Business Informative & Scope

Adding ‘Bio’ and ‘Political’ to Marketing

by Reyana Nacerodien

Adding biological metrics to the socio-political landscape has signalled an evolution in the marketing arena. Enter biopolitical marketing. Reyana Nacerodien elaborates. This article first appeared in issue 6 of In Focus magazine.

Have you visited your local gym in a bid to keep your health insurance premiums low? Has your smartphone congratulated you for steps achieved or achieving your personal best during a running session? Or has your Samsung smart watch told you that you’ve been inactive for too long and you need to get up, and stretch your legs? Here’s where biopolitical marketing comes into play.

Though only few marketing gurus have written on the subject, it remains somewhat of an enigma despite its existing prevalence in the market. There are big brands such as Nike, Adidas and Discovery that have already cottoned on to the idea. Using the aptly termed ‘nudge marketing’, marketers pose suggested activities that are linked to some or other incentive for the consumer. In this way, there’s some margin of influence on consumers’ realities albeit incentivised. Beyond nudge marketing, customer data is being used in new and innovative ways than ever before and, by the same token, biological plus political type data allows marketers to capture value from different aspects of consumers’ lives.

Where it All Began
Way back in the 1970s French philosopher and social theorist, Michel Foucault, proposed the idea of biopower referring to the mechanisms having control over bodies. His proposed theories mostly address the relationship between power and knowledge, and how these are used as a form of social control through societal institutions such as in the example of the government. In this example, law regulates people’s movement and behaviour. Biopolitics looks at the mechanisms used to affect that control. The concept arises at the intersection between human biology and politics.

Biopolitics is a complicated concept that has been used and developed in social theory since Foucault. Somewhat cynically, it conveys strategies and mechanisms through which human life processes are managed by certain authorities. These ideas have found footing in modern marketing. While still needing exploration, some marketing scholars have conceptualised ‘biopolitical marketing’ in order to analyse how firms favour practices that make use of and influence the cultural, technological, social practices of their customers and the broader consumer base.

Where We are Now
Tactical marketing and media has lost its appeal over the past number of years. Consumer sentiment shows a reluctance towards outright advertising, distrust in corporate messaging and more reliance on consumer-generated commentary rather than brand speak. Landscape changes have forced marketing professionals to adapt. To promote brand awareness and loyalty, mechanisms and channels used by brands and, indeed, the ways in which they are used by brands and customers alike have needed to change.

In this reality, brands need to ensure a consistent voice and identity, actively engage the individual and any tactics used need to work hard to draw-in and keep customers’ attention. For example, commonly these days, promotional activity rarely exists without some sort of online addition more often highlighted by a data-gathering exercise given the value of an opted-in, captive audience. Biopolitical marketing takes this even further. Some theorists suggest that marketing is in fact becoming more and more biopolitical in nature as constant links between social relations and forms of life are created. Hybrid realities of physical and digital spaces have fuelled these links and given rise to a different marketing opportunity.

Bronwyn Williams is a trend translator for Flux Trends, a South African based trend forecasting agency in Johannesburg. She has over a decade’s experience in marketing management and trend research, and contributes to the identification and analysis of macro trends that influence social dynamics and business interactions that Flux is known for. Bronwyn explains that the benefits of biopolitical marketing are obvious. ‘Like asking what are the benefits of marketing in general, the answer is simply that marketing aids in persuading a target market (consumer or electorate) to purchase a product or accept an idea. This is neither good nor bad as it depends entirely on what products, services and ideas are being promoted.’

Bronwyn Williams, a trend translator for Flux Trends

Take the case of self-tracking. Self-tracking monitors and records human activities. Cell phones, smart watches and other fitness trackers manage to instantly capture data about people’s lives and derive value from their bodies and bodily activities. Seldom do we stop to notice the marketing dynamics at work on us when we use apps or the like to monitor our fitness, but, essentially, in this way, human and social life can be capitalised, and even commodified.

Self-tracking has played a developmental role in the biopolitical marketing environment by capturing and appropriating value from different aspects of consumers’ lives, such as their social and physical behaviour, as well as actions. Coupled with this, the reality is that much of what we find ourselves doing voluntarily is simply because of the ‘incentives’ that have been set up to encourage this and the value that has been created. These incentives cultivate habits, steer our reality and provide feedback channels to brands.

The Nike Example
Nike offers an on-point example of using wearable technology as a means of capturing data about their customers. Nike facilitates and collects self-tracking data, or bio-data, from users’ activities, entailing that physical performance is transformed into pure data using the Nike+ technology. The Nike+ sensor tracks time, distance, pace, calories burned and similar data as the user runs. This suggests that biopolitical marketing at Nike+ works through a series of interrelated intervention processes. These processes offer value to the consumer who, in exchange, volunteers tracking data.

The app provides access to the Nike+ rewards program, which offers exclusives and early access to new products. Nike also offers personalised workouts through the app, as well as priority access to its events. These analytical insights can be used to inform customer acquisition and retention plans.

As more start-ups disrupt various apparel industries, Nike is defending their turf by investing in data science to better understand the customer journey and more brands are cottoning on to data science. Previously, Nike purchased data science company, Zodiac, while its competitor, Under Armour, purchased MyFitnessPal in 2015 and began a collaboration with IBM Watson in 2016. This knowledge is used to move away from the traditional sales pitch by shifting the consumer’s focus away from the physical product for sale. Instead attention is focused toward the consumer’s aspirations offering the potential to facilitate those aspirations.

A Fine Line: Data Enables
‘Of course, some biopolitical ideas, such as human microchipping, health surveillance and bio data sharing are highly controversial,’ says Bronwyn. The nature of biopolitics has brought some controversial market experiences to the fore. She cites a number of examples of interest.

  • 23andMe is an organisation centred around DNA testing. The company facilitates customers finding out more about their ancestry or health through DNA testing. The service however states a specific user notification stating that, by law, the company needs to comply to a valid court order, subpoena or search warrant for genetic or personal information.
  • Doctors sharing vaccination information or even smart drugs (drugs with microchip technology that advises if a patient has taken their medication as prescribed) with, for example, parole officers.
  • At present, governments and cellular networks are sharing COVID-19 patient health and contact information with each other, and the public.

‘These examples are worth watching due to the obvious and less obvious invasions of privacy and freedoms, and the erosion of trust between private citizens and authorities,’ Bronwyn notes. ‘There are a few examples above. But of course, Discovery Heath and Discovery Bank are probably the biggest real life examples and glimpse of the future.’ Discovery Health’s main clients are large-, medium-, and small-sized employers for health insurance, as well as individual clients of health, life insurance and investment products.

Discovery’s intellectual property is exported to other industries and markets including United Kingdom, United States, China, Singapore and Australia. ‘With Discovery your health and wealth outcomes are linked not just to your behaviour, as nudge marketing already does through customer rewards and incentive programmes, but also to your DNA and your willingness to share your bio-data with authority figures,’ says Bronwyn.

What’s Next
‘I envisage a world where refusing to share your DNA and bio data, both static and dynamic, could become a crime – even if this is a very dystopian possibility,’ says Bronwyn. ‘Imagine being denied not only access to insurance, but also access to state healthcare if you fail to meet the required numbers of “steps” per day. Or imagine being refused a marriage licence or being coerced into an abortion because of your “faulty” DNA – Iceland already strongly discourages the birth of down syndrome babies, for example.’

Marketing practices construct consumers’ subjectivities and contribute to adding as well as capturing value from every aspect of consumers’ lives. Through biopolitical marketing consumers’ intellects, physical bodies, and their everyday lives, become a resource for marketing professionals that is set to steer them towards future possibilities.

Main photo by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

10 Aug 2020
Last modified: 10 Aug 2020
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