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Even Big Data Can Miss The 50 Shades Of You And Me

The little nuances can have a big impact.

15/05/2017 12:25 PM IST | Updated 15/05/2017 12:25 PM IST

South Indian temples routinely have "Narayaneeyam" prayer readings, in which a group of singers, often led by a guru, sing prayers in praise of God.

As fate would have it, my mother dragged me to a temple one day for a recital. A guru, who looked like a solid do-gooder, was just about to begin her Narayaneeyam recital when my mother recognised her. Mom walked up to her, greeted her and enquired after her health. This calm guru suddenly broke into an abusive outburst towards my mother and banished her to hell and beyond. Her troupe and other onlookers were stunned!

As mom and I left the temple, distraught, I wondered: was she really a guru? Or was it just one of her 50 shades?

The Network

We all have 50 shades or more to our brand

The personal sides of people we know publicly are often revelations by themselves. Because behaviour, preferences and habits are nuanced. And regardless of the massive generalisations about people's behaviour that Big Data may offer, even something as simple as whether I'm shopping online alone or sitting with someone (that the computer cannot see) will have a massive impact on what I shop for that day.

The smart use of predictive technologies to sell people things they may tend to buy—as recorded by past behaviour—will work only some of the time.

And it runs deeper than that. For example, our attitudes and assumptions about ourselves are different from those about others.

Example 1:

My success depends on my potential and intentions.

Your success depends on your past record.

Example 2:

If you get a financial planner you'll save more every month.

With or without a financial planner, I would save the same.

Example 3:

As part of a group, I may criticise something that I many not even care about.

As part of a group, I may donate to a cause I would never have given to otherwise.

As a part of a group, I may be inactive about something I care for—because of group inertia.

And so on.

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Then there are the behaviours that emerge depending on whether you're at work or at home.

  1. The timid accountant by day who is overly strict and a terror to his wife and kids.
  2. The quiet teacher who is a chronic alcoholic at night.
  3. The union leader who fights for employees' rights but beats his own wife.
  4. The professor of medicine who has a chronic temper problem and extremely poor eating habits.
  5. The panditji who preaches equality but curses god for giving him two daughters and no son because he thinks this emasculates him in some way.
If brands fail to recognise and deliver on their duty of care regarding privacy, transparency and relevance, they will lose the public's long-term trust.

I'm not saying that predictive data will never work. However, the smart use of predictive technologies to sell people things they may tend to buy—as recorded by past behaviour—will work only some of the time.

Because we all are unique artworks of 50 shades. And through all this nuanced unpredictability we will flummox the surveyor. A simple example is that we tell surveyors we will try a new flavour of ice-cream every time we visit the shop, but end up sticking to our favourite one each time.

When it comes to these technologies, there's another angle. The ability to see the future sounds like some "superhero trait." However, if brands fail to recognise and deliver on their duty of care regarding privacy, transparency and relevance, they will lose the public's long-term trust.

Everyone in a leadership position now has a responsibility to ensure this new power is used in the right way and for the greater good. Otherwise one of the most powerful tools to have emerged in our society for decades could be lost, setting back innovation in marketing and business by decades. And it's these 50 shades of brand you and me that will undo all the good work.

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