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Small Data

By Martin Lindstrom

(St. Martin's Press, 245 pages, $29.99)

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From the mid-1990s, Lego could read the writing on the wall. All the research and social science data showed youngsters in a digital age would be moving away from its core product of building blocks. The company diversified, focusing on theme parks, children's clothing lines, video games and retail stores in an effort to protect itself. Further fortification came from manufacturing bigger building bricks, more suitable for the impatient and fidgety youngsters of the day.

Yet the company reversed itself after an ethnographic visit to the home of an 11-year-old boy – a Lego aficionado and passionate skateboarder – in a mid-sized German city in 2004.

As executives talked with him and observed his behaviour, they realized children attain social currency among their peers by attaining mastery at their chosen skill – whatever that skill might be, from skateboarding to, yes, building stuff with Lego. The company returned to manufacturing the small-sized blocks that required more skill – and even began adding smaller, more detailed bricks, with exacting instruction manuals.

It was a triumph of small data – observation and insight, anecdote and hunch. It's what Martin Lindstrom does, living in hotel rooms around the world for 300 nights a year, and watching people carry out their daily tasks to discern how the companies that hire him can be more successful. He settles himself into their homes, with their permission going through refrigerators, opening desk drawers and kitchen cabinets, studying books, magazines, music and movie collections, and inspecting purses and social-media feeds. "In the search for small data, almost nothing is off-limits," he writes in his book Small Data.

For Lowes Foods, a family-owned supermarket chain in North Carolina, he blindfolded management and took them down the aisles of the store so they could be sensitive to the smells, some not all that pleasant. A native of Denmark, he noticed that although Americans say they value freedom and individuality, they are obsessed with security, a mindset reinforced by signs everywhere warning against this and that. So he created a "permission zone" in the supermarket, where patrons could be kids again – every time the tasty and popular rotisserie chickens come out of the oven, the staff, and customers, do a silly Chicken Dance. Borrowing from Japanese customs, when staff sold one of those chickens, the wrapped item would be handed like a treasure with two hands to the customer, signalling how special it was. More local produce was sold and the company was encouraged to consider making yogurt and baby food on site to emphasize freshness and meet the needs uncovered by small data.

In India, working for a breakfast-cereal purveyor, he had to discern who was the family authority in choosing the cereal, the mother-in-law or the daughter-in-law living – and often sparring – in the same house. As he teased that out, he studied their favourite colours: for the mother-in-law, flamboyant reds, purples, oranges and yellows that matched the spices in the prized spice box beside the stove, but for the younger generation, pale colours. When he asked about how they perceived freshness, the older women came back to those spices but their daughters-in-law, influenced by Western imagery and culture, signalled green.

He then watched them in grocery stores, the older women hunched over, mostly seeing the bottom part of cereal packages, and the taller youngsters the top. Result: New cereal packaging, with the bottom two-thirds for the mother-in-law in vivid colours and the top third adorned with browns and greens, symbolizing natural things for the younger set.

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"My job title may be 'branding consultant' but most organizations hire me on as an itinerant sleuth whose mission is to smoke out that foggiest, most abstract of words: desire. Desire is always linked to a story, and to a gap that needs to be filled: a yearning that intrudes, agitates and motivates human behaviour both consciously and unconsciously," he writes.

In his work, he imports ideas from different cultures and previous work, asking questions and pursuing hunches, until he comes to some conclusion. It's an art, not a science – strikingly different from the modern big data approach – and as I read, I wondered how any company could apply it without hiring him. But in his last chapter, he offers a methodology for what he calls "subtext research."

It starts with collecting information – a good place is getting a haircut, or chatting up a bartender or sports club leader to understand the culture. Search for clues – distinctive emotional aspects of life you can learn from. Consider the emotional gaps pointed to and the unfulfilled or unmet desires you can tap into. Then mull it over. For him that happens while swimming laps in hotel pools, until a creative hypothesis emerges.

That's still, to use his word, foggy. But the book is a charming read – he is a wonderful raconteur, and the stories resemble a fascinating, intricate detective tale. It will make you think about your customers, and want to understand their lives in ways beyond statistical data.

POSTSCRIPT

Here are some observations from globe-trotting marketing explorer Martin Lindstrom in his book Small Data:

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The paintings in Saudi Arabian homes tend to have as their subject matter water – streams, lakes, waterfalls and oceans.

Generally speaking, when toothbrushes stand in a holder, or a cup, or a jar, their users tend to be less sexually active. When they are romantic, their sex lives tend to be highly structured and less hospitable to spontaneity or innovation – "appointment sex" as he calls it.

We listen to the television more than we watch it.

Quality in restaurants in China is perceived as fast, no-frills, speedy service.

European teenage girls take on average 17 selfies around 6 a.m., showing their friends the outfit they are contemplating wearing and getting feedback.

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