China is now only a year from launching its Social Credit system, in which every person’s trustworthiness is ranked – like an Uber ride or a hotel on TripAdvisor. While it doesn’t bode well for personal sanity, David Waller discovers that the impact on brands could be massive too.

If you’re launching a technology product, you want people to like it. So it’s generally not a good sign if your new baby winds up on satirical TV – and especially not when it earns a segment of its own. But that’s exactly what happened to review app Peeple when it first appeared back in 2015. Touted as “Yelp for people”, the concept received a severe lampooning by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight, who described it as the latest “mash-up that Silicon Valley love… like Skype for sandwiches, or Tinder for geese.” 

Oliver treated his audience to a clip of a Peeple co-founder explaining the app’s USP to a cab driver. “You can rate and comment on anyone you know, professionally, personally or romantically,” she said. “Wow…,” the poor driver replied, more stunned than impressed, before exhaling sharply through his teeth. When the clip was done, Oliver pointed out that this wasn’t a good reaction: “Generally when you tell someone your idea, you don’t want them to respond with the sound of their soul leaving their body.”

That cab driver should think himself lucky he’s not chasing fares in China – which is about to have a ‘Yelp for people’ that spans the whole population. 

Roaming everywhere under heaven

In 2014, the Chinese government issued a document entitled: Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System. Beneath that bland bureaucratic banner it laid out plans to quantify how much its citizens could be trusted. Everyone would have a score, from 350 to 950, based on big data from a range of integrated sources, covering their conduct at work, their tax record and the products they were buying – as well as ratings given to them by their peers. 

Any act deemed socially destructive, from dodgy driving to smoking in areas where it’s banned – even, according to some reports, spending too much time playing video games – would get you marked down. ‘Good’ acts – like volunteering or giving blood – would see your score rise. This was perfect headline fodder, evoking memories of Orwell and images of dystopia. The Chinese government, meanwhile, said the system would “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”. 

However you spin it, it appears the world may soon have a new state: the Peeple’s Republic of China. 

Some of the early reviews of the system have been positive. In Rongcheng, a city in eastern China already running the system, those with good scores are getting discounts on energy bills and better interest rates at banks, plus the ability to rent things without deposits. Locals have detailed life becoming nicer, once they’d overcome the initial worry of keeping that score up. The BBC even reported how good ratings may help boost your profile on China’s biggest dating site, Baihe. 

Others have noted how it’s simply a means of socially engineering behaviour. Nine million people in China with low scores had been blocked from buying tickets for domestic flights by March last year, according to official stats cited by Channel News Asia. Freelance journalist James O’Malley captured footage that recorded an announcement on a bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai warning people not to misbehave — or their “behavior will be recorded in individual credit information system”. And in January the latest manifestation of the Credit System emerged: a new app that warns users when they’re within 500 meters of someone who’s in debt. 

Terrified? If you’re living in the West, you needn’t be. At least not yet. But for an instantly-relatable picture of the potential, we can turn to that reliable purveyor of dystopian awfulness, Black Mirror. In ‘Nosedive’, an episode in the sci-fi show’s third season, we encounter a near-future America of Instagram-friendly pastel shades and fake smiles, soundtracked by the incessant ping of people’s phones as they obsessively give their peers star ratings for every occasion – whether buying a coffee, watching a wedding speech, or simply sharing an elevator. 

“What Black Mirror only hinted at is that such systems are bound to change how brands operate: an airline only offers flights to customers with a rating of 4.5 above; a rental car company pedals broken vehicles to punters ranking three or below.”

Black Mirror largely charted one woman’s descent into the low-star domain of the social pariah. What it only hinted at is that such systems are bound to change how brands operate too: an airline only offers its flights to customers with a rating of 4.5 and above; a rental car company pedals only broken old vehicles to punters ranking three or below; and a distracted petrol pump attendant casually rates the increasingly desperate woman a devastating two out of five – because “it wasn’t a meaningful encounter”.

The real world?

In the real world these changes could be profound. Lebanese scholar Zahy Ramadan is the author of The gamification of trust: the case of China’s “social credit”. He believes China’s new system will have a fundamental, and largely troubling, impact on how consumers – and therefore brands – behave. 

“The social capital of consumers will be reengineered, coercing people into specific expected behavior,” he says. “Consumers will be limited to specific consumption patterns so as to maximise their social credit score. This form of social gamification is expected to have dire consequences on brands and consumers alike.” 

Indeed, it doesn’t take much to see how swathes of businesses could be hit hard in a world where everything you do, everything you buy, and every mistake you make affects your ability to get a favourable loan, rent a nice flat or travel in comfort. Take gaming, for example. Under proposals mooted for the Chinese system, spending your time playing video games would earn you a lower rating than if you’d been out buying stationery supplies for a charity. So if a gaming company’s customers suddenly realise they need to maintain a high score in order to function in life, those gaming companies could be in trouble. How would they even promote their product? 

At its root, as Ramadan suggests, the system works by ‘gamifying’ trust. Points are rewarded if you’re apparently more trustworthy. They’re docked if you’re not. People become players, and players divided into winners and losers. Ramadan believes the external rewards and punishments will force people to change their behavior, in ways that will be hard to anticipate. And making trust into a game changes the rules of branding too, as trust is central to how brands build relationships. 

“As the social credit system penalizes people with low scoring friends, consumers are going to unfriend those, reducing drastically the number of potential consumers that the company can target.”

Zahy Ramadan, author, The gamification of trust: the case of China’s “social credit”

It’s easy to see how such changes could impact the use of key modern marketing methods – online word-of-mouth and engaging with customers on social media. “As the social credit system penalizes people with low scoring friends, consumers are going to unfriend those, reducing drastically the number of potential consumers that the company can target,” says Ramadan. “Word-of-mouth and viral campaigns will be harder to manage, as a new variable will become integrated into the credibility of the message – depending on the score of the person broadcasting those messages.”

We obviously have an element of that already. Nike, Apple, Red Bull – major brands are all well aware of how to tap into the social cache of being seen to be buying the right stuff. That’s what drives everything from event sponsorship to influencer campaigns. But the Chinese system is that idea on steroids. 

Or, perhaps more accurately, beta blockers. Brands could easily find themselves suffering the same desperation and self-protective anxiety as the poor characters in Black Mirror: having to chase the ‘right’ people to get them talking about the brand. And actively drop followers or customers who reflect badly on them. Ramadan describes this as “value co-destruction”: consumers and brands alike in a vicious circle of distancing themselves from sources of negative influences, which will limit social media’s potential as a means of building relationships. 

Ramadan adds that any brand marketing into China may face a dilemma. “If they solely focus on high-scoring individuals, they would be seen as helping the Chinese government with the implementation of the system,” he says. “On the other hand, if they ignore the scoring factor, they might alienate the brand’s equity as they might have followers with low scores, which would affect the brand’s own image and credibility.”

How could brands react? 

So what could brands do to thrive under these new rules? Ramadan says they should use the transition phase of the system to enhance their brand equity – to make sure they’re a business that enhances people’s scores when they’re associated with it, rather than causing them to lose points. They need to work out early on which followers generate positive social capital, and how, and get anyone generating high trust on board to compensate for any low-scoring followers. 

This, he says, is the risky stage: low-scoring individuals continue sharing and endorsing those brands, which will affect their word-of-mouth credibility. It will be as if brands are suddenly enduring the first weeks of secondary school, desperate to assimilate with the desirables, but having to shake off their needy nerdy best mate from primary school to do so. But Ramadan says brands should also be careful not to select only people who generate high scores, because any public backlash may generate bad press in the early stages, as the media will be watching. 

“It will be as if brands are suddenly enduring the first weeks of secondary school, desperate to assimilate with the desirables, but having to shake off their needy nerdy best mate from primary school to do so.”

Soon, however, people will have distanced themselves from those perceived as low-trust individuals, “leaving brands with an updated social network of followers low on bad-scoring individuals”. Here, “only trustable social capital circulates” and “word of mouth is regulated and expected to be low on low-scoring individuals”. Still, he says, brands need to pay some heed to average scoring people, so as not to be identified as part of the system, and instead help them to increase their scores.”

The watchers and the watched 

Overwhelmed? Well, things are likely to get weirder over here too soon enough. Many marketers already use e-scores, the means of scoring an individual’s potential value as a customer, through various personal details and activities. High-end real estate owners are offering preferential rentals to people with large online followings. Financial providers use people’s data, from browser data to e-commerce transactions, to set a score of how trustworthy they are. Credit reports and scores are used to judge job applications. The likes of Cambridge Analytica are using people’s online activities to tailor political messaging. Platforms like Instagram and Snapchat are shaping how people judge the value of each other’s lives – even their own. And even grandparents are now used to dishing out likes on Facebook. 

According to a new book by Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard Business School professor, these aren’t disconnected events. She argues that we’ve entered the “age of surveillance capitalism”, a new and defining phase of capitalism which “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data…”. And one in which most individuals and brands don’t really know who’s ultimately judging them, nor to whose benefit. 

Zuboff spots how this shift effectively splits society into two groups – the watchers and the watched. Or, in the case of social credit systems like China’s, the watchers and those being watched, who are ultimately working for the watchers. Because they have to – because they’re being watched. 

For now, many of us will greet this picture like that cab driver – with a “Wow” and a sharp exhale of breath between our teeth. Enjoy that feeling. Because ideas that seem far-fetched and foreign do have a tendency to become subtly less so as time goes on. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, UK TV hosts Chris Tarrant and Clive James used to ridicule overseas reality shows in which people would test their endurance drinking chilli sauce and sniffing wasabi. Now UK celebrities are regularly filmed crawling among rats and bugs and eating kangaroo anus in the jungle. 

As to whether that’s a good or bad thing to do – or to attach your brand to? It may not be that long before we all know the score.

Share this article
You might also like