Small Data … from little insights come big ideas

February 23, 2016

Martin Lindstrom has been called the “Sherlock Holmes of marketing”,  alert to clues in changing consumer behaviour, new attitudes and behaviours, in everything from the way we clean our teeth, to drive our cars and do our laundry.

Martin claims to spend 300 nights a year in strangers homes, carefully observing every detail in order to uncover their hidden desires, and, ultimately, the clues to a multi-million dollar product.  He connects the dots in this globetrotting narrative that will enthrall enterprising marketers, as well as anyone with a curiosity about the endless variations of human behavior. You ll learn

  • How a noise reduction headset at 35,000 feet led to the creation of Pepsi’s new trademarked signature sound.
  • How a worn down sneaker discovered in the home of an 11-year-old German boy led to Lego’s incredible turnaround.
  • How a magnet found on a fridge in Siberia resulted in a U.S. supermarket revolution.
  • How a toy stuffed bear in a girl s bedroom helped revolutionize a fashion retailer s 1,000 stores in 20 different countries.
  • How an ordinary bracelet helped Jenny Craig increase customer loyalty by 159% in less than a year.
  • How the ergonomic layout of a car dashboard led to the redesign of the Roomba vacuum.”

Here’s an extract from a review of Martin’s new book in Forbes magazine:

What’s the most important megatrend today? Ask any CMO, and you might hear, “mobile” or “social media.” Most likely, though, the first answer you get will be “big data.” But, if you ask branding expert and bestselling author Martin Lindstrom, you’ll get a different answer: small data.

The small data approach Lindstrom offers is simple, at least in concept. As a marketer, he says, you should be spending time with real people in their own environments. That, combined with careful observation, can lead to powerful marketing insights.

This approach is the human-centric alternative to Big Data. In each case, one is collecting information to gain insights into behavior, interests, and so on. But, Lindstrom’s approach relies on a mix of keen observation of small samples and applied intuition.

Lindstrom has been affiliated with Lego since age 12. The budding entrepreneur created an elaborate mini-theme park in his backyard using the plastic blocks. Initially, Lego’s attorneys threatened to sue him for trademark infringement. Fortunately, they worked things out and Lindstrom was appointed to an advisory role. He’s been consulting for Lego ever since.

One of Lindstrom’s small data stories is from the Danish block maker. In 2002, their sales were in decline and the company was in serious trouble. A study of their customers revealed the apparent reason: the declining attention span of their customers.

Since creating structures from tiny blocks took painstaking effort, Lego’s solution was to introduce far bigger blocks that could form structures more quickly. Their attention-challenged customers could build a castle in minutes instead of hours. That strategy failed and Lego sales sank further.

This dark moment was when the concept of “small data” was born, said Lindstrom. A team of Lego researchers, in an attempt to better understand customers, visited the home of an 11-year old boy in Germany. Among other things, they asked him what he was most proud of in his room. Lindstrom describes the epiphany:

“This young kid paused for a second and then he points at these sneakers, worn-down sneakers standing on the shelves. He says, ‘This is what I’m most proud of… This sneaker is the evidence that I’m the best skater in town. You see, when I’m skating, I slide down at an angle of twelve and a half degrees. That generates exactly that worn down sole you have on this sneaker. This is my evidence for me being number one in my city.”

The team realized that even members of the instant gratification generation actually would spend thousands of hours on their passion, but only if they were in control.

Lego revamped its strategy based on this insight. They brought back the smaller blocks, for one. And, they decided to put kids back in the driver’s seat, Lindstrom explains, “not just by using storytelling, but also to invent The Lego Movie.

Today, Lego’s broadly expanded product and media footprint makes them the world’s top toymaker.

A clue from refrigerator magnets

One of the stranger examples of small data Lindstrom offers involves where different cultures place their refrigerator magnets.

Lindstrom spends much of his time visiting consumers in their homes and noticing many small details. One such detail involved refrigerator magnets. These decorations are often mementos that encapsulate emotions and preserve memories, Lindstrom observed. He also noticed that in Saudi Arabia, refrigerator magnets were usually placed high on the refrigerator where small children couldn’t reach them. In contrast, in a lengthy series of visits in Siberia he found that the magnets were usually much lower.

Since Saudi families buy a lot of toys compared to the Siberian families Lindstrom visited, he concluded that in the latter setting the magnets were, in part, a substitute for toys. The outcome of that research was the launch of a new Russian toy company.

The importance of “being present”

Lindstrom spends 300 days a year traveling the globe and snooping around people’s homes. That’s a lifestyle few of us can (or would want to) emulate. When I asked whether non-globe-trotting marketers could use small data techniques, he replied,

“Absolutely. The first thing is that we’re not present anymore. I mean, when you’re standing in a bar waiting for someone what’s the first thing you do if a person is late? You grab your smartphone and you just do something with it, anything with it, to pretend you’re not a loser, right? Also, because we get bored in a matter of seconds, not a matter of hours, so we’re never bored anymore.

But there’s another issue… When you’re not bored, you’re not creative. Creativity comes out of being bored, because that’s where you’re forced to create a story. But it also allows you to be observant, to be present. And we’re not present anymore… That lack of ‘presentness,’ if you could use that word, means that we don’t see things around us.”

So, the first thing you should do is to become present.

Lindstrom has underscored his own commitment to being present by no longer using his smartphone. He reports that it was a “very, very hard detox process.”

You probably aren’t ready to toss your own smartphone. But, take the time to read Lindstrom’s book. Small Data puts humanity back into marketing. Martin Lindstrom will make you a better people-watcher and trend-spotter, and help you gain insights that mere data crunching will never yield.

Another great book. Well done Martin!


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