Is an ethical data framework the only way to rebuild consumer trust?

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

Firehaus on why brands shouldn't rely solely on data to inform their creativity. Humanity is key.

On the evening of July 15, I entered the hallowed halls of Parliament and into Committee Room 10 of the House of Commons to join a debate sponsored by the DMA, Europe's largest marketing trade body. The motion was based on a hot topic – the loss of brand trust.

“Marketers must adopt an ethical data framework to engender trust with their customers,” said Professor Chris Speed, chair of design informatics at the University of Edinburgh and Stewart Room, partner and group head of data protection at PwC, who proposed the motion. My formidable debate colleague Nina Barakzai, group chief privacy officer at Unilever, and I had to oppose.

This article is based purely on the eight-minute presentation I gave during the debate. It is partisan of course; my role was to oppose what appears to be a perfectly reasonable statement. But on interrogation, I felt it also belied a trend in marketing that needs reversing.

Trust is the issue in this motion. An ethical data framework the method to rebuild it. It’s a lovely idea which sounds like a silver bullet. But it’s not and here’s why.

The over-reliance, even obsession with data, has got us to where we are. The public feel ‘stalked and bombarded’ according to research, and marketing has become somewhat similar to Call of Duty's Black Ops video game.

Is data all it's cracked up to be?

The combination of data and technology has given marketers incredible capability, but seemingly, not the ability to use it wisely. It’s almost as if the attitude is one of ‘we can so we will’. No doubt this is driven by trying to quickly prove some form of return on technology investment by delivering margin through distribution at scale.

It results in chasing people around the internet, meaning that even customers who’ve just bought a product face being retargeted with a better offer – for the same thing! When was that a good idea? To that extent, marketer's ability is still catching up with their capability.

It means people don’t see their human ‘selves’ in the work, particularly due to the invasive nature of distribution. It’s a machine-generated charicature of human interaction, driven entirely by cost not value.

The challenge is that marketing will only get more invasive the further down the personalisation rabbit hole it goes. The margin of error needs only to be small before communications are totally irrelevant or worse – a thief of precious time. As brands strive for a full customer experience, the challenge to provide accuracy becomes even more dependent on data availability and connectivity. It's not an ethical issue at all.

I’d also question where the boundaries of an ethical data framework end.

We’re familiar with data being used to target, personalise and segment, but it’s also used to derive insight. Are we suggesting for instance, that discovering people that are more responsive to holiday offers the minute they return from holiday is now unethical? Data-driven insights can get wrapped up in this framework.

And what about behavioural science? Much of what we learn here is underpinned by data. The motion would suggest that ethics apply here too. Maybe the issue here is that there’s an argument for regulation rather than ethics, if we believe we can understand and manipulate human behaviour.

One area that should conceivably come under scrutiny though is our relationship with data-driven technology. The Centre for Humane Technology (CHT) thinks it's downgrading our humanity. Some algorithms appear to prey on our weaknesses, keeping us occupied on a platform, but not fulfilled or even happy. That said, Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google (now CEO at CHT) says that ethics alone are not sufficient at solving this problem; it’s a relationship that needs rebooting.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the motion is the fact that ethics change over time which can occur at quite a fast pace. Just look at how much our thinking has fluctuated around climate change, nuclear disarmament, abortion and the like. Ethics also change within communities and across borders. There isn’t always a fixed view of what is objectively ethical. This is an enormous challenge, particularly for global businesses. So it’s difficult to see how something that potentially evolves on a cultural level can decisively resolve the issue of trust.

My contention is that GDPR is the ethical framework. The law covers all of the key areas that might be considered objectively ethical – including privacy, storage and the right to be forgotten.

Yet if trust is the goal, then I’d argue that the debate needs to move on to something more holistic than data alone. Treating people like human beings would be a good place to start, and makes good business sense too.

Why? Because we’re more than the sum of an incomplete string of data. No matter how complete the ‘view’ may be, and clearly some pervasive platforms can learn a lot, people are strange. We buy houses that 'feel' right, not the one that makes the most logical sense. We take the ‘wrong’ job because it 'feels' like time for a change. We fall in love with the ‘wrong’ people. We’re emotional beings. Which means we’re illogical.

Give time to feelings

Data tries to box us – it has to. It’s increasingly curating how we experience the world. But this relentless obsession strikes at our humanity.

American author and poet Maya Angelou once said: "I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

So how will brands engender trust? My view would be to start with three points:

  1. Know your place: Brands will never be the most important thing is someone’s life. It’s easy to think like that within the walls of a brand's HQ, but it’s an illusion. However if they're useful, interesting and entertaining, they can form part of someone’s life story.
  2. Solve problems for people, not data or tech capability: Problem-solving is rooted in creativity; with imagination being one of our greatest human gifts. The ability to project forward and backwards in time, to hold concepts in our head that defy logic and the ability to tell stories that carry cultural values. The creative process needs fewer barriers, less checklists and more reasons to embrace uncertainty. Creativity needs to be structurally liberated.
  3. From brand values to shared value: Brand values engage with the people that share them. They can lead to long term relationships. But what if individuals, communities and even society benefited from brands that contributed by engaging consumers through social problems? A movement is building. If businesses look beyond profit to achieve real value from initiatives, then shared values - as a business strategy - could engender trust. It's all about transparency.

Trust is hard-earned and easily lost. Marketers need to be less reliant on data providing them with answers and instead, adopt a framework built on creativity.

Data can be part of that.

Human-shaped marketing is rooted in creativity. If we treat people like human beings, not ‘harvested’ data, we may just feeling optimistic about the future.

Ian Bates, Founder and creative partner at Firehaus.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.