Development of cost-effective techniques for measuring the human genome has led to an exponential growth in the direct-to-consumer genetic testing (DTC-GT) industry over the past two decades. It is estimated that over 30 million customers have already taken a DNA test. At the same time, large-scale, publicly-funded genetic data collection efforts have taken off in many countries around the globe. As a result, vast datasets containing individual-level genetic measures now reside on servers owned by private companies and governments. Several global firms, such as AirBnB and Spotify, have already partnered with DTC-GT companies and developed business strategies that use genetic data for marketing purposes.
A new Journal of Marketing study is the first attempt to systematically assess the implications of this development for the field of marketing. We review current research in the fields of behavioral and social genetics to develop a framework incorporating the genome as a source of consumers’ profiles and actions. We then survey the range of potential uses of genetic data for marketing strategy and research, and raise serious concerns about ethical challenges that arise.
Potential marketing applications include using genetic measures as bases for segmentation and targeting (identifying and reaching subsets of customers with similar needs), an approach that is expected to be particularly effective when marketing health, nutrition, and beauty products. We also discuss the potential of using genetic data for creative strategies that leverage consumers’ fascination for their genomes to increase their sense of community and personalization by building bridges between people and their distant familial and cultural histories.
Promising research applications include reliance on genetically informed study designs to test causal relations between variables and refinement of consumer theory by uncovering biological mechanisms underlying behavior.
While it is tempting to think of the appeals of using genetic data for business applications, we also caution against several ethical challenges specific to the use of genetic data in marketing. These challenges arise from four important unique features of genetic data:
- individuals can easily be identified by a small fraction of their genetic data;
- it is informative about one’s relatives, including those who never consented to share any of their data;
- it is predictive, to some degree, of almost every human trait; and
- it is immutable.
Because of these features, the use of genetic data by marketers might create serious threats to consumer autonomy and privacy. There is also potential for misinformation, as consumers perceptions of genetics might lead them to believe that genetic-based recommendations are always backed by solid science – which might not always be the case.
Finally, we highlight several gaps in the current state of knowledge and set an agenda for future research. Important open questions include the need to evaluate to what extent are genetic measures predictive relatively to other types of data that are readily available to marketers, and how consumers will react to the use of their data by private companies.
From: Remi Daviet, Gideon Nave, and Jerry Wind, “Genetic Data: Potential Uses and Misuses in Marketing,” Journal of Marketing.
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