Rowly Bourne: Brands must take data responsibility as seriously as their environmental stance

Rowly Bourne the founder of Rezonence, is NDA’s latest monthly columnist.

At what seems like an unprecedented time of revolution — in my lifetime for sure — what’s clear to me is that consumers are having more impact on setting the global agenda than ever before.  The tail is beginning to wag the dog, as consumers across the globe are finding their voices.

As many of you will I’m sure be aware, we love an analogy in our industry.  We’ve tried to compare ourselves with the banks, and thanks to Clive Humby’s quote, “data is the new oil”, we’re now seeing more and more comparisons with oil — however technically flawed they might be.  But the more interesting similarity for me is the effect they’re having on their respective environments, and the public’s reaction to this. 

Nowhere is this consumer revolution more evident than the physical environment, and specifically the impact oil — among other things — is having on it.  Whilst some legislation exists, it has been the general public’s reaction to brands seen to be damaging the environment that has shifted behaviour.  WARC research as far back as 2017 showed that:

“21% of UK consumers have boycotted a brand following a scandal or negative press.  Furthermore, of those who stopped using a brand following adverse headlines, as many as 67% have not returned to it, according to research firm YouGov.”

Advertisers, seeing the negative impact inaction could have on their brand — realising also the good they can do — have decided to act, rather than wait for government legislation.  Crucially, as well as having a positive impact on the environment, they’ve seen a positive impact on their businesses; showing the power that consumers’ perceptions can have on performance.

  • Unilever is seen by many as the corporate leader in environmental sustainability.  It has committed to all its agricultural materials coming from sustainable sources by 2020 and to eliminate single use plastic packaging in the United Kingdom by 2025. Importantly, it has seen its underlying sales grow by 3.3% in the first half of 2019 and earnings per share increasing 5% — showing its shareholders that it can be profitable as well as sustainable.
  • IKEA has invested €1.7 billion into renewable energy projects, plans to build 416 wind turbines, has installed 750,000 solar panels on its buildings and also plans to ban single-use plastic products from its shops and restaurants by 2020.  And their financials? Like Unilever, IKEA’s numbers for 2019 have been improving, with retail sales growing by 5%
  • L’Oréal has committed to ‘zero deforestation’ by 2020 and already sources 100% of its palm oil derivatives via Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certification.  Financially, L’Oréal has seen operating profits in 2019 increase by 12.1%, with sales up 7.3%, like the other brands showing that sustainability and profitability are not mutually exclusive.

So when it comes to the environment, it’s safe to say brands have been doing their bit, keen to get ahead of the legislation; and it’s here where I believe the oil analogy for data is a good one. 

Our use of data, and the negative impact that it’s been having on the whole media environment, is rightly under scrutiny; the Cambridge Analytica scandal was very much a watershed moment that changed the way the general public — consumers — perceived our behaviour.

Advertisers involved in GDPR breaches will suffer similarly negative impacts on their brands — as suggested by Simon McDougall at our GDPR event last month — with consumers beginning to boycott companies that they feel are not obtaining or managing their data in a sustainable way. Brands that decide to act — and not wait for legislation — can get ahead of the curve, and experience all the business benefits that come with making such decisions. 

Audience segments are playing an increasingly important role in advertising. But how many consumers will have given their consent to be in the thousands of segments they are part of?

One important step for brands striving to achieve data sustainability is to ensure they have consumers’ informed consent to be part of an audience segment intended for advertising purposes — something that they can do with Rezonence’s FreeWall® (completely coincidentally, Rezonence happens to be the company I founded…).

Our media environment — like our physical environment — is at a critical point in its evolution. The decisions we make in the next couple of years could have lasting consequences for generations to come; many would argue the consequences are potentially fatal. 

So let’s make sure we make the right decisions now, for if we do not, we will never be forgiven — by consumers and shareholders alike.

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