Demystifying DNA testing

Dec 04, 2019

GDR’s Harriet Cox interrogates the rapidly growing trend of hyper-personalisation based on DNA testing.

There’s little more personal than your DNA. In 2019 there’s been a real surge in a new form of hyper-personalisation in which a customer’s DNA – or other highly personal data points – is used to diagnose and prescribe products and services.

Here at GDR, we’ve seen this reflected in the mainstream success of genetic testing brands, such as Google-backed 23&Me, which analyses its customers’ DNA to help them understand their health predispositions and how DNA might affect various personal traits. This is rapidly gaining popularity: according to the MIT Technology Review, 26 million people around the world have used at-home DNA testing services provided by 23&Me, AncestryDNA and others, up from just five million at the beginning of 2017.


The rise of DnaNudge

Start-up brands have been quick to capitalise on this trend, applying similar principles and scientific methods to offer consumers guidance aimed at selling them more products.

One such start-up is DnaNudge, which according to its press release is the “world’s first genetic service that ‘nudges’ you to make healthier food shopping choices based on your unique DNA plus your lifestyle”.

Having just opened a flagship store in London’s Covent Garden we were interested to visit and see how the service translates into the physical space. From the outside the store appears bright and modern, more like a tech store. It’s an intriguing addition to Covent Garden’s main thoroughfare that is clearly benefiting from the high footfall.

Upon entering the space visitors are greeted with a wall of information explaining the brand, the process and its benefits. In short, this is a shop where visitors can have their DNA analysed. The result is then uploaded to an app and the information is linked to a wearable wristband, which allows the user to scan supermarket barcodes. Depending on the food products selected and the wearer’s DNA, the wristband will either display a red or green light to indicate if the item is healthy for them. If a red light is displayed alternative products within the brand are suggested on the app as healthier alternatives.

The customer journey starts with a single-use cheek swab sample which is destroyed after analysis. The DNA nutrition test alone costs £40. This information can be used on its own with the brand’s free app but to get the barcode scanning function customers must buy the DnaBand DnaCapsule and charger which costs £120, including the initial test. It is worth noting that, at launch, there is no further subscription fee so it’s hard to see where the brand will gain repeat purchase, store visits or engagement beyond that initial test.


Disputed science

Whilst the service is obviously an appealing prospect – and indeed while I was there numerous people came into store and had the test done – the science behind the promises made by this sort of analysis is hotly contested.

While the staff in-store were all qualified nutritionists who clearly know their stuff and make a convincing case, it has been argued that placing importance on such a narrow set of genetic criteria could be highly inaccurate because it doesn’t take into consideration many other biological and environmental variables.

The accuracy of the testing is also disputed. When Canadian broadcaster CBC sent samples from identical twins – who have the same DNA – to five of the largest DNA testing companies, they were surprised to receive five different sets of results; in one instance the results were even different between the two twins.

In the case of DnaNudge, the brand messaging and staff were very careful about making bold health claims. They position the service as simply ‘nudging’ users towards a healthier lifestyle. Interestingly, this month the brand plans to launch the same service for beauty product analysis, which will no doubt appeal to a different set of customers. It has also just announced pop-ups in Waitrose and John Lewis.

Given its science-based approach, the customer feels legitimised in making certain choices, and there is certainly a novelty appeal in the in-store customer journey. All that being said, it’s hard to imagine the store still being open in a year’s time if the scientific case isn’t tightened up.


Fulfilling an emotional need

While innovations like DnaNudge might not be 100% effective in addressing the problems they seek to solve from a scientific point of view, they actually do something much more interesting from the customer’s perspective – they fulfil an emotional need.

Effectively, the brands in this space are using technology as a shortcut to satisfying something more emotional in their customers. People like to feel that they are unique, and hyper-personalised products give them confirmation of that. They also abdicate consumers from the burden of choice (“it’s in my genes” is arguably no different to “it’s fate”) and give them the reassurance that their products are exactly right for them. The inputs are biological and empirical, but the outputs are emotional.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on DnaNudge and its competitors in the coming years to see how their propositions evolve, and how they stand the test of time.

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