Arun Raman
Guest Article

There is too much data and not enough heart for it

Thanks to cultural data, strategy has shifted to opportunity biased thinking rather than the old way of problem biased thinking.

From the time the world got hooked on the Googles, the Facebooks, the Amazons and the Weibos, the go-to-point in every meeting agenda is - What does data tell us?

Data. A word that at once inspires confidence, fear, confusion and even revulsion. For most of us in marketing and advertising, data has become the new Voldemort (the main antagonist in the Harry Potter novels). We are creative people in our hearts and innovators inspire us. Data is about the past; can it really help us create and innovate for the future?

Digital, data and the de-humanising of consumers

Today, most consumers are digital natives. Most brands are on digital platforms with apps and websites... many brands are pure digital offerings. One can't ignore or fight this fact.

As strategic partners to our client’s brands, we must argue and agree about how to leverage the power of data and insights into an idea.

Data can tell us much. What are people buying? How are people buying? What are people talking about? What are people sharing? When? What? Where? How? But not the Why.

Because, data is soulless (sorry, Voldemort again). Data is about mathematics and statistics. Data is information. It’s not really inspiring. Because data minimises ‘what people are thinking’ to ‘what people are doing’.

What you do with data should be inspirational. How can data be used to leapfrog to a higher plane? When we apply heart to it, data becomes insightful. And insights are the only gateway to brand relevance, differentiation and eventual success.

Blame it on education

Since this is about insights, here is an insight into why this is not as easy as it sounds. Right from an early age, people are bracketed at schools and home as left brain/right brain. Children grow up to join college where they choose to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) or humanities (sociology, psychology, history, philosophy, political science).

STEM helps people to improve on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of people’s actions and behaviour. Humanities helps people understand the ‘why’ of people’s beliefs and behaviour.

And no surprises, very few students take both. Most specialise in what they have learnt: applying the mind or heart. Not both.

The trick in converting data into insights is about adding humanities to math. But no single individual is wired to do both.

Opportunity lies in building teams so as to bring humanities and math together. Not based on hierarchies, but on equalities. Bringing in the brand strategist and the digital strategist as co-creators of brand insights.

This sense of equality will bring razor-sharp focus on what truly needs to be found. The only way to handle data (and there are trillions of gigabytes of data floating around) is to start by defining the need for data in the first place.

Be clear what data you need, why you need it and how you shall use it. Start with the people-problem to be solved, then look at data around that problem. See the larger picture in the context of the culture within which people live, work and play. Thus, bring humanities into the mix. Humanities, after all, is defined as ‘human beings collectively’. In this collective behaviour and beliefs of people is where brand and creative opportunities truly lie.

Digital publishers like Google, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon will have you believe that the power of data lies in isolating individuals, and their likes and preferences. The power of one, if you may. That may be true to their business model. But not for brands that address the many. Collective behavioural data is what unlocks a brand’s mass appeal. One must search for data that defines a collective behaviour or a mass belief.

Introducing, cultural data, which leverages the intersection of math and humanities to unearth mass behaviour patterns and influences.

Math+Humanities: A partnership for opportunities

Thanks to cultural data, strategy has shifted to opportunity biased thinking rather than the old way of problem biased thinking. What opportunities in the world outside the brand can we leverage to amplify and accelerate our brand’s credentials? How can data feed into insights and ideas?

Samsonite, a travel luggage brand, seized on this thinking early in India. Samsonite’s business grows when people travel. The behavioural KPI for a long time was to “encourage people to travel more”.

Kerala, since long, has been a world-class tourism destination. Ten per cent of this tiny Indian state’s GDP and 25 per cent of its peoples’ employment were linked to tourism. This is readily available ‘static’ data.

On August 15, 2018, Kerala was devastated by unprecedented floods. Statistics later showed that the impact of infrastructure alone was upward of $5.7 billion! Real-time data showed that there was a 64.3 per cent cancellation of flight tickets in the immediate aftermath of this disaster.

What could Samsonite do, if people don’t want to travel? A serious business problem.

Yes, people don’t want to travel to disaster areas for a holiday. But the underlying cultural truth is that such decisions aren’t always based on a balanced appraisal of the situation, since news media tend to blow bad news out of proportion. This is the application of humanities to math.

Samsonite’s strategic opportunity lay in showing people what they “can’t see”. That Kerala is actually open for travel and people and business, and will always welcome you with a smile and fresh coconut water.

This intersection of behaviour and culture led Samsonite to encourage people to help Kerala to once again stand up by showing up.

When behavioural data and cultural opportunities come together, we can be famously effective. In just two months, new flight Kerala bookings went up by a million!

Kerala is open - an idea that brings together all that’s been written above: data, humanities and opportunity biased thinking.

It’s time for more brands to bring together the mind and the heart: the math and the humanities. In their own team structures, brand thinking, and venture for the Holy Grail: insights. Because for brands to become a part of mass behaviour, cultural data will be the new guiding light.

(The author is chief intelligence officer for Grey in India.)