How Coke's names-on-bottle campaign helped it increase market share thanks to big data

When Brian Cassin’s daughter saw a bottle of Diet Coke with her name on it at the airport, she told her father she had to have it. The personalised trinket from an iconic brand was, for her dad, another ratification of his belief that big data generates big money.

Cassin, 51, who runs Experian, has helped transform his company from a credit-reference firm into a broader data and software business. After starting with maintaining vast datasets of personal credit histories, most of its growth now comes from advising big companies on how to monetise the information they have on customers and supply chains, while avoiding privacy scandals.

Coca-Cola ‘Share a Coke’ campaign saw the beverage maker turn to Experian to help it pick the most popular names among likely soda drinkers in Britain, and printed them where its iconic logo is usually placed. Cassin’s company generated the list by analyzing data on the 19- to 29-year-old demographic, including gender and ethnicity.

“We have the capabilities to actually do more with the combination of technology, data and software,” Cassin, a Dublin-born former Greenhill & Co. banker, said in an interview in Experian’s London office.

Coke’s personalised bottle campaign, which it operates in more than 100 countries, has helped it increase market share. Experian’s other main customers are large financial institutions such as Spain’s Banco Santander SA and Fannie Mae, as well as utilities and phone companies, said Cassin. His company is eyeing smaller firms as its next frontier, “Companies further down the chain are going to require a lot of help,” he said.

Stock Surge

It’s a natural progression for what was one of the original financial technology companies, Cassin said. The firm’s roots are in TRW, the former US technology conglomerate, and Great Universal Stores, an old-school British retail empire that once owned the Burberry brand and spun out Experian in 2006.

Cassin’s strategy has helped the stock shrug off Brexit amid a grim year for most of the FTSE 100: Experian has almost doubled since the start of 2015, while the British benchmark has barely risen. Last month, Experian reported revenue grew 7% to $2.4 billion in its fiscal first half, driven by sales of its analytics tools and software to businesses.

Just as Amazon uses customers’ data to recommend additional products, other businesses can use their data to make better-informed decisions to drive growth, he said. “If you have more and more data, it doesn’t necessarily help you unless you understand what to do with it. That’s where I think we come in,” Cassin said.

Last year, Experian introduced Ascend, which uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to help companies predict customer behavior. Another tool, PowerCurve, predicts whether someone will be more receptive to a new product, and also allows companies to analyze how customers’ financial circumstances may have changed.

Experian also helps protect against identity theft, and it still runs the core credit-scoring business, whose newer services include allowing lenders to quickly assess applications for car finance via text message. It’s also working with Amazon’s Alexa platform to explore new technologies like voice recognition to use in credit scoring, said Cassin.

One downside of being a big data company these days is the risk of privacy scandals, like the ones that have embroiled Facebook. There’s also the hacking attacks that are endemic at the banks Experian serves, and also hit one of its main rivals, Equifax, putting half the US population’s sensitive personal information at risk.

Experian is at risk too, according to Alexander Mees, an analyst at JPMorgan. While he’s a bull on the company in general, key risks include a breach of Experian’s computer systems and tougher regulation of credit checkers, he wrote.

Cassin said the Equifax hack reinforced the importance of IT security, and Experian invests tens of millions of dollars every year. That said, the issue can never fully be resolved, given there are always areas of vulnerability. The company already complies with over 1 000 regulations concerning the accuracy and dissemination of data, and greater scrutiny and more regulation is likely, he said.

“Nobody needs to be told anymore about how important this is,” said Cassin. “You’re never done.”

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