Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends
By Martin Lindstrom
Review by David Wineberg
When Martin Lindstrom comes for a visit, watch out. He will examine, note and ponder absolutely everything, from hand gestures to wall décor and even the toilet water. He never knows what will inspire some eureka moment that he can apply to a client’s brand and make it a winner. He does this 300 days a year, visiting multiple countries every month. He lives and breathes ethnography (“Culture Scans”). And he goes in with no preconceived notions of what he expects to learn. Major brands all over the world, on every continent, hire him to find out what they can do to make their brands better, and what off the wall recommendation he is going to make to achieve it.
Lindstrom weaves thousands of offbeat facts and surprising observations into the story of how he does his job - watching consumers in their own environments around the world. It forces him to decide why one culture does something but another does it differently. Why fridge magnets are placed low in Russia, high in Saudi Arabia, and to pin photos in the USA.
His outsider perspective is evident in this sampling of findings on Americans:
-Americans have so many taboo subjects, they pay standup comics millions to discuss what people in other countries consider ordinary conversation.
-Americans name ketchup and mayonnaise as fresh foods
-Americans are among the least free people in the world. Everything, all day, is regulated, from building shapes to security services. Everyone is tracked by their own phones, along with mail, e-mail, and “security” cameras everywhere, even those of the neighbors.
-The sameness of everything everywhere has a numbing effect. There is nothing surprising or natural.
-Everything is restricted “for your safety”. Even cotton swabs come with specific warnings.
-Americans don’t like to touch or be touched by others. And don’t stand too close, either.
-Women in particular constantly try to relive childhood in the things they collect and surround themselves with.
-Americans chat with strangers in elevators to assure each other they are not a threat.
-Americans barely walk, compared to anyone else. Fear keeps housewives and children home.
-Life in the USA is shaped by fear: fear of offending, of being inappropriate, of starting a fight, of being robbed, abducted, attacked, shot or killed. Lindstrom says he has not come across a population more fearful than Americans.
Then consider this discovery for a central European clothing chain. Lindstrom found that girls get up earlier now. Their phone bills say they’re back at it before 6:30. And that they take an average of 17 bathroom selfies every morning. They share proposed outfits with friends, so everyone can look cool for school. Lindstrom took this concept to the clothing store. He implemented full length mirrors that turn into internet cameras with one click. Girls now try on clothes and post directly to Facebook with a full length selfie. The response has been phenomenal – a new life for the bricks and mortar store.
This is a ringing endorsement of small data, as opposed to massive data warehouses, with their statisticians and armies of interpreters. Lindstrom can come to a clearer conclusion in a day than a department of big data analysts can in a month. The reason is humans are involved. Their inner selves, inner feelings, unconscious actions, cultural guidelines and ulterior motives all play into who they are, what they value and how they will react.
Right from the first page, Small Data jumps out as refreshing, unique insights, dramatic findings, and wonderful inspirations. It is a totally engrossing read.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.