Big Data or Big Brother?

“Consumers are statistics. Customers are people,” said Stanley Marcus a member of the venerable Advertising Hall of Fame. And he makes a really good point, one that is increasingly overlooked in the age of Big Data for retail. Now, more than ever, it’s vital to realise the difference between the statistic and the individual that is represented by the numbers.

Maybe too many retail brands are so heavily focussed on the sophisticated techniques which can slice and dice data, that they are beginning to overlook the ‘softer’ skill of understanding the customer? An American professor was explaining on the TV just this week how a mobile phone switched on in somebody’s pocket or handbag, can gather endless data on consumer behaviour patterns in a cityscape. How and when consumers travel, where and what they eat and drink, where and for how long they congregate – there was no end to the information. The spy-like invasion of consumers’ everyday life is compelling, but what happens when this intelligence is put into a retail marketing strategy?

It is easy to assume that once the complex task of analysis has been completed, all that remains is to attach a logical marketing communication and your work is done.

For instance, mobile-watching might reveal the group that walk the least and spend the most time in fast-food outlets and would therefore be high risk for obesity and diabetes. It would make sense to target them with ads for diet foods according to the data.

But data is ultimately meaningless if not informed by insight into the customer. No one likes to think they are being tracked down by the data’s Big Game Hunters and if you happen to be overweight, with a weakness for a Big Mac and fries, you are probably going to be insulted by finding diet food ads dropping through your letterbox or popping up on your computer screen. “Why me?” you might think, “Are they trying to suggest I’m too fat?” Equally, if you are over 50, it makes for a depressing self image to be bombarded with offers of life insurance, care homes, and incontinency products! You may be overweight and you may be getting on a bit, but you don’t need to reminded of it every time you log on to Facebook!

Mary Portas, the British retail guru made a comment this week on national radio that shops are frequented by people. That may sound a bit daft, but think a moment. Regard your customers as people and treat them with respect and you can’t go too far wrong. Regard them merely as ‘targets’ and see them only as a possible quick sale and you run the risk of alienating them forever.

Big Data is all well and good, but be careful about the insights you take from it and the actions that arise from these insights. Quantitative data is a useful tool, but at the end of the day advertising is about real people connecting with real people in a meaningful way.

Advertise to people with too much surgical precision and you may risk causing them annoyance and these days, when customer reaction is quick and far reaching, you may run the risk of unleashing the darker side of the social media genii. Personally, I have always believed the old adage that a happy customer tells three people whereas an unhappy customer tells ten, and now, in the age of social media, the ten carries on to be hundreds if not thousands.

So, don’t hunt your customers down and get too much into their personal space. Don’t make them feel that a Retail Big Brother is always watching them and has cynically sliced and diced their habits to reveal every strand of their shopping DNA. Be polite, be friendly and respectful, and consign the pushy and too familiar side of marketing to the wastebasket.

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