Small Data: A book review

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Published: October 9, 2016 6:05:07 AM

A book presents an alternative approach to understanding the clues that go into making a successful brand

BIG DATA is not that big after all. This may sound strange at a time when more and more companies are harnessing customer insights by incorporating social, transactional and behavioural data, but big data has a few shortcomings and it alone is not an adequate source of customer intelligence. This is the central theme of Small Data, a globetrotting narrative by brand consultant Martin Lindstrom, which takes one on a journey across 77 countries.

As a global consultant, Lindstrom interviewed thousands of men, women and children in their homes in 77 countries. He spent 300 nights a year in his pursuit to observe people and the cultures they inhabit. While the book reads like a work of social science, each and every case study is full of statistics; some of these quite mindboggling. Sample this: 60% of toothbrushes sold in the world are red; teenage girls in France spend 80% of their waking hours mulling over what they will wear; toothbrush rituals in China reflect that the Chinese have a very structured sex life, among others.

The narrative introduces the reader to some striking insights as to what makes Indian mothers-in-law a very powerful customer base; how to cater to sports-obsessed fathers in Geneva, Beijing and Barcelona; and why omni-channel is the way to go, especially for retailers targeting fashion-conscious teens.
The book also has enormous insight for marketers on path-breaking turnaround witnessed by some big companies. My favourite case is that of a popular breakfast cereal in India, which had been steadily losing market share among young female buyers in 2013. The cereal boxes had long been distinguished by their eye-catching colours strategically designed to arrest the attention of mothers.

In 2013, however, the cereal major couldn’t figure out why its sales were falling. Lindstrom discovered it was due to the combustible relationship shared by Indian mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law—more specifically, their entirely opposite colour preferences. The reason the cereal wasn’t selling was due to the wrong use of colour in the packaging. The mothers-in-law got attracted to vivid colourful packaging, which the daughters-in-law found unnatural. Here, the cereal manufacturer was dealing with two very different demographics who shared the emotional custody of the family.

The new packaging had to satisfy these two warring decision-makers. The packaging which was later introduced had two separate sets of colours: two-thirds of the package had bright spice-inspired colours at the bottom, while the top of the package was adorned with natural browns and greens, with a description of the cereal’s natural ingredients. And it worked for the brand.
Now, consider the case of Swiss French fashion label Tally Weijl. Tally, whose main clientele is teenage girls, had succeeded in hitting the fashion nerve for years, but was facing a problem of unsold merchandise. Girls no longer enjoyed visiting its stores. To figure out if it was due to a reluctance to pay the full prices for clothes (as cheaper ones were available online) or if the Internet had transformed the role of the brick-and-mortar retailer, Lindstrom not only visited girls’ bedrooms, but also went shopping with a large group of teenage girls. These girls rarely shopped alone. Instead, they shopped in groups. They perceived a clothing store less on what it had for sale and more on the other women shopping there.

Lindstrom found that girls don’t necessarily visit a store to buy. They visit stores to immerse themselves in fashion. Armed with these insights, he designed a plan to bring together the sociability of offline shopping with the benefits of online. Tally Weijl developed a ‘click-and-mortar’ dressing room, with Internet-equipped mirrors, which enabled instant feedback. Thus, Tally Weijl succeeded in creating a fashion temple. Since the launch of its new stores in 2015, not only have Tally Weijl’s revenues risen dramatically, but its Facebook fans have quadrupled as well.

Another interesting case is that of LEGO. Every big data study commissioned by the company drew the same conclusion: the future generation would lose interest in LEGO, as it’s looking for instant gratification and lacks the time and patience for LEGO bricks. However, a worn-out sneaker discovered in the home of an 11-year-old passionate skateboarder in Germany by LEGO marketers changed the game. The sneakers were actually the boy’s trophy for being among the best skateboarders in the city. Marketers learnt that children love social currency among peers by achieving a high level of mastery in their chosen skill. The executives realised that everything they knew about new digital behaviour was wrong. From that point on, LEGO refocused on the core product. The bricks became more detailed and their construction more labour-intensive. For users now, LEGO was all about mastery and craftsmanship. In 2014, for the first time ever, LEGO surpassed Mattel to become the world’s largest toy-maker.

Lindstrom’s book is full of such small details in our everyday lives, which marketers must capture to understand their consumers. This is one book on data that will surely not bore you.

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