We are perhaps at a turning point in the era of big data. Google phases out third-party cookies; Apple curbs Facebook’s data access. After what feels like an unending tide of data breaches, it is understandable that customers are increasingly aware of the value of their data and the associated privacy risks. 57% of people now state they do not trust the way brands use their data, and 4 in 10 are unwilling to give it away at all.

Yet, the steady flow of usable and useful data is something brands have come to rely on. In fact, data is essential for the provision of meaningful brand experiences today. As our Experience Director Amale Ghalbouni mentioned in her recent article “Three steps to building meaningful experiences in 2021”:

“The common denominator of the most successful brands that offer best-in-class experiences is their obsession with listening to their different audiences. They remain relevant by maintaining an understanding of needs and expectations and take every opportunity to build seamless experiences and become a holistic part of their customers’ lives.”

We know customers have come to expect seamless purchase journeys, suggested products and an understanding of their priorities. These days this is perhaps a baseline service requirement. Therefore, could audience satisfaction and distinction be found through recognizing what customers are actively not seeking?

Customer data shows that the pandemic has shifted consumers’ ethical expectations, favoring brands that move away from traditional neoliberal values. A third of millennials report that they have recently initiated or deepened relationships with companies that achieve a balance between doing good and making a profit.

From the reaction to the overreach of tools such as smart speakers, we also know that customers want to feel listened to but not overheard. They want to be assured that their preferred brands understand their needs but are not over-familiar in their execution. We can all relate to the uncomfortable feeling of receiving an email addressing us directly from a brand with whom we may have no memorable connection.

In an increasingly complex landscape where brands rely on multiple internal and third-party data sources to guide customer decisions and stay relevant, we are presented with a potential paradox to manage. How to move forward with a model built around data capture and tacit listening when audiences increasingly demand a more open and human relationship with brands?

Trust is fragile but imperative

Customers have understandable doubts about how their data is being used and will not hesitate to restrict a brand’s access following a transgression. One approach that has been adopted successfully to build trust is two-way value exchange. Brands provide genuinely useful access, insights and content in exchange for a small piece of data. For example, McKinsey grants access to their full research reports in exchange for an email address. This allows them to develop better services for their customers and helps to build trust that the brand is looking for their audience to succeed in their respective field, whether they are ready to make a purchase or not.

Demonstrate added value

Take Nike, which now considers online account holders as members and provides them with access to exclusive products, workouts, coaching and rewards. This is not a new idea. It is, in effect, the model that social media companies have used since the early ’00s to share content and community in exchange for data. The crucial benefit here for e-commerce retailers such as Nike is that their member exclusives allow them to demonstrate that they are not simply aiming to sell to customers. They are openly looking to provide meaningful value and community curation as well. In so doing, they build trust-led and transparent relationships with their audience.

Root your strategy in empathy and responsibility

Access to data is not an automatic right; it needs to be granted explicitly and openly. Brands, therefore, need to offset the steer towards customer-centricity by exercising empathy. They need to ask themselves–how do our customers actually want us to behave in this situation? Just because we can do something, should we? Perhaps most radically, how can we introduce privacy by design?

It is essential that good stewardship of data is front of mind for all brands that collect and use proprietary information about their customers. This is just as relevant in the corporate context. Business buyers are not only interested in your product; they are looking for your business to share their perspective, seeking alignment with your approach to problem-solving and ethics. To highlight their commitment to privacy, one global financial institution sets a worldwide standard for cookie collection that is actually more stringent than Europe’s GDPR.

Through value exchange, transparency and empathy, brands will win the data game and build enduring, trust-led customer relationships.


Emma Lewis is a Strategist on our London team