Big Data: “A Fishing Expedition on Steroids”

Are companies focusing too much on big data? It’s one of the most debated questions in business today. Companies are searching for answers in a vast amount of information to find patterns and make predictions. The goal is that this endeavor will lead to more growth. Often, it can.

However, patterns can change. Predictions can alter. That’s why coupling big data analysis with a deeper human understanding is essential. In the absence of individual, one-on-one observations and engagements with consumers, data points can lead a company in the wrong direction.

 “Scientists have always worried about fishing expeditions when it comes to data analysis. [Big data] is a fishing expedition on steroids,” says Michael Solomon, Professor of Marketing at Saint Joseph’s University, and author of the book Consumer Behavior: Buying, Having, and Being. “When you’ve got this much this information, you can find patterns for just about anything.”

I spoke with Solomon on the Outside In podcast, where we explored the state of marketing, and the human psychology behind it. “Business encounters are first and foremost human encounters,” he says. From the moment we try on a pair of just-right jeans to the awkward interaction we have with the bank teller, our choices and behaviors are governed by emotion. Those emotions, those feelings, define how we experience a brand. As Solomon says, “Many of our consumption decisions are not so rational. They’re driven by emotions that can’t be necessarily explained by an economic model.”

“Our whole approach to market segmentation is that everybody belongs to one category or another,” he continues. “The problem is that consumers don’t really cooperate with that scheme because they don’t like to be put into boxes.”

Solomon points to Timberland boots as an example. The outdoorsy footwear brand is essentially designed for the wilderness-loving consumer. But you’re more likely to see Timberlands in the urban jungle, not the forest, because the product was appropriated by an urban consumer base. They’re often worn as a statement of personal identity, as of functionality.

The key for marketers is to embrace consumers as the creators, trendsetters, influencers, and cultural gatekeepers that they are. They’re mom bloggers, YouTube stars, foodies, and fashionistas. “They don’t even get Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, they get 5 minutes of fame. But the power in those channels is enormous,” says Solomon.

“Today we find that consumers also are producers, and it’s much more of a partnership enterprise than it used to be…Sometimes companies push back against this, sometimes they embrace it,” he says of consumers deciding the direction of a brand.

A lot of success depends on brands giving up control. Take the viral popularity of the Diet Coke/Mentos experiment videos, where people filmed themselves dropping the candies into two-liter bottles of soda, resulting in a carbonated geyser. As a smaller, lesser-known brand, Mentos couldn’t have been happier for the free publicity, Solomon explains. Coke, on the other hand, was less than thrilled – at least at first. “Since that time, Coca-Cola has learned that once that Pandora’s box has been opened, that’s the end of the story. But their initial reaction really illustrates two very divergent perspectives on this idea that you don’t own your brand.”

The good news is that customers are more than willing – and motivated – to work with a brand to make it more perfect for themselves. “Anytime people work on something with you, they’re so much more likely to buy it or to participate in it because they feel that they personally have a stake there.”

Of course, this starts with the premise that a brand will admit its imperfections – something most brands aren’t always willing to do. But it’s one of the pathways to customer engagement that Solomon says many companies are overlooking.

Brands are both richer and more complex when they are actively co-created with consumers. The days of creating brands without the deep involvement of those would they are designed to serve are over. Given the pace of change, the only way for brands to stay relevant is through deep consumer collaboration.