Perfect strangers: personalization & privacy


Fans of classic rock may recognize “Perfect Strangers” as the title of a hit song from the group Deep Purple. Having achieved commercial success in the 1970s, “Perfect Strangers” premiered in 1984 after the band re-united, leading to speculation the song was a statement about fractured personal relationships that led to the band’s breakup.

I don’t know about all that, but it is a great song with a driving beat, strong vocals and musicians who play instruments. And like other hit songs of the era, the cryptic lyrics allow a listener to hear meaning based on personal circumstances and frame of mind. If your frame of mind is that of someone organizing an event called PersonalizationIQ to be held Oct. 2 at the Path to Purchase Expo in Minneapolis, the meaning is clear. The event is focused on the topic of personalization and features an agenda that explores different layers of a complex issue flowing through the retail and consumer goods industry.

So when a Hammond organ begins to play ominous chords, a powerful base line kicks in and lead singer Ian Gillan wails, “Can you remember, remember my name,” the connection to personalization is obvious. Remembering a customer’s name is at the root of personalization, but since the song was written long before the Internet, social media and data driven business models, “Perfect Strangers” wasn’t meant as a commentary on the state of personalization in retail and its complex relationship with privacy. Yet, there are references to things like flowing through your life, echoes of the past, returning to a point in time and shadows of another day that have an eerie connection to how individuals’ data is gathered, stored, shared and leveraged.

Where the clearest connection to personalization is made is with the song’s signature line: “and if you hear me talking on the wind, you’ve got to understand, we must remain perfect strangers.”

That sentiment sums up perfectly consumers’ acknowledgement that companies are able to monitor behaviors in-store and online by using technology, but it has to be balanced against consumers’ desire to remain anonymous. “Perfect Strangers” is the perfect metaphor for a retail and consumer goods industry dependent on greater levels of personalization to drive growth offset by consumers’ desire to retain privacy and control over the volumes of data their behavior generates.

It is not an easy problem to solve because consumers tend to be schizophrenic when it comes to their data, how it is collected and how they will allow unbridled usage by some companies and place restrictions on others. Sometimes we want to be remembered and our precise location known, but other times we want to be forgotten, resulting in the phenomenon of situational personalization.

Knowing where to draw the line today is exceedingly difficult because it varies by individual, is influenced by age, predisposition to technology and the trust consumers place in organizations who are expected to safeguard the intimate details of our daily lives. Bringing it back to the lyrics of “Perfect Strangers,” you could even say that data flows through our lives presenting companies with echoes of our past, returning to a point in time where shadows of another day serve as predictors of a tomorrow.

The retail industry is at an important crossroads when it comes to personalization and privacy, which are two sides of the same coin. Those intent on thriving in an increasingly data driven future should recognize there is unintended wisdom in the lyrics of a 34-year-old song. Successful relationships among retailers, brands and consumers will depend on remaining perfect strangers.

(P.S.: I hope to see you in Minneapolis on Oct. 2 for PersonalizationIQ: Smarter Marketing and the Privacy Imperative.)RL