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Speed Review: Small Data

Speed Review: Small Data

Speed Review: Small Data

The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends

by Martin Lindstrom


Look for the Tiny Clues

The focus on big data — the aggregation and analysis of a seemingly bottomless pool of data on what we buy, what we watch, what websites we navigate and even whom we talk to on social media — is nearing “craze” proportions.

Into the fray steps marketing iconoclast Martin Lindstrom, who argues that businesses need to put the databases and algorithms aside for a bit and focus instead on a different kind of data — data about the kind of magnets people have on their refrigerators, for example, or why single young men really buy Roombas (vacuum cleaning robots), or why store clerks began wearing T-shirts with Apple logos even though the store was not an Apple store.

These are all examples of what Lindstrom calls “small data,” and are taken from some of Lindstrom’s actual client projects as described in his fascinating new book, Small Data. As a branding consultant, Lindstrom spends 300 days a year traveling to people’s homes and workplaces to better understand who they are, why they do what they do and how this information — this “small data” — can help his clients serve them better. Lindstrom doesn’t just talk to his customers. He goes into their kitchens and their bedrooms, he looks through their drawers and purses (with permission), he examines the art they have on their walls — all in the hunt for the breakthrough clues that will lead to better products and services or more successful stores.

Magnets from Siberia to Saudi Arabia

Take the refrigerator magnets, for example. In Small Data, Lindstrom describes a project that at first seems to come straight out of a movie. Out of the blue, the interpreter for a Russian businessman calls and says that the businessman wants to build a billion-dollar business in Russia. When Lindstrom asks in which industry, the client’s interpreter replies, “You choose.” To discover a new business for the client, Lindstrom travels to Siberia and starts visiting homes. He notices the apartment blocks that all look identical. He notices the lack of color in the streets and the homes. He notices that women wear heavy lipstick and that most men are chronic alcoholics. He also notices refrigerator doors crowded with magnets of places around the world that most Siberians would never see.

Lindstrom recalls another project, this one in Saudi Arabia, where travel refrigerator magnets were also popular. As in Russia, the magnets in Saudi Arabia reflected the desire for escape from a land of extreme climates and few opportunities to express colorful creativity. Building on his research, Lindstrom helped the Saudis design a new shopping mall filled with colors and a sense of escape.

The Russians, however, followed a ritual when placing magnets on refrigerators, always letting the mother place the first magnet in the center; the rest of the family put their magnets around hers, reflecting the centrality of mother and wife in Russian society. Lindstrom’s business idea: an Internet platform focused on Russian mothers. The website would become one of the fastest growing e-commerce sites in Russia.

Small Data is filled with such stories. In another example, Lindstrom describes how Lego turned itself around after several years of declining sales. The big data and traditional marketing research all came to the same conclusion: Today’s children didn’t have the patience and persistence of previous generations, seeking instead instant gratification. Thus, Lego started making the Lego bricks bigger and the model designs easier. Then Lego’s marketers started going to customers’ homes. In one home, they noticed the scuffed sneaker of a teenage Lego enthusiast who explained to the adults that the scuffs were proof of his persistence and skill as a skateboarder. The marketers suddenly realized that today’s generation wanted to have proof of their skills and persistence — and what better proof than completing a sophisticated Lego model. The bricks got smaller, the designs very complicated, and sales rebounded.

That Lindstrom includes a Lego story is no surprise and not simply because he is Danish. A few years ago, after discovering that he had built an (illegal) Legoland in his backyard when he was 14, the company hired Lindstrom to work for ideas for them. He is still breaking the marketing rules. Having already raised the bar with such previous intriguing and sometimes provocative books as Buyology and Brandwashed, Lindstrom doesn’t disappoint with his latest.

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