Martin Lindstrom is one of the world’s leading brand building experts – advising Fortune 100 brands on how to build future-proof brands. Lindstrom is a global expert and pioneer in the fields of consumer psychology, marketing, brands, and neuro-scientific research. He is recognized by TIME Magazine as one of the “Worlds 100 Most Influential People.” The best-selling author of six groundbreaking books on branding, including Buyology: The Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, BRANDsense and Brandwashed, his latest book is Small Data –The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends.
Your story really begins with you at 12 years old, lying in bed with an illness that gives you a new power – the power of observation. To see why things are as they are. Coupled with your love of LEGO, it seem like you embarked on the Small Data journey at a very early age. You eventually went on to work with LEGO.
Can you tell us the story?
As a kid growing up in Denmark, I had one main passion: LEGO. I built and slept on a LEGO bed. The family garden was my very own Legoland, attracting visitors from near and far – including some Lego lawyers! Then, of all the children in the world, they gave me the first green brick in the collection! That’s what got me started in the crazy world of branding, marketing and advertising.
But the Small Data told LEGO a different story. LEGO learned from a 14-year LEGO fan that his skateboard exploits were measured (and honored) by the appropriate wear and tear on his shoes. The worn look of the sneakers was a badge of honor.
That’s when LEGO realized that children attain social currency amongst their peers based on the mastery they displayed of their chosen hobby.
The result was that LEGO refocused on its core product, and created more challenging, labor-intensive, construction challenges. Customers, it turned out, valued a challenging LEGO experience.
Fast forward 10 years, and LEGO had become the world’s largest toy maker, surpassing Mattel for the first time.
So where did the small data book idea come from? What is small data?
Small Data was born 4 years ago in Zambia. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Tipping Point and Outliers, and I were watching giraffes and elephants on the savannah and exchanging thoughts on my next book. Malcolm told of an urban legend that captured my imagination. In 1960, JFK single-handedly killed the hat industry by being the first President not to wear a hat to his inauguration. The hat industry started to decline shortly thereafter, prompting many to believe he was the cause of death. In reality, Kennedy did wear a hat en-route to the ceremony, but he removed it before taking the podium. Malcolm said it was a tiny move that caused a groundswell. In this case, it started a fashion revolution.
His words sparked a fire in my mind. If such a little detail could cause such a transformation, what other seemingly minor details are changing the world?
Since 2005, I’ve visited more than 2,000 consumers’ homes, across some 77 different countries, in order to not only prove that theory, but to understand what it takes to create huge transformations. I learned that Malcolm was spot on and that this theory represents an amazing wealth of insights, never discussed or researched before. I call this phenomena Small Data. It’s the tiny clues that uncover huge trends and can lead to the foundation for breakthrough ideas or transformative ways of turning around brands. Small Data is closer to my heart than any other book I’ve ever written. I take you behind the scenes as I travel the world discovering Small Data in places you’d never imagine, drawing parallels between observations and insights in ways even a hard core detective would find intriguing.
A murder scene would be worth little without modern scientific detection techniques. A strand of hair containing the culprit’s DNA, a fingerprint unique to the villain—these can lead the police right to the murderer.
But did you know that we leave behind tiny emotional DNA as well?
The way we place our shoes, organize our fridge, hang our paintings, or even use our toilet paper are all Small Data, that have the potential to reveal an astounding glimpse into who we really are, our true personalities, our needs and desires and hopes. On an individual level, Small Data can reveal if you’re extroverted and self-confident, if you’re shy about your lack of education, or if you have conflicts with your partner. They’ve also proven capable of determining your true age.
So I take it you are not a fan of Big Data?
I say you need both. But Big Data doesn’t necessarily spark emotion or deep insights into why your customers behave the way they do. In fact, I predict that Small Data will replace Big Data by 2017.
Your Subtext Research reveals underlying causes of why things are. You make some very interesting cultural observations. What do Saudi and Russian women have in common?
One of the things we discover when looking at how people live, is that we can deduce what they long for – what their fears are, and even what they aspire to be. In Russia and in Saudi Arabia, I noticed the fridge magnets that women displayed on their fridges. By showing off the softer, more artistic, more visually expressive, more feminine side of their characters, the fridge magnets seemed to have become a repository for these women’s hopes fantasies and aspirations. I saw the expression of a desire to escape the hardness and maleness of Russian life. The magnets also symbolized the dreams Russian mothers had that their children might someday live lives less constrained and more refined than theirs.
Two years before my Russian experience, I was in Saudi Arabia to help design a shopping center. In some ways, the populations of Russia and Saudi Arabia are very similar. Russia’s cold weather can be paralyzing; in some regions Russians wall themselves off inside their homes for half the year. In Saudi Arabia the extreme desert heat prompts similar behavior. Both Russians and Saudis told me they would happily move someplace else.
The difference between the two cultures lay in the fridge magnets.
In Saudi Arabia most displayed obvious international icons: the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, Big Ben, London Bridge. What then, was the connection between the Saudi and Russian fridge magnets? The need for escape. In the Middle East that need for escape kept reappearing in the guise of familiar talismans like the Eiffel Tower.
It took me three of four visits to notice that the paintings in Saudi homes all had as their subject matter one theme: water. Your readers will have to read the book to find out how we used the small data to build the shopping center (chuckles).
You say that brands are not treating us as individuals. Instead they rely on an archaic and flawed segmentation process based on demographics. What should they be doing differently?
I define a brand as anything from the music on our playlists to our shoes, to our toothpaste, to the artwork hanging on our walls — they have profound things to say about who we are. Every successful brand stands for something more than itself, and that thing is emotional. A great brand promises hope, or desirability, or love, or acceptance, or luxury, or youth, or sophistication, or high-quality technology.
If companies want to understand consumers, big data offers a valuable, but incomplete, solution. I would argue that our contemporary preoccupation with digital data endangers high-quality insights and observations and that for all the valuable insights big data provides, the web remains a curated, idealized version of who we really are.
You make the startling statement that despite the fact that the 7 billion people on earth that there’s only between 500 to 1000 truly unique people on the planet what do you mean by that?
I didn’t say that to put down individuality. I was pointing out the way in which humans are connected and how we can be divided by four criteria – Climate, Rulership, Religion, and Tradition. Turns out that these four criteria can tell us quite a bit about how we behave.
Climate, for example, refers to how your environment reflects and influences your diet. Scandinavians prefer richer, fattier foods while the Mediterranean diet is lighter and more oil-based.
Rulership refers to the power or government in charge.
Religion refers to the influence of a belief in a country, how dominant it is, and whether a person’s belief system lies behind decision-making processes.
Finally, Tradition is about a country’s unspoken protocols. Think of the European habit to ignore other elevator passengers or the American predilection for friendliness.
Once you’ve taken these four variables into account, and set aside differences in class, race, skin color, and gender, humans are the same no matter where they live.
Until recently, I never considered what I did as a repeatable methodology. I’m often asked about sampling bias, where members of the population are unequally represented? It’s hard for many businesses to admit that rather than basing their research on millions of consumers, sometimes all it takes is 10 people to transform a brand or business. The key is to identify an unmet desire, something that’s missing from people’s lives. When you do this, you are much closer to uncovering a gap that can be fulfilled with a new product a new brand, or even a new business.
- Collecting: how are your observations translated inside a home?
- Clues: what other distinctive emotional reflections you are observing?
- Connecting: what are the consequences of the emotional behavior?
- Causation: what emotion does it evoke?
- Correlation: when did the behavior or emotion first appear?
- Compensation: what is the unmet or unfulfilled desire?
- Concept: what is the “big idea” compensation for the consumer desire you have identified?
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar