Small data may be bigger than big data

By Martin Lindstrom
John Murray Learning/ Paperback/245pages/
$26.66 with GST from Books Kinokuniya or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 658.834 LIN-[BIZ]


Big data, or sifting through crunched statistics for patterns in human behaviour, is this century's megatrend.

But global brand consultant Martin Lindstrom, a Dane, argues that it is foolhardy to base one's business strategies on Big Data alone because, at best, it is an "idealised" snapshot of what people want.

Worse, big data is "compromised" whenever people go against type, as is often the case.

For accuracy, it is best to complement big data with small data, or what one gleans from very human tics, nuances and aberrations. These enable you to "find the needle in the haystack", that is, a particular desire of one's target audience.

For example, when the customers of a bank suddenly began moving their money around a lot, the bank's big data analysis suggested that they were taking their business elsewhere.

Luckily, the bank talked to each of these customers directly and learnt that they were not planning on leaving the bank, but they were all divorcing their spouses and were spreading their assets around to limit the alimony they might have to pay their exes.

Lindstrom, who has been called the Sherlock Holmes of marketing, has snooped about people's homes in 77 countries, 300 nights a year, in the past 15 years. He honed his observation skills in a hospital, where he was confined at the age of 12 for a life-threatening illness. He watched how fellow patients, and those outside his ward window, behaved when they thought no one was looking.

He also played with his Lego set a lot and, upon his discharge, built a mini replica of a Legoland theme park in his backyard.

Lego threatened to sue him for trademark infringement at first, but later, signed him on as a master builder of his toy blocks.

Today, he counts Lego as a longtime client, alongside Nestle, Pepsi and Porsche.


1. People are still marketing according to consumer segments when, in an increasingly individualistic world, they should be appealing instead to particular types of individuals.

2. Everyone's tastes are informed by four factors: The environment in which he lives; the way he is governed; his faith or beliefs; and his community's unspoken rules, for example, whether he should be welcoming of, or unfriendly towards, strangers.

For example, Americans are, he argues, averse to physical contact because fear dogs them.

3. To create anything of worth, you must first be bored. This forces you to focus on fixing the present. Similarly, you get sharper insights on a community if you are an outsider to it.

4. Everyone has "assorted selves", or different masks, to get on with others. So, to get a deeper sense of someone, scan the walls of his home, look into his refrigerator and pore through his photographs.

5. Also, ask them: What is it about yourself are you proudest of? Who and what in your life are most important to you? What moves you most? What worries you most?

6. Those who are successful, including digital lifestyle giant Apple and the late suspense film-maker Alfred Hitchcock, work with two "scripts" - one outlines the whats and how-to's of nailing a project; the other charts its emotional arc, from crisis to success.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'Small data may be bigger than big data'. Print Edition | Subscribe