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Sarah Jane Walker
Sarah Jane Walker

A typical wet and windy October weekend in the UK gave ample opportunity for many of us to indulge in a new box set. Top of the agenda in our household was ‘The Social Dilemma’ (Netflix) and ‘Brave New World’ (Sky).

What was curious about these two quite different productions, were the shared themes of human behaviour within a context of networked computers and AI, and the underlying agencies of control. Neither the ‘human’ nor the ‘computer’ depicted in either scenario were able to operate 'normally' without both parties being connected to a central network for the consumption and processing of data. 

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Brave New World, despite being dubbed by Lucy Mangan of The Guardian as “…not having much to say… enjoy another hour of mindless content(ment)” is however, at source an interesting fiction through which to explore the theme of clandestine control, similar to that put forward in The Social Dilemma docudrama about our world today. You cannot help but draw connections between our current reality in 2020, and Huxley’s dystopian future. Are swathes of today's social media users blissfully unaware of the potential for manipulation at play, just as the population of “New London” are unaware that they are willing prisoners in their own world, their ‘happy’ medicated reality…?

Science fictions are a great tool for exploring possible future scenarios in that they allow us to step beyond current boundaries. Huxley, while looking at the means by which populations can be controlled, authored Brave New World at a time when the possibility of connecting human beings through something resembling a neural network was only conceivable in the imagination. The idea of global addiction to that network must have seemed comfortingly far-fetched.

Whilst there are several deviations from the original book in the new screen adaptation, the dystopian world created in New London with its populous controlled by “soma” can be recognised at the very heart of the Social Dilemma's premise - our susceptibility as humans to be manipulated via our connections and behaviours through social media.

In The Social Dilemma, Jaron Lanier, Computer Scientist and Virtual Reality pioneer comments that “We’ve created a world in which online connection has become primary. Especially for younger generations. And yet, in that world, anytime two people connect, the only way it’s financed is through a sneaky third person who’s paying to manipulate those two people. So we’ve created an entire global generation of people who were raised within a context that the very meaning of communication, the very meaning of culture, is manipulation.”

Many brands, such as Cinnabon, Lush Cosmetics, and Panera Bread have used invisible influence for years through our scent sense. It is the increase in potential for consumer manipulation through the business models of social media that brings many into an uncomfortable place. For years consumers have freely given away their data without necessarily recognising that or how their behaviour can be monetised, giving businesses insight into how, when and what we purchase and prefer. And as brands have leveraged these insights, concurrently consumers have come to expect more personal and relevant online experiences.

The COVID pandemic has brought into sharp focus the intertwined connectivity between companies and consumers globally, and shown how existing supply chains can be shattered by unpredictable human behaviour, such as stock-piling toilet roll or pasta at the start of lockdown. Our global physical-digital ecosystem is very real, we are very connected, and the domino effect is 100% at play.

Company behaviours have at least equal impact. Just look at how Cineworld was crippled last week, by MGM delaying the opening of the latest James Bond film. The decision has affected thousands of people across the globe, with job losses and hardship some of the impact. While MGM announced the delay to “enable a wider global audience” in April 2021, according to Louise Tutt (Daily Editor, Screen International) this was “about mitigating the financial risk”.

Whilst much of the commercial world is still navigating anxiety-gripped uncertainty, recent demand shock and a state of disconnect, we know that businesses that adapt, those that experiment, have the greatest chance of survival as this pandemic continues to unfold. And as we move towards true customer-centricity and stakeholder capitalism, it is those that expeditiously seek opportunities to create trusted relationships with consumers and societal value that will thrive and grow the fastest.

Struggling homewares retailer Homebase, famously bought for £1 by Hilco in 2018, has risen like a blazing phoenix in the last 18 months. Not only investing heavily in experimentation in their in-store experience, in September this year they announced a 10-year multi-million pound deal with THG Ingenuity (eCommerce services division of the Hut Group). The aspiration is that the partnership will significantly fast forward their digital plans and create an ”incredible” new shopping experience for the Homebase customer.

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The benefit of joining an established end-to-end eCommerce solution, digital supply chain, 10,000 strong influencer network and global distribution platform is hard to deny. This investment puts real-time data and AI at the heart of the shopping experience; further connecting online and bricks-and-mortar.

With consumer demand for faster, more immediate and genuinely useful customised experiences, incumbent retailers need to get a holistic view of their wider ecosystem and engage with their customers where it matters to them, fast. This can be achieved with better use of centralised and de-siloed Data, rapid experiments and feedback loops to drive more customer insight, and governance which enables teams near the customer experience to quickly to take decisions that will improve the omnichannel user experience. Where this kind of capability to learn and adapt is lacking, many have struggled during recent months. Clarks is dealing with the closure of another 50 stores announced this week and H&M has announced 250 global store closures.

Bucking the pandemic downward retail trend, UK-based sports apparel brand Gymshark was valued at over $1billion in August 2020, 8 years after its foundation; its growth attributed to a razor-sharp data-driven understanding of its target audience. 

Joining the many thousands of data sets together to uncover predictive insights and actions is critical to meeting their customer demand. Gymshark have harnessed the power of the network through its connected influencers, athletes, consumers and affiliate partners. To date (October 2020) the brand has been tagged in over 9 million Instagram posts and has 12 million social media followers.

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The brand quickly adapted its digital presence during the initial lockdown to build content around its digital Personal Trainer programme, including adopting a cheeky play on their own brand with “Homeshark” on Twitter. It quickly adapted its product to meet the need of the home gym user, with accessible collections such as ‘home comfort’. The target audience changed and expanded from a traditionally younger audience to include over 40s with a move to more online shopping - data needed to uncover a strategy for how to target both old and new customers. None of the tactics needed were new to the brand, the data was always at their fingertips from the get-go. This was intuitive for a data-mature organisation; a question of harnessing and learning with swift product and operational adaptation.

Longstanding Retail Guru Mary Portas comments that “The next few years will see a fundamental reshaping of how the industry operates, with fewer physical stores but more multifunctional social interactions. We are going to see spaces that will be given over to the arts… as the new anchors are not about what we sell but how we sell it... The most important space that any brand can take up will be in peoples’ hearts.”

The fundamental shift happening is that those brands that assimilate to their consumer network are the ones that will grow the fastest - and that new interoperable relationship is happening due to the connections between human behaviour and data made possible through ongoing advances in AI maturity.

It’s easy to admire successful brands like Gymshark, although they slide into a dystopian Brave New World model in a terrifyingly comparable way. A neural-ly connected network; the Brand is ‘the controller’, its Athletes ‘the alphas’, its Influencers ‘the betas’ and Consumer ‘the epsilons’ who are addicted to the dopamine social media hits. Gymshark consumers however appear to accept that the inclusive interplay between the brand and social media invites them to share more of their data and behaviour than most other brands in this sector. In this case it's good to question whether the implied acceptance and understanding of a brand's behaviour means that as a consumer you accept your own data and those of the community is going to be used in a commercially-gaining way. Both sides of this interoperability may be seen to be beneficiaries: more sales, better product and a growing supportive community.

As consumers, we want to be part of our own networked, connected, and relevant ecosystem. We may come to accept that we have to give some of our data away to let that happen; to be understood, to have our needs anticipated by our banks, supermarkets, healthcare, insurers, etc. 

How far we are willing to allow our own data to be manipulated is another story, but as consumers we are demanding more of the brands we connect with right now.

For organisations, shareholders and policymakers, how we leverage Data and AI responsibly is at the heart of this growth opportunity.

Etch Horizon helps organisations to reduce risk and unlock growth in an ever-changing landscape.

This article was co-written by Seth Campbell, Head of Innovation, Etch Horizon. 

Discover more and stay connected with the Etch Group

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