David Blecken
Jan 8, 2019

Genetic data: a marketers’ dream that may never become reality

Adapting products, services and communications based on consumer DNA is an alluring idea that will be difficult to implement.

Panasonic’s ‘Genome House’ exhibit in Futako Tamagawa, Tokyo
Panasonic’s ‘Genome House’ exhibit in Futako Tamagawa, Tokyo

In Panasonic’s vision of future domesticity, everything is tailored to individual requirements—without the individual having to specify much at all.

The so-called Genome House, an installation in an upmarket residential district of Tokyo that ran in December, is a bedroom based on the DNA of one woman: Shoko Takahashi, the founder of Genequest, a company offering direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Features include specially made sheets incorporating shea butter to combat dry skin; flooring and plants from Southeast Asia, taking into account ancestry from that region; lighting adjusted for a late riser; and a screen displaying imagery deemed suitable for an extrovert.

It’s the electronics giant’s first venture into the world of genetic testing. Though small in scale, the concept has bigger implications for the company and the marketing world.

“What we’re trying to do is envisage future lifestyles, including where we live, food and clothing,” says Yuya Imaeda, chief designer of Panasonic’s innovation development team, noting that “extremes of personal information” including individual biological and genetic data have an important role to play in doing that, especially when combined with other consumer datasets.

Imaeda sees genetic information enabling the company to put together the optimum living space, or combination of products within that space, for each individual. At this stage though, the Genome House is predominantly a public relations exercise, far from becoming an actual business plan. With an air of science fiction around the idea, he says it’s important to make it tangible and open a discussion about it, hence the exhibit in an area popular with affluent young families.

Panasonic’s move comes as genetic testing is becoming more affordable and popular in Japan. Takahashi, who studied genetics at Tokyo University before founding Genequest, says typical customers now are in their 40s or 50s, but she expects younger people to enter the frame as prices drop. Soon, she says, basic testing should be available for around 10,000 yen ($100). Genequest and others in the field have also started rolling out consumer-facing advertising.

Kentaro Sako and Yuya Imaeda

Takahashi says genetic data is mostly used to inform healthcare treatments. But she sees its possible application expanding in line with growing expectations for personalised services in daily life. She says she was drawn to Panasonic’s project by the notion of helping people use self-understanding to live better. She sidesteps the question of regulatory hurdles, saying instead that the biggest challenge (in Japan at least) is to increase the number of people who undergo testing.

“In Japan it’s just starting,” she says, contrasting the market with the US. “The big challenge is to push more people to do the test. After that the data will become richer, which makes it possible to do more research in different industries and different areas.”

Shun Matsuzaka, a digital creative director at McCann Worldgroup who helped develop the initiative from a creative standpoint, has bolder expectations. He acknowledges that there is not enough genetic data available yet to be meaningful for marketers, but thinks that eventually it will usher in a new era for data-driven marketing. Along with others such as MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, he sees genetic data eclipsing digital in terms of the potential it offers to understand the individual.

Matsuzaka says combining genetic and vital data could be especially powerful. In theory, a company that builds a house for someone based on a DNA test could use that house as a platform to continue to interact with that person and make adjustments and suggestions based on their current state, he says. That would be a major change of direction for a company like Panasonic, whose business model has for a century been based firmly on hardware.

Looking beyond living spaces, Matsuzaka is enthused by the idea of a “lifetime shopping list”—a DNA-based prescription of products necessary for a good life that edits out those that would be detrimental.

Such a move would mark the transition from guessing people’s preferences, as marketers essentially still do with digital data, to “knowing for sure”, Matsuzaka says. “It’s not behaviour data; it’s your programming.”

That is a frightening thought considering how easily data can fall into the wrong hands. Even in the ‘right’ hands, there are fears that it could limit autonomy and foster discrimination. Understandably, numerous regulatory safeguards stand between marketers and such data. But Matsuzaka sees things opening up in the course of the next decade, led by the US, home to 23andMe, the world’s biggest genetic testing company. He thinks it’s important to bring the topic out in the open and prevent just a few stakeholders from dominating it.

While wanting to be seen as being at the forefront of innovation, Panasonic is wary of jumping into such a minefield. Imaeda, who is not a marketer, denies that the company is interested in using genetic data for marketing or business purposes of any kind at this time, maintaining that any usage would centre on “enriching people’s lives”. “If we’re able to do that, the business model will come along afterwards, we believe,” he says.

Genetic data alone holds little value for a person unless they use it “to take yourself in a better direction,” says Kentaro Sako, a member of Panasonic’s Future Life Factory. “This idea is for that.”

But the fact that marketers also often talk about ‘making life better’ (whether sincerely or not) puts any application of genetic information by a company into a grey area. In the end, it comes down to a value exchange, much as it does with digital data. “If by providing genetic data you can receive or buy products that are good for you, then naturally individuals will be more willing to provide that data,” Sako says.

Will genetic data ultimately reduce the need to understand human psychology? Adam Ferrier, the founder of Melbourne-based agency Thinkerbell, who has a background in that field, does not see big changes happening any time soon.

“Just as bio-ethics is a major concern in the health industry, data security is [already] dominating the marketing conversation,” he notes. “So it feels that if ‘genetic marketing’ or ‘bio-marketing’ happens, it will be fraught with ethical and safety issues. The clusterfuck of ethics and legalities involved may actually prove the biggest natural barrier to growth in the sector.”

Campaign Japan

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