Data doesn’t dictate trends, humans do

Mark Ritson is wrong about the lasting impact of Covid. Forget big data and spreadsheets, human insight shows the pandemic will continue to change consumer behaviour for years to come.

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It took seven flights of stairs to arrive at the cramped studio apartment on the outskirts of Rome. Lara, the woman who met me at the door, was 28-years-old and a lifelong asthmatic. The fact there were no elevators in the building didn’t make her life any easier, and wearing a mask, she told me, felt like being trapped in a mine.

I was interviewing her on behalf of Chiesi, one of the largest respiratory disease pharmaceutical players in the world. Family-owned, Chiesi wanted to understand the effects of the pandemic, not from a scientific or medical perspective but in terms of how it affected people’s day-to-day lives. Like most of my clients, Chiesi understood that conventional research fell short in uncovering Covid’s subtler, long-term consequences. To understand those, you needed the last thing anyone living through a pandemic wanted: human interaction.

One thing that distinguishes me from most brand and transformation strategists is I’m a reality junkie. I’m less enamoured with Excel spreadsheet data than I am by what the numbers don’t reveal. The truth in the in-between, in what consumers don’t even know they know. This means that if you really want to understand brands, you must talk to, visit and in some cases, live alongside consumers.

Big data supplies us with numbers and percentages. It won’t tell us that we are emerging from a near-death experience.

To be honest, my approach brings with it a few risks. When I was researching supermarkets in Venezuela, I only barely escaped a kidnapping attempt at the airport. Working to restore Nestlé’s market share in the Philippines, I survived a six-foot tidal wave of mud swarming the tin shed in Manila where I was doing an interview.

But all that hard work and travel has paid off. I’m proud of the role I’ve played in helping revitalise brands all around the world while clocking more than 3,000 consumer home visits in roughly 100 countries. I tell people that if you want to understand the behaviour of giraffes, zebras and meercats, you don’t go to the zoo, you go to the jungle.

The impact of Covid

When Covid appeared in early 2020, my schedule slowed but didn’t stop, which is why I was in Rome. When I asked Lara how asthma had affected her life, she grew emotional. In high school, she’d been teased, mocked, excluded from parties, and side-lined from sports. I remarked on how self-confident and pulled together she seemed. What was her secret? Lara reached inside her purse and took out a drinking straw. “This,” she said, explaining that whenever she met a new colleague or potential friend, she asked if they would do her a favour. Put the straw in their mouth, hold their nose and breathe through the straw for 60 seconds. “That way, you can experience things the way I do,” she said.

The next day, I called in the board of Chiesi, asked the directors to place a straw in their mouths and spend the next minute inhaling and exhaling (or trying to). Halfway through, one senior executive spit out his straw. Who can possibly live like this? he demanded. Every one of your customers was the answer.

More than a fleeting ‘aha’ moment, for Chiesi management it was as if a torrent of emotion had washed through every department, from HR to R&D to marketing. For the first time, management began to grasp the emotional ramifications of Covid, which in turn generated new strategies of innovating and marketing their products to customers.

Data by itself is static, empty, monotonous, meaningless. If you’re seeking meaning, my advice is to ask a human being, or hundreds of them. This became obvious in the spring and summer 2020, when I began picking up on a disturbing trend.

My advice to Ritson is to pick up a plastic drinking straw and inhale a few lung-fuls of evidence from a world that’s made up of real human beings, not notches on a graph.

Any marketer over a certain age is familiar with Procter & Gamble’s ‘seven entry points’ philosophy. Your first apartment, your wedding and the birth of a baby are some of the critical inflection points when we are most susceptible to changing our preferences, up to and including our purchases and brand choice.

At the time, I was working in mainland China and Hong Kong for a major bank. As I conducted hundreds of interviews, it became clear to me Covid wasn’t a short-term crisis at all. The emotional impact of the pandemic was so severe that even if it vanished overnight, it would leave behind scars that would be felt by future generations, in the same way the Great Depression and the World War II prompted our grandparents to sock away money, clean their plates and reuse wrinkled wrapping paper. It was clear to me that Covid was (and is) an eighth entry point, a worldwide synchronised behavioural change that would open the door for new trends, needs, purchase patterns… and brand opportunities.

Lasting impact

Two years later, my initial diagnosis has sadly proven right. Despite the relative surface calm of today, as countries do away with mask mandates and try to create some simulacrum of ordinary-life-after-Covid, the psychological ramifications on consumers today and tomorrow will continue to be as profound as I suspected.

Consider touch. Its absence, that is. Touch was the foremost casualty of social distancing (touch, it’s worth noting, is also correlated with human life expectancy). If touch and being touched go away, what happens? Well, cases of depression are up 25% worldwide and people buying dogs went up from 48% to 54% (a hungry dog might gnaw your corpse, but it won’t give you Covid).

Nearly three years of isolation mixed with a worldwide Lady Macbeth-like preoccupation with sanitisers have led to the weakening of our collective immune system. Along with avoiding other people – and seeing the people we love in a new light, as potential carriers and killers – the widespread reluctance to visit hospitals has resulted in belated diagnoses of any number of other life-threatening diseases, never mind the fact that no beds are available except for those reserved for critically ill Covid patients.

Working from home is another one. Pre-Covid, the desk as a standalone item of furniture was almost obsolete, replaced by laptops, tablets, phones, couches and beds. One guy I know has eight desks in his storage locker. No one wants them. Today, thanks to Zoom, the desk – or a coffee table or washing machine stacked with thick books to bring your laptop or tablet to eye level – has made a comeback. So has egg-shaped glamorama lighting. This has led in many cases to the top-to-bottom refiguration of living spaces, fundamentally disrupting the traditional design blueprint created in the 1960s. Working from home has also led to an increase in divorce, the further confusion between personal and work lives, and the relocation from dense, germy cities to sparsely decorated, wind-whipped country or seaside homes.

If you’re still not persuaded we’re living through an eighth entry point, there’s also ‘The Great Resignation’, where in the past six months, more than four millions Americans have quit their jobs, and UK resignations were at their highest level on record.

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Let me ask you this: is it rational (clear-sighted, practical, adult, responsible) to turn your back on a steady, predictable job or career as global stock markets continue to see-saw, with no one knowing what the future will look like? Isn’t tossing away job security something a drunk college student with an undeveloped pre-frontal cortex would do? The question remains, why?

Big data supplies us with numbers and percentages. It won’t tell us that we are emerging from a near-death experience, if not our own death, then the death of friends, relatives and strangers, bundled daily as cases and counts. Yes, we knew abstractly we weren’t going to live forever, but now we really know it. We’ve watched time turn chunky and formless, like a big dumb cloud, or a page in a tablet whose lines have dissolved. The internet, on which many people grew over-dependent during Covid, is itself a mortality delivery device, reminding us daily of the birth and unrecalled death of millions of headlines, stories, controversies and ideas, along with our memories of them.

Planning things, anticipating things? Both gone. The sexiest shampoos and moisturisers distilled from the cruel giggles of pufferfish, the face masks made from pulverised fire ants. What’s the use of any of that stuff when facemasks make everyone who’s shopping in the supermarket look like a bandaged anteater?

My point is that Covid and its aftermath will continue driving a profound change in consumer habits and consumption. Brands, their roles, and what they now need to bring to the table, must respond to that change. As everyone knows, successful branding isn’t about words, or meaning, or cute animals, it’s how a pillow, a ketchup, or a soft drink makes us feel. And with apologies to big data, feelings are not facts.

Big data, after all, predicted that Hillary Clinton would be elected president in 2016, whereas the small data my team and I picked up on again and again in the months before the election indicated the exact opposite. After our small data research detected profound and detailed insights about B2B customers in the wake of Covid, Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company (and a highly data-driven enterprise) shifted direction and ultimately witnessed more than a 300% increase in its share price.

Still, here’s a data point that’s undeniable: I’m a college dropout. Instead of following my schoolmates to university, I was hired after high school by Lego, whose R&D department I had been advising since I was 12. Years later, Lego admitted it didn’t hire me because I was clever or blonde or smiley – that hurt. No, they wanted to connect with their core customers and as a 12-year-old Danish kid I fit the bill perfectly.

Which is why when Mark Ritson accuses me of catastrophising Covid and its aftermath, I found myself transported back to high school, and a world of scornful teachers surrounded by reams of graphs and data. I was reminded why, at 19, I decided that living in the real world would be more appealing and instructive than trendspotting from behind a lectern. My advice to Ritson is to pick up a plastic drinking straw and inhale a few lung-fuls of evidence from a world that’s made up of real human beings, not notches on a graph.

After all, when creating brand loyalty, isn’t our biggest challenge to break down, wring out and bring words to love itself? You can search for “love” in a thesaurus, map it out on a spreadsheet, study its definitions in a textbook – or you can venture out into the world and find your own answer. If nothing else, along the way you’ll be given a series of glimpses into what the men and women who pay our salaries actually think and feel.

Martin Lindstrom is an expert in brand, culture and transformation. He writes for the Wall Street Journal and The Economist and was named by TIME Magazine as one of the ‘World’s 100 Most Influential People’. His books, including Buyology, Small Data, Brand Sense, The Ministry of Common Sense, have been translated into 60 languages.