Every step we take. Every move we make. It all becomes data. In the surveillance era, marketers know where consumers go, how they spend their time, what they buy. But the fundamental information that artificial intelligence doesn’t provide is WHY people do all of that. There’s just one way of humbly trying to understand this. It is the same curiosity that took the anthropology pioneer Bronislaw Malinowski to spend several years among natives of the Western Pacific in the early decades of the 19th century to comprehend their gift exchanging habits.
It is the same curiosity that drives the richest man in the world, founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, to say that “customer anecdotes are more insightful than data.” He adds: “When the anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right.”
From a brand building point of view, it is not just a matter of agreeing, but one inspiring the other reciprocally, as time and deadline go by. The best brand ideas come from the symbioses of these two dimensions: anecdotes and data, artificial intelligence potential and human observation sensibilities. On quantitative questionnaires, questions are normally conceived to give unique answers. On participant observation, questions are more an excuse to interact, to observe gestures, reactions, feelings, to have as many answers as you can catch.
To create brand ideas that are deeply culturally connected, neither of those two dimensions alone is enough. Figuring out why Italians were switching in huge numbers from their usual coffee capsules to new cheaper ones wouldn’t be insightful if you looked only at market share trends, e-commerce results, brand perception percentages, media investment digits or other tons of metrics. Meeting different people at their coffee habitats, generating empathy, looking at their eyes, listening to them, exchanging feelings with them were all fundamental to learning that Italians surprisingly do not have a coffee culture as sophisticated as they have for wine for instance.
Algorithms can give answers to questions at scale, but they are not able to pose questions. A brand idea is a kind of enigma which needs human talent to decipher and apply considering the context, competition, brand and target. On this scientific-artistic task, big and small data play equivalent roles.
“There are few things that I’m proud of about me. One of them is that I very rarely meet other sociologists in my free time”, great sociologist Domenico De Masi once told me. It should be the same for brand builders. The same anthropological curiosity that makes you move from one town to another, to learn a new language, to take a different route back home every day. The same curiosity that turns intuition and instinct into small data and makes sense of big data, fueling big ideas.
Ricardo Coen is a senior strategist at VMLY&R Italy.