Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The power of small data in market research

Published in Mar-Apr 2016
Master the technique of cracking the small data in order to bring about market level results.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

Big data is the latest panacea to have marketers swooning in ecstasy. Those who are using big data are the envy of those who don’t. It is like a person who having bought a Ferrari, is now looked upon by others with admiration and a tinge of jealousy. Those of us daydreaming about buying a sports car may be forgetting that it may not be a practical choice. They should instead value their beat up Mehran and think of better ways to use it. The same issue exists with big data (or any other globe encompassing trend that may arise) – you fail to make effective use of what information and knowledge you have in a quest to join the club of people using new tactics and tools.

In his latest book, Small Data, Martin Lindstrom makes a simple premise: when looking for big trends and the next big thing, you first need to examine the small data. To quote from the book’s Amazon page “Hired by the world’s leading brands to find out what makes their customers tick, Martin Lindstrom spends 300 nights a year in strangers’ homes, carefully observing every detail in order to uncover their hidden desires and, ultimately, the clues to a multi-million dollar product.”

What makes customers tick is a question that has puzzled brands and marketers for eons. We often know what people do, but not why they do what they do. A why, which according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, they might not even be aware of. Lindstrom is a proponent of the neuro-marketing movement, it may seem like a novelty but it is actually old in origin. Smart marketers have always used intuition and experimentation to succeed. Lindstrom describes himself as an observer of people. In my view, observation is exactly where great marketing ideas arise.


It makes sense for marketers in Pakistan and elsewhere to master the technique of cracking the small data code in order to bring about market level results.


Lindstrom, Gladwell and others have urged brands to look into the brains of their consumers and figure out how they work. Events at the micro level, inside the human mind can result in success or failure at the macro level. In his book, Lindstrom is telling marketers to behave like Sherlock Holmes and solve the mystery by looking at the tiny clues that betray behaviour patterns.

So isn’t that also just data? Lindstrom answered this question on his Facebook page.

“Everything is in theory data – not just the traces we leave behind online, or when creating data on our computers or interact with companies – data – in my mind is also the more ‘insignificant’ stuff, like how you place your shoes in the entrance to your home, the way you place your toothbrush in the cup or how solid your pressure is on a touch screen. I call all those at first ‘insignificant’ data for small data – as they tell much more about you than you would ever be aware of.”

In a recent talk to the American Booksellers Association, Lindstrom explained how observing the behaviour of teenage girls and their morning routine led to a retail revolution (described in the book). By visiting their homes, he discovered that the girls were waking up earlier than before, putting on their makeup and taking selfies.

The selfies were not for vanity purposes but for peer consultation. The girls unbeknownst to their parents and (brands) were using the technology of their smartphones to colour coordinate their outfits.

Using this insight, Lindstrom persuaded a retail chain to change the size of their dressing rooms to accommodate a larger number of occupants and linked these rooms to social media so that the girls/women there could get a buy-in on their outfits from their friends.


Basic economics and marketing always talk about macro and micro factors; how what happens on a small scale in a company or in the life of an individual is linked to what happens to all companies or societies.


In his talk, Lindstrom also illustrated how big data can mislead. He gave the example of how in 2012 Google discovered that by analysing search queries, they could predict a flu outbreak four to five days before it occurred. The pharmaceutical companies hailed this as an amazing breakthrough. However, when the data was analysed in 2014, it was discovered that the figures predicted by the algorithm were double what they should have been. The reason? Because when your neighbour learnt that you were searching for flu remedies, he would then do the same thing.

Another example Lindstrom gave was when in 2002, Lego decided to make its bricks bigger and cash in on the trend of instant gratification. As described in a Financial Times book review that mentions this case – the brand was misled into believing that children no longer have time to play and that the advent of electronic games meant they craved instant gratification. Only when a team of anthropologists spent days at home with children in the US and Germany did they discover that they did have plenty of free time and enjoyed solving complicated problems and crucially, they behaved differently when unsupervised. All insights missed by big data research.

Espresso is a perfect local example about a brand achieving amazing results by making a small change. When I met Ahsan Shami, the head of Barely Average Design (Espresso’s digital agency) we spoke about how this idea came about. He said that the brand was looking for a way to entice people to check-in on Facebook. He suggested they offer a free cookie to those who did and the Espresso team went along with the idea. This has now become a case study, the idea winning awards and praise. Shami, using his intuition arrived at a solution that perhaps would not have been uncovered had Espresso spent a ton of money analysing trends. Now all we need to do is find out why the idea worked and find the small data that is the key to the mechanism. Perhaps the findings may enable other brands to replicate this success.

Basic economics and marketing always talk about macro and micro factors; how what happens on a small scale in a company or in the life of an individual is linked to what happens to all companies or societies.

It makes sense for marketers in Pakistan and elsewhere to master the technique of cracking the small data code in order to bring about market level results. Here is a new mantra to chant,

“Think small, achieve big and that Ferrari is yours.”

Tyrone Tellis is a marketing professional working in Pakistan. tyrone.tellis@gmail.com