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The new (untenable) consensus around personal data

Posted on: Monday 9th of March 2015

Transparency, access, control, value. Suddenly, when it comes to personal data these words now seem everywhere.

The latest body to embrace the ideals of transparency, access, control and value is the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) with a new set of Consumer Engagement Principles. The CGF is a little known but hugely powerful body representing all the world’s biggest consumer goods manufacturers and retailers. It includes retailers like Wal-Mart and Kroeger in the US and Tesco and Sainsbury’s in the UK, plus branded goods manufacturers like Nestle, Unilever and Procter & Gamble. The combined sales of Consumer Goods Forum members are over 2.5 trillion Euros.

All its members will be expected to adopt and implement these new engagement principles so, considering the membership of the CGF, that’s some deal.

Shifting sands

A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a body like this to be undertaking such an initiative.  Personal data wasn’t that big an issue, and ensuring continued trust around personal data wasn’t top of big brands’ agenda. So a body like the CGF would have been silent on the issue. Now it’s making a big global, initiative. And it’s not alone.

In the past few weeks we’ve seen Apple CEO Tim Cook return to the issue of personal data saying that “we think that customers, over the arc of time, will more and more go to people they trust with their data.”

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer joined the fray saying “we need to have transparency and afford the individual control. It comes down to being able to make a statement that users own their data, which they can examine, take it with them to other sites and vendors that they trust more in a market that helps people make these trade-offs and decisions.”

So things are moving. Nevertheless the new consensus – that consumers should have ‘control’ of their personal data – is only a temporary stepping stone. It cannot last for two core reasons.

Empty promises?

First, a lot of current talk about consumer ‘control’ is empty because the context in which this control is being offered is still too provider-centric. To ‘control’ their data in current circumstances, each consumer has to log in, inspect, understand and adjust how their data is being collected and used. And they have to do this separately for each provider. As recent Ctrl-Shift research shows, with between 100 and 200 different provider relationships active in any consumer’s life at any one time, that’s just not going to happen.

So the sentiment of control is great, but practically speaking the promise is empty. ‘Control’ will only begin to become a reality when there is a single dashboard that consumers can use to control their settings with all, or at least many of their providers. This is a current hot topic for personal data store operators.

The second reason is that ‘control’ in isolation is pointless. You exercise control for a purpose, to achieve something. OK, turning direct marketing on or off is a purpose, but it’s pretty limited. The real reason for exercising control over your own data is to use it to create a service – to make better decisions or manage your life better in some way.

It’s great that the Consumer Goods Forum has made the progress it has. But what consumers really want from their data is value. The next step for consumer goods brands is to recognise that, if they have trust, they can turn data – their own data and consumers’ data – into all manner of new services.