Data is the new oil of the 21st Century

There is no doubt that we live in a world of big data. Every commentator talks about the increase of data for everything from the use of social media through to estimates of what will happen with the Internet-of-Things (IoT), but I only just learned we recently added a new unit of data – a Brontobyte.  In a world where the Apollo spacecraft had 2 Kilobytes and we now commonly assume our phones will have at least 64 Gigabytes, the introduction of the term Brontobyte (which is for 1027   …yes, that is 27 zeros!) is another incomprehensible leap forward.

Who first said the phrase: Data is the new oil?

I have heard many times the expression that “data is the new money”. However, I recently heard a phrase that resonated much more with me as I heard Dr James Bellini speak at the annual Gateley Deal Makers Dinner in Birmingham. Dr Bellini stated: “Data is the new oil of the 21st Century”.

Dr Bellini didn’t claim the phrase as his own. It was actually Clive Humby, UK Mathematician and architect of Tesco’s Clubcard, who is widely credited as the first to coin the phrase.

Here is what Clive Humby said about data being the new oil:

“Data is the new oil. Like oil, data is valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc. to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity. so, must data be broken down, analysed for it to have value.” 

As with oil, data will now shape our world. Oil drove the evolution of cars and our infrastructure; our roads and bridges and air travel broke down the global barriers for travel and trade.

There’s value in the data we already have

With talk of big data and unimaginable volumes of information storage such as the Brontobyte, we should not forget the value in the data we probably already have. 

All retailers have access to massive amounts of big data that is external to their organisations, ranging from demographics to industry category sales numbers. At S4RB, we work with own brand retailers and we have seen first-hand the huge benefits that come from pulling all of this data together into a single view of their own brand’s performance.

The key to unlocking the value held in this single view of data is an organisation’s own data.

Big data in retail

The volumes of data within grocery retail are huge. We work with own brand retail teams to consolidate the large volumes of information on product performance (competitive benchmark information, customer complaints, online reviews etc.) to create a single view of product performance, so that it can be more readily analysed for it to have value.

All of the retailer’s own internal information can be brought together to create a single view of customer sentiments about the own brand products and product quality performance.

When this is achieved, it becomes a treasure trove of insights that are totally unique to an individual retailer. We refer to this as ‘little big data’, because it is targeted to an individual retailer and holds the key to improving its brand experience.

Challenges of bringing together different streams of data

One of the biggest challenges in creating this single view of product information is that data exists in many different places in an organisation, rather than being integrated in a way that makes it easily viewable and useable. Moreover, some of the relevant data hasn’t even been identified yet as pertinent to the single view.

These include sensory and benchmark product test results, online customer reviews, customer complaints to a call centre, social media comments, information about returns, and lots of other examples, all supplemented by sales data.

Plenty of data is inaccurate

Having data easily viewable is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean the data itself is good. Plenty of data is inaccurate. Having a single view can make that more apparent. Poor data has multiple causes, and one of them involves shortcomings of retail associates.

A deeper look may indicate that employees of the centre have been less than meticulous, randomly attaching complaints to the first product that appears in a software menu, or to “unknown product”.

In another case, a customer may complain about a container of milk, but the call centre fails to assign the feedback to the correct UPC. This may be because for a big chain retailer, there are likely multiple suppliers for the same product in different regions. The unfortunate result of these situations is that bad data produces bad insights. The data needs to be cleansed.


There is more data being captured about everything than ever before. Clive Humby coined the phrase: “Data is the new oil” and just like oil before, data is shaping the new world.

For own brand retailers this translates to capturing more information than ever before about the products bearing their brand name. To make sense of all this product data and turn it into actionable insights, retailers need to bring all of their data together in one place to create a single view of product performance.

This single view also makes poor quality data more apparent, meaning retailers can take steps to clean this data and uncover even more understanding of how products are performing in the market.

Big data is here to stay, but there is no value in big data unless it is turned into actionable insights!

Further reading: I don’t want any more data!

Tags: Product insights

James Butcher

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