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The data ethics conversation should be on every brand's agenda

The marketing landscape is in the midst of rapid transformation. Platforms are competing for dominance through scale, while consumers look to brands to engage with personalised content via connected and smart experiences.
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In an age when organisations increasingly embrace data-driven marketing, consumers are becoming conversely concerned about data privacy and how their data is used. This increasing tension in our data-enabled era is resulting in leading brands placing data ethics at the top of their strategic roadmaps.

This isn’t just a conversation about compliance or information security—it’s one about how brands build trust among their customer bases. Wunderman Thompson Data research underscores how important this discussion is. Our survey of UK and US consumers paints a picture of a world where people express concern about companies’ commitment to using their data in a responsible and ethical manner.

Data ethics are not just about data

But perhaps even more important is the wider impact of data ethics on a brand’s reputation among consumers. Our research highlights that consumers see data ethics as a reflection of a brand’s overall ethics and values. If a company uses data in a manner that is viewed as unethical, a consumer might wonder what else is happening behind the scenes. This picture is further complicated by the reality that companies and customers may have different perspectives on how data ethics are viewed.

In our research, we found that for consumers, unexpected uses of their data, even if harmless or beneficial to them, may feel like a betrayal. In fact, that feeling of betrayal was equivalent to a company deliberating misleading them about how their data is used, or if it was sold without their permission.

What this shows is that data ethics can’t be treated as a box-ticking exercise. There needs to be a real commitment to doing the right thing for the consumer—and a willingness for organisations to look at ethics from the consumer’s perspective. Our research findings some ways that companies can seize the high ground in the data ethics debate:

Take an enterprise-wide approach

It’s not enough to create data standards, guidelines and governance in siloed data functions. An enterprise ethical data strategy that is led from the top is imperative.

Go beyond compliance

Businesses cannot assume compliance is enough to meet consumers’ expectations. Consumers are becoming less worried about data security and compliance, and more concerned about where and to whom their data is being sold, and what organisations are using it for without their knowledge.

Be transparent

Our survey finds a pervasive lack of trust because respondents do not think companies are being open about how their personal data is managed and used. Companies can reduce consumers’ concerns and address misconceptions by showing what they are doing with personal data, as well as how and why they are doing it.

Give customers control

Leading brands are giving customers better control with more granularity over the data they provide including the permissions they give to use it.

Rebalance the value equation

Progressive brands are not only thinking about how they can profit more or achieve better marketing outcomes by using customer data — but they are also thinking about how that data can be used to create mutually beneficial value with customers.

Deploy new technologies with care for the consumer

Companies should be cautious when deploying new data strategies and technologies — particularly those that may feel intrusive, like predicting personal behaviour or facial and voice recognition. They should move beyond the often-confusing language of liability and work to be more transparent about their intentions when deploying new experiences or technologies and seek consumers’ explicit permission when they plan to use their data in new ways.

We have arrived at a moment where innovative organisations can blaze new trails for data transparency and ethics. This approach will not only empower these companies to leverage first-party data to make advertising more relevant, effective and personal—it will also have a halo effect on consumer trust in the brand’s values and ethics, far beyond its use of data.

About Tom Corey

Tom Corey is the vice president of consulting services, North America Wunderman Thompson

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