The Lady and the Data: In conversation with Edwina Dunn


For many years Edwina Dunn, along with Clive Humby, were known for founding dunnhumby, the customer insights business that most notably created the Tesco Clubcard concept and was ultimately acquired by Tesco in 2011, having grown to 1500 staff in 25 countries. 

In 2012, Humby and Dunn took control of Starcount Insights, now a fast-growing, new generation customer insights start-up with revolutionary levels of digitally live data that is taking the understanding of customer loyalty, passions, emotions and behaviours to unprecedented levels. The words “Big Data” really mean something here, and as we enter an exciting period of growth for the business, we thought it would great to get to the heart of Starcount and learn a little from the CEO herself. 

Tell us the story behind Starcount Insights? 

Throughout our career in data science and loyalty, Clive and I have seen our role as understanding consumers “better than anyone else” – something that is a distinct competitive advantage to any business. 

When we first pioneered applications using big data, we explored “you are where you live” (i.e. Census data), which, at the time, was the best and biggest audience available. We created the first site location models that now underpin the retail and property industry. We then moved into creating a new approach “you what you eat”. Eating was a brilliant lifestyle indicator and we became voyeurs of the shopping basket. Who hasn’t looked into someone else’s basket and thought “would I like to go to dinner there?” This propelled Tesco from a number 2 player in the UK market to a massive leader. The Clubcard changed millions of consumers shopping behaviour - not because of the plastic but because it revealed the differences between what mattered most to different people. We knew grocery shoppers better than anyone else. 

But not everyone has the depth and frequency of shopper data that a grocer has. And so, a new and important challenge emerged for us. How could we predict what consumers buy in non-food?

The digital and social era changed the value and volume of data. We began to collect data that allows us to understand individuals through what they love (including more than brands) rather than what they need. We created new platforms and models which allow us to combine first-party customer data with third-party data from sources like social media and mobile phones. We acquired Starcount and transformed it into a company that transforms multiple and complex data sources into valuable and 3-dimensional consumer insight helping us to spot trends, preferences, motivations and passions. It now helps major brands to make decisions based on continuous moving data, location, patterns of buying, financial activity, and social media activity and browsing. 

In the past, we used to look just at what people did, not at what they will do; now we can understand and predict people’s lifestyle choices and spending decisions, using real-time data. 

Unlike techniques like social listening, we measure the quiet majority - the people who don’t share their opinions as vocally, but have actual behaviours that help us understand their un-biased, unprompted even unconscious, passions. 

The exciting consequence of this is that we can predict what consumers love beyond the brands they interact with, and use this insight to help brands align themselves with people’s genuine passions and motivations in order to nurture emotionally-driven loyalty. Our aim is to deliver predictive and strategic insights that impact the boardroom, not just the marketing team. 

If you could encapsulate it in a few words, what is the mission for the business?

To use data to transform the way retail businesses operate and understand their customers on a global scale. 

In essence, we want to improve the performance of our clients’ businesses, by 2-5% per year, for the next five years. The impact of that is £millions on their turnover. Retailers used to call us their ‘secret weapon’, making them more relevant to customers. With the breadth and depth of the data we have now, we can be more powerful and predictive than ever. 

What have been your proudest moments at Starcount?

We are constantly innovating at Starcount, especially regarding technology. I am so proud to have built a ground-breaking platform in The Observatory. To have developed, and to be continually developing, a platform that holds, analyses and enriches over a billion moving consumer data points is something that signifies the impact of what we can achieve as a business, for the benefit of our clients. Our vibrant team of Data Scientists, Data Engineers & Developers are building and using a product with a deep understanding of the behaviours that dictate customer engagement decisions for our clients. I think that’s remarkable. 

Regarding client wins, we are currently working with some of the world’s biggest brands across financial services, automotive and retail, so we are at a particularly exciting time in the company’s history.

Furthermore, we have reached a level of maturity now, so I know we have a product that works. Our clients see and are enriched by the work we do for them. That’s a great feeling. 

Where have you genuinely achieved the WOW factor?

It happens almost every day. Magic happens when you combine brands with powerful data and talented people. We employ problem solvers who make great things happen, but often the ‘wow factor’ comes from the way you visualise the data to demonstrate behavioural changes en masse. 

What are the challenges of the business & hurdles to growth?

As in any business, there are many. For us belief is essential, and so we work to bring bright people into the business, who see and believe in what can be achieved, and strive for more. To use a ‘Starcount’ link, we need our own ‘stars’ aligned. 

We are at a stage where adapting to change through growth is essential – how we treat our clients, how each remains special, and also how we build and identify our leaders who have the staying power to see the growth journey through to fulfilment and be the faces of the business. We recognise that people may soon not want to hear from Edwina and Clive anymore, and those next faces will be essential for us.

Externally, we will forever have to stay abreast of complex and ever changing data legislation, and embrace and protect against cyber-fear. Furthermore, ideas get copied and ‘big data’ is a well-worn phrase now. As early pioneers, we have to ensure we know how we stand apart and remain progressive. 

What does the future hold, and what kind of people are going to make Starcount the success you aspire it to be?

We need confident, bright people, who explore, collaborate and like to be challenged. We want people who will make waves, believe, innovate and push boundaries to ensure we match that mission to transform retail businesses globally. 

As for me and the future, I have always been told there is rarely someone more determined than I to make a success of something than I do. Well, the same applies to Starcount. With great data and the best people, we can have unprecedented impact on customer experiences for brands we love and admire. That’s exciting. 

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Edwina is the queen of customer data, and Starcount is growing. And we're hiring developers, data engineers and data scientists to be part of the most remarkable consumer data projects. Email us at steve.ward@starcount.com to discuss

This interview originally appeared on Steve Ward's LinkedIn.