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Biometrics: for good or evil?

Updated: Nov 19, 2019

Sara Bonafair, Strategist

Lauren Vaynberg, Strategy Director

Burns Group

Google recently acquired Fitbit in a $2.1 billion deal, launching a direct challenge to Apple, who controls 47% of the smartwatch market.

What is Google getting? A small amount of IP, access to a new manufacturing supply chain, and elimination of a good portion of the competition.

This adds a whole new dimension to Google’s empire with biometrics, but is this acquisition for good or evil? It could mean a number of things to brands and businesses, whether across the tech and wellness industries, or within the broader B2B or consumer sector.

Nonetheless, this shift will impact how all leverage consumer data and insights in their targeting strategies forevermore.

The Good

What are consumers getting? The same thing consumers always get from Google – accessibility. Fitbit products are likely to stay at an affordable price point, but will be upgraded with cutting-edge features to put them on par with the more robust offerings on the market from Apple, Garmin, etc.

A boon for accessibility, Google has furthered the democratization of knowledge and changed the way our society functions. Many argue the brand has become as influential as the printing press. Who needs college anymore? You can learn basically all you need to know from the internet, thanks to Google.

In the same way, this acquisition could mark the first big step towards the democratization of wellness. Google is not acquiring Fitbit to offer a better way for people who already pay $12 for green juice to calculate their anaerobic threshold. We believe Google could be the force needed to disrupt the exclusivity of the wellness industry.

At the moment a fundamental problem the wellness industry faces is that it only works for those who can afford it. Over the years, a storm has been brewing to make health and wellness more inclusive, from the body-positive movement, to telemedicine and walk-in clinics, to the proliferation of natural and organic in the mainstream. Nonetheless, no one product or advancement has truly revolutionized perceptions of who qualifies for self-betterment. In America, the wellness divide is as deep as our socio-economic divide.

This is not only unfair, but also limits wellness brands’ consumer base. Maybe not out of fairness, but Google may have what it takes to break the pursuit of consumers’ “best selves” out of the hands of the elite and into those of the masses!

This is a huge opportunity for lesser known wellness brands to scale their businesses and benefit from Google’s reach. No longer will marketers feel limited to exclusively target slim white Lululemon clad women with images of themselves. This potential paradigm shift would open the door for a whole new realm of creative strategies and latitude for creative activations.

The Evil

On the flip side, with this acquisition Google will now be able to capture more personal information than ever before. Our every step, our heart rate, our sleep patterns. This is not just about tracking wellness, it’s the data of well…us. Biometrics are the measure of our most fundamental human behaviors. So while this data helps us learn more about ourselves, who else will be learning about us? Should we feel empowered or violated?

The privacy of biometrics is not yet regulated. What’s more, with Google at the wheel this data will undoubtedly be paired with their existing deep files on each of us. In theory wellness data could be aggregated in a way it has never been. Google will be able to define more specific consumer segments and benchmarks of actions. This is a dream come true for marketers, right? For once they have access to actual behavior, rather than reported research which can be biased.

While personalization and anticipation are valued by consumers, brands need to walk the fine line between spotting a suspected issue and a perceived one. Will a few nights of bad sleep mean you’re being targeted for a sleep aid ad? Will upping your steps result in new sneakers appearing in search? If you aren’t that active, will Google be recommending fitness classes in your area? It’s one thing if you’re searching with intent and these ads pop up, and another if Google is measuring your actions and deciding for you. Advertisers and brands have a responsibility to preserve user privacy - with great power comes great responsibility.

So as you can see there’s an opportunity to embrace the good in Google creating a path to wellness for everybody and an in-road for future prospects of the wellness economy. What the increasingly powerful tech marketers have at their fingertips, it’s important to balance the value of targeting (and micro-targeting) with the risk of breaching consumers’ privacy and trust.


Photo source:

(Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg News)

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