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