Unilever general counsel: Bank on data or bank on irrelevance

Executive at Unilever stresses the importance for brands to overhaul business models and invest in data and technology capability

Jamie Barnard
Jamie Barnard


Brand that don’t recognise their future is dependent on their ability to harness data and who haven’t already started rethinking core business models will not survive the onslaught of artificial intelligence.

That’s the view of Unilever UK’s general counsel, Jamie Barnard, who took to the stage at AANA Reset to stress the importance of data on marketing, and the implications of regulation, consumer bias and new technologies such as voice-activated devices and machine learning on how businesses engage modern customers.  

“Marketing is digital, digital is data, therefore it follows marketing is data,” he told attendees. “I realise there is a lot more going on in marketing than data, and that to some extent we’ve been distracted by technology and innovation, and people have lost a bit of that creative excellence as a result… But the relentless march of technology does mean people need to increasingly focus on the data.”

But with the exception of Facebook, Google and the big tech companies, most are still “doing digital data and tech in the old way”, Barnard said. It’s by connecting with data that things really start to change and brands understand their consumers.

“So what will hold marketers back? It’s our reticence as consumers to share data,” Barnard said. He compared most data being tapped today to junk food, and advised organisations to access more “nutritious data sets” if they have a hope of staying relevant.

“Very few companies have access to the diversity of data they truly need to understand people and give us the types of experiences we truly want online. If we can unlock reticence to share data, companies get more access and that allows emerging technologies such as AI to take off.”

The problem consumers have with sharing their data is less about privacy, and more about control and a value exchange, Barnard continued. He highlighted fear, consent, user experience and spam as major impediments.  At the same time, Barnard warned brands against rely on regulation as a way of managing privacy and earning consumer trust.

“The law is an ass in this space,” he said, referencing Mr Bumble from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. “The law is a terrible blueprint for building trust with consumers. This won’t make people feel more relaxed about opening up to brand.

“I’m  not suggesting breaking the law. The guardrails the GDPR creates are a very good thing, it’s just we’re all bumping along right now trying to figure out how to build businesses that comply with laws and expose us to this risk. Trouble is, you have more chance of pinning jelly to the side of moving train than you changing attitudes to data sharing through regulation.”  

What organisations should be doing is designing themselves around the data, Barnard said. “Many are just applying a fresh coat of paint – tech to manage data more, and so on,” he said. “It’s a blindfold, seducing people to think they’re doing enough.

“What is needed is a wholesale immersion of the business. The way businesses are using data and technology now won’t be that way in 2-3 years’ time. You have to rethink what businesses you’re in.

“Is Unilever going to be a company that manufactures and sells ice cream in five years’ time? Yes we probably will, but it’ll be data telling us what ice cream to make, and where to sell it.”  

Barnard advised marketers to work out what data is needed now and into the future to drive marketing innovation. “Then work out how to get it; that is where business models will start to change,” he said.  

This means building a full tech stack with total visibility of data in your business ecosystem, Barnard said. He pointed out Unilever’s ‘people data centre’ as a response to this trend. The data-led platform incorporates CRM, social listening and customer services insights and gives marketers a centralised repository to base decisions on. The challenge now is ensuring people are asking the right questions.

“And collect data so you know exactly what rights come with it. At any moment in time, be able to tell a regulator you’re allowed to use that data for that purpose,” he said. “If you don’t own the data you will have to buy it, or starve. Those that don’t own the data will hold it to ransom against those that do. The data you can own becomes a valuable asset.”

These things are non-negotiable, Barnard concluded. “Not because the law demands it, but because if you can’t, in 2-3 years’ time when AI changes your business, you will be screwed,” he said.   

“When [Amazon] Alexa is smart enough to answer your questions, just make sure you’re smart answer to be part of the answer.”

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