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Data: It is…ALIVE!

It's not data that should drive marketing; it's the needs of your product.

Dr. Stephen Needel

So help me God, I thought we had killed it. The idea that Big Data, in and of itself, was something to embrace, that is. For two years now, the discussion shifted from why you MUST have Big Data (and invest millions to have it) and hire a fleet of data scientists to analyze it (because it’s too complicated for the average researcher). Instead, we started talking about small data, which might be a piece of big data, and how to use it. In many forums, including GreenBook and ESOMAR, I argued that it’s not data that should drive marketing; it’s the needs of your product.

And then today, I pick up the November issue of Quirk’s (sorry Steve, I’m a month behind), and there’s the lead article telling us we have to be data-driven or we’re doomed to failure. The key points of Lawrence Cowan’s missive ( are:

  • Data is one of the most important aspects of achieving a competitive advantage.
  • The ultimate goal is to create a business where data is leveraged to create real value (as opposed to fake value, I guess).
  • Data is a basic requirement for business, not a cost item.
  • You need a culture of “data-driven-ness” where you have to promote, train, and enforce the use of data (I’m picturing the corporate data police state when I read this).

I beg to differ. A lot. With all due respect to my friends who sell data for a living, you all mostly do a great job and provide a useful product. But data is data and data is not going to save a bad product or a bad company. Such a focus on data strategy and a culture of “data-driven-ness” across the company, as the author suggests, diverts attention from what is really important for businesses to thrive.

What’s really important is understanding where your product fits in the universe. Okay – maybe not in the universe, but in the store where people buy it, as part of a category of similar products. In these days of dwindling research budgets, data acquisition needs to be a focused activity. Otherwise, you are left with mounds of unused or unusable data that is not getting you the information you need.

We get to this focus by having a “theory” about your brand. I put “theory” in quotes because it does not have to have all the formal aspects of a scientific theory; its one formal requirement is that it has to be true. This theory will tell you:

  • Why shoppers buy your brand.
  • Why shoppers don’t buy your brand.
  • How sensitive is your brand to various marketing activities.

It is that simple. Once you know the answers to these questions, your marketing is dramatically simplified and your energies can be focused elsewhere. You might let this product go on autopilot. Or you might focus on improvements targeted to non-buyers. Or you might try and come up with some creative marketing that hasn’t been tried before. But most important – you don’t have to focus on data every day. Your knowledge gaps will tell you what types of data you need – and in a multi-brand company, that’s likely to be different for each brand. Your research needs will be focused on testing ideas generated by what you know – and what you don’t know.

We are not advocating that companies should ignore data. But they should not be data-driven either. The data comes from research needs which come from information needs which come from the brand theory – not the other way around. Let’s kill this idea before it once again stalks the countryside.

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