It’s cold, it’s refreshing and it pairs well with spicy food, but what can Sprite teach the world’s biggest tech companies?
In the raging debate about companies’ use of personal data for profit, people often think there are only two choices: Hand over all your personal data, or stop using online services like Facebook or Google Maps completely.
But this puts the burden of responsibility on consumers, who may not have the resources or information available to make the right decision. Instead, companies handling personal data should take proactive steps for better, safer products. And they only have to look to the soda industry for inspiration.
For decades, soda titans like Coca-Cola and Pepsi enjoyed uninterrupted growth, building global beverage empires and becoming household names. While there were always concerns linking soda to health problems, they didn’t start hitting the mainstream consciousness until the end of the 20th century. By then, soft drinks makers were often fingered as the sole culprits for rising obesity rates.
Today, dozens of countries around the world, including the UK, France and Norway, have slapped a tax on sugary drinks. While the tax has not yet been introduced in the Netherlands, Coca-Cola took an unprecedented step there to stay ahead of regulations.
Coca-Cola’s game-changing decision
In 2017, the company pulled normal Sprite from the market, replacing it with the no-sugar Sprite Zero. This means when you order a Sprite in Holland, you will be served the sugar and calorie-free version by default. It has become the “regular” Sprite.
Coca-Cola said Sprite had been performing well, so it wasn’t just another move to boost sales. Instead, the beverage giant was making an important step to future-proof its business and provide a healthier product, without forcing customers to choose. Although they eliminated the bad choices, they were still able to offer variety to consumers, with new flavors like lemon lime and cucumber.
So what if we take the same step for data?
While businesses handling our personal data assure us that our privacy matters to them, the news headlines tell a radically different story. How can consumers trust companies when there are high-profile data breaches and incidents of companies misusing our data on a regular basis?
Most firms handling personal data are unlikely to make a change unless they feel the noose of legislation tightening. But as we’ve seen before, legislation is not a magic bullet. Consider Europe after new data and privacy protections (grouped under GDPR) went into effect in 2018. According to the International Association of Privacy Professionals, almost 100,000 privacy complaints have been filed but only a few have led to meaningful penalties.
In the case of soft drinks, Dutch experts have questioned whether a sugar tax would even make a serious dent in consumption unless the tax was a substantial one.
Even when there are stricter rules in place, they can still fail to change consumer behavior or address the loopholes that allow companies to conduct business as usual. The ubiquity of those consent forms on websites have only encouraged people to adopt a click-and-ignore mentality, so that they can just make the pesky pop-up disappear as quickly as possible.
When it comes to data privacy, there are those who argue that people can actively choose not to use the services of companies that exploit their data. Well, maybe they shouldn’t have to make that choice themselves.
Just like how Coca-Cola offers only the zero-sugar Sprite in the Netherlands, zero personal data could also be the norm. Companies may need to collect some user data in the course of doing business but there should be limits as to how much information they can amass on an individual. Why does a social network even need to know your gender, in the first place?
It has become untenable for firms to say they value consumer privacy while collecting and hoarding user data, putting it at greater risk of breach or misuse. The same way it was impossible for soft drinks makers to say they care about their customers’ health while shilling beverages loaded with sugar.
More importantly, instead of trying to defend their key sales driver, the soda companies innovated and looked for new opportunities. They reformulated, they introduced smaller packages and they made it easier for consumers to embrace a healthier lifestyle. As a result, Coca-Cola’s revenues have stayed sweet even if their drinks haven’t.
Finally, what could be the most interesting parallel between sodas and personal data monetization is their innocuous beginnings.
The first fizzy drinks were marketed as health drinks. If you were ordering a Sprite occasionally to wash down your meal, then soft drinks weren’t going to send you to an early grave. But over the years, with growing prosperity and the convenience of technology like vending machines, people started guzzling unhealthy amounts of soda.
It’s much the same with the harvesting of personal data. Initially, receiving services for free in exchange for your data didn’t seem like a bad trade-off. But increasingly, consumers are beginning to realize they are getting the raw end of the deal. A tectonic shift has occurred and companies, especially Big Tech, need to make major changes to their approach.
This is already happening in the world of alternative data – for instance, Suburbia tracks sales of consumer products like Sprite, with zero personal information. It shows there can be real value in non-personal data and it is how we harness it that matters.
Can today’s companies follow in the footsteps of the soda giants, and come up with a new formula for monetization? It might seem impossible, but Sprite shows lemon, lime and consumer benefits can win together.