Insights from One of the Top 20 Business Thinkers in the World

Hint: size does matter when it comes to data... but not in the way you think.



We live in an age of data. Data is collated when you swipe your reward card at a café, when you change your channel from one breakfast program to another, when you buy an apologetic bunch of flowers at your ‘local’ florist. It’s worth asking: what for?

That’s the question small data specialist Martin Lindstrom wants us to ask ourselves, too. The brand expert, who is both a New York Times bestselling author and holder of TIME Magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ title, as well as one of Thinkers50 top 50 global management thinkers, has his finger on the pulse of many a megabrand (Pepsi and LEGO are two) and he has something to say to anyone thinking they’ll get something truly valuable out of broad reach data: you won’t.

“Big data is all about correlations,” Martin tells Collective Hub, “it’s all about finding billions of data points and trying to find the correlations between them. There’s two issues with this. First of all, you need a hypothesis in order to find out how you mine all [that] data, because you can’t just look at the data… you need to find out what you’re going to search for and then notify whether it’s right or wrong. The second thing really is that data rarely describes something as you as a person, you in an emotional profile.”

What Martin is pointing out here is what he’s spent his life exploring: the fact that large scale data, gathered with a specific end in mind (to prove or disprove a preconceived theory) rarely allows the kind of creative, innovative insights that are necessary to really turn a good company into a great one.

“Small data is really the counter balance, it is what I define as seemingly insignificant observations we find everywhere, in our homes, how we decorate our homes, how we face our shoes, how we walk,” Martin explains. “It’s what I define as emotional DNA. We [are] actually are getting to a stage now where we can tell a lot about people’s personalities just based on those clues we leave behind us.”

Observing this is how Martin managed to change the direction of LEGO back in 2003 from observing a pair of scuffed up sneakers in an 11 year-old LEGO enthusiast’s home in Germany. (His insight here, outlined in his newest book, Small Data, was that instead of LEGO moving into bigger, less challenging products for the millennials with short attention spans, that LEGO return to their original product as ‘mastering something’ was way more appealing that doing it quickly. Returning to smaller, more difficult LEGO after Martin’s observations of the young skateboarder who wore his scuffed sneakers with pride changed the company).

But why are there more clues in small data as opposed to big? One reason is that humans lie. A lot.

“Humans are an odd species – quite often we lie a lot [and] big data is not necessarily picking up on that,” Martin points out. “If you take your Facebook account or my Facebook account, that is portraying not who you are but who you would like to be seen as, so a lot of the online data we are sharing is not necessarily who we are. You may not be that person… you are one side of the story.”

The second is companies are trying to predict the future, with past numbers. We’ve hopped on a treadmill of data gathering with no real end in sight and no real purpose.

“Most companies have become addicted to more data because they need more data to verify more data,” says Martin.

So, how do you ‘obtain’ small data? The number one rule is observation. Martin frequently visits the homes of consumers worldwide but his other favourite data gathering spot, especially in a new country, is a bustling barbershop. He’s also a big advocate of putting your phone away.

“If you’re waiting at a bar by yourself and you’re waiting for someone and the person hasn’t shown up, the first thing you’ll do is grab your phone and do something with it, to not come across as looking like a complete loser,” Martin says. “It’s awkward, because that space, that time we once had for ourselves, actually allowed us to observe, and that means to be able to see new opportunities, it allowed us to be present, that means to interact with people and invite more people into our lives. Most importantly, it allowed us to be bored, and boredom is creating creativity, and we’re never bored anymore.”

But how do you know what you’re looking for? “What you’re looking for is the out of balance,” Martin says, “you have to remember that we’re all out of balance: maybe I feel too awake, maybe I feel I don’t have enough friends or I need to have better friends, or I feel that I’ve hit my mid-life crisis and I haven’t achieved enough in my life. So, all of these ‘out of balances’ represent a gap or a brand opportunity.

Then it’s time to get creative.


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