Uncovering core human truths: Getting at what actually matters

Kent Stones | October 31, 2014

Data Creates the Lines, But it Can’t Read Between the Lines

Almost all of our work in marketing now revolves around capturing, managing and analyzing data from many sources. There is no question that the ability to leverage vast amounts of data allows our resources to be spent much more efficiently, as well as being critical to quantifying success to the C-Suite. But at the risk of sounding heretical, marketing is much more than the data we analyze. When you need to get to that irresistible idea, that story that ignites a market or gets people talking and sharing, data analysis, even with the advanced analytical tools we have at our disposal, is only part of the equation. You must also discover a deep, emotional and unifying human truth that only comes from studying the intersection of culture, psychology and physical environment. This truth is about what actually really matters to people, and it’s often something they don’t know to tell you or how to articulate. You have to figure it out.

To uncover this truth, using an anthropological approach works best because of the inductive way of thinking used to reach conclusions. This approach is like any sound research design, often capturing a lot of quantitative data to be analyzed. But what else do anthropologists apply? They observe. They listen. They immerse themselves. They apply theory. They consider everything as data. Put another way, they experience the data they gather rather than just recording and analyzing it. But this still isn’t enough. The real breakthrough doesn’t come from a specific experience or observation (usually). It comes from the hard work of analysis. It comes from asking the very hard questions required of inductive thinking that orient around why and how and applying it in larger cultural systems. A great example of this is a branding assignment we recently completed for a leading company in the construction industry.

Construction Industry

The Nature of the Construction Industry

On the surface, the construction industry appears to be a sales-driven, male-dominated culture focused mostly on specifications, features and relationships. A traditional approach to understanding the industry would no doubt have resulted in an impressive fact base using tried and true research methods to understand needs and preferences. But we wanted to go deeper, so we not only did the work mentioned above but also studied industry leadership and values and spent time with employees and customers to learn their professional culture. We spent time on job sites, read their professional journals, monitored discussion forums and talked to architects, contractors and building owners. This immersion revealed there was something deeper, more powerful, than what they told us was important. It was about the anthropological concept of kinship, the relationships that exist between members of this industry.

There was an incredibly strong sense of belonging, camaraderie and support among these professionals. Success depended on knowing and trusting that the right people “had their back,” because it was critical to reduce any risk of a problem on the job (and by the way, there are always problems on the job). As one industry member stated, “In this business, a mistake doesn’t just mean removing something from an assembly line. It means starting over. It means putting your reputation and company’s survival on the line.” This came up, in different ways, across every interaction we had, so we keyed in on this relationship and risk aspect of their industry culture and developed an idea that focused on this realm. But note there was no database to mine about kinship. No survey that rated the degree of kinship in the business on a scale of 1 to 10. No syndicated study on construction industry relationships. We got to this idea by examining all of our exposure and interactions, elevating our thinking to look for that larger, unifying meaning rather than drawing specific conclusions based on data we thought to collect.

The next time you are under pressure to deliver an insight that isn’t typical, force yourself to step back and examine the broader context of all the data you have. Look at the data, but then ask yourself what it means in the culture in which it exists, and why that is. What people exist in this culture, and what are their roles? What systems are influencing it? In what environment is it occurring? Then think about it for a little bit, let it percolate. Toy with different patterns. Float ideas with peers and look for reactions. It may take a little more time, but it’s well worth it. Your ideas will stand a much better chance of resonating, and they’ll actually mean something to your audience. But this is where we come full circle and must recognize the value of the data we have. No idea is perfect, so once you launch your idea into the market, you must then continuously monitor and adjust using the incredible data you now have at your fingertips.


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