A case of open up or be opened

It’s often said that the short-term impact of new technology is exaggerated, whereas the long-term is grossly underestimated. With the baroque and showy excesses of dot-commery long behind us, we are now beginning to see the subtler social and political consequences emerging, not least through the brutally revealing prism of the Hutton Inquiry.

The Hutton Inquiry, you say? What has a political row got to do with the business environment, still less marketing? A remarkable amount as it turns out.

The core consideration, for businessmen as much as for politicians and the judiciary, is the increasing tendency towards ‘openness’ and the need for more convincing accountability towards the outside world.

While it is perfectly true that one strand of developing technology favours the clandestine activities of those who spend their lives monitoring human activity, whether spies or database marketers, another is paradoxically forcing more and more disclosure. The significance of the Hutton Inquiry, in this context at any rate, is the deluge of anarchic e-mail correspondence – with its welter of embarrassing contradictions – which has defied the best efforts of Downing Street and the BBC to set their own agendas.

First the consequences for politicians. Though spin – long the corrupted heart of political marketing – has finally met its nemesis in Hutton, that does not mean political parties can look forward to a ‘marketing-lite’ future. Projection, or image-making, remains indispensable in the world of the soundbite and 24/7 media, albeit the image now used to canvass our votes may acquire a grittier, ‘warts and all’ feel. Even the seemingly artless IDS has just acquired a powerful eminence grise to spin his ‘quietness’ furiously behind the scenes. Yet all political parties are likely to be casualties of Hutton, in the sense that they will have to work much harder to convince increasingly sceptical voters, or suffer a devastating lack of credibility at the polls.

The private sector would also do well to draw lessons from the Hutton e-mailfest. As Torin Douglas points out, e-mails – for all their indispensability – are unshreddable and have a nasty habit of spilling out commercial secrets, unbecoming behaviour towards consumers and employees, and confidential health and safety issues. All of which can have a disastrous impact on the brand and shareholder value.

Nor does it end there. E-mail forms part of a much wider challenge facing marketers grappling with new technology applications. For instance, the pursuit of more sophisticated data collection, though rational enough in itself, may also set companies on a brutal collision course with their customers. This seems to be the lesson of the recent RFID technology fiasco (MW August 21), where the likes of Tesco, Gillette and Wal-Mart decided to scale back their ambitions rather than confront a potential civil liberties issue.

These are simply examples. At its most basic, surfing the technology challenge comes down to this: how to satisfy an increasingly empowered and demanding consumer.

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