Big data has given marketers an unprecedented view into the attitudes and behaviors of larger audiences than ever before. But as we become increasingly reliant on big-data analytics, we’re also basing our insights on the same data pool—and arriving at very similar ideas. It’s a race to the middle that can dilute brand perceptions and value.
For brands to stand out, big data isn’t enough. That’s where small data comes in.
In our latest white paper, we show how using small data—the tiny clues that can uncover consumers’ drivers and desires—can uncover consumer insights that can't be found through big data alone.
Read the white paper, and find out how small data can lead to breakthrough ideas that transform brands and brand experience.
Big data and the need for better consumer insights
01. What’s next after big data? Small data
02. Small data has a big impact on brands
03. What can small data teach us about consumers?
04. Is data killing creativity? No, and here’s why
VP, Strategy Director,
SVP, Director of
Strategy, New York
Best-selling Author &
VP, Brand Marketing,
Talk to us to find out
how small data can
transform your brand:
By Peter Sun
VP, Brand Marketing
Big data has been a welcome disruptor to our industry. It has
changed the way we frame and measure consumer behavior.
And it has shifted the way we forecast trends and appeal to the
people we want to reach. It’s been hailed as the ultimate window
into consumers’ minds. But the challenge with big data is that
its adoption has become so widespread that brands and their
agencies have become extremely reliant on analytics, basing their
insights on the same data pool and therefore arriving at very similar
insights. It’s a race to the middle that can dilute brand perceptions
While big data can tell us what’s working, it isn’t always able to
tell us why. Big data alone can fall short of explaining the causes
of consumer behavior that indicate unmet needs—those key insights
that have the power to help us connect with consumers’ deep-
Brands that wish to set themselves apart can’t do so
with big data alone. That’s where small data comes in.
What’s next after big
data? Small data
A concept championed in the book
Small Data by Martin Lindstrom refers
to the tiny clues that can uncover
consumers’ drivers and desires. In an
era where big data has overshadowed
the value of human perception and
observation, the principles of small
data have the power to set brands
apart. And when paired with the
metrics that big data gives us, this
partnership of correlation and
causation can ultimately transform
At Jack Morton, connecting brands
with people through extraordinary
experiences is at our core. We believe
powerful human insights are essential
to fuel the creation of extraordinary
experiences. It is for this reason that
we’ve embarked on a journey to be
part of the small-data revolution and
embraced this concept to inform our
planning and creative process.
As you read on, you’ll discover
what possibilities arise when we use
both the telescope of big data and
the microscope of small data. We’ll
show how small data allows us to
arrive at more personal insights.
We’ll reveal how this measured yet
revolutionary approach can help us
create breakthrough ideas that connect
people with brands in new ways.
And we’ll explore how small data
brings humanity to big data—how
it illuminates information that could
otherwise be overlooked and helps big
data truly be the window to consumers’
minds we’d all hoped it could be.
By Martin Lindstrom
Best-selling Author and Brand Futurist
Some years ago, I noticed something interesting. When I asked innovators, company founders, and
entrepreneurs about the breakthrough ideas that led to their killer brands, I expected them to tell me
that their great ideas had emerged from a well-planned brainstorming session or as the result of years
of hard work in the lab. Instead, their breakthrough ideas came from seemingly insignificant behavioral
observations they’d made while interacting with friends, family members, colleagues, or strangers.
These key observations often occurred when least expected, revealing an unmet and previously
unrecognized consumer need. These became the foundation for entirely new, breakthrough brands.
It was a surprising, thought-provoking insight. After all, who would have thought that Snapchat, the
social media app that allows the user to create photos with an ultra-short lifespan, was invented
when the founder’s friend tried desperately to find a message containing a photo of himself smoking
pot? Or who would have imagined that a priest dropping a Bible on the ground and spilling all his
bookmarks would lead to the invention of Post-it notes? Or that a failed insurance claim on a broken
surfboard would lead to the invention of GoPro?
In our data-obsessed world, we’ve been convinced that billions of data points
drive innovation. However, if you peel back the layers of history, you’ll discover
that the key to innovation is often a serendipitous observation.
Small data has a big
impact on brands
The missing piece
The missing piece in the puzzle, I’ve discovered, are the
tiny things found in small data—and though they may be
tiny, the potential impact of small data is huge. I’m talking
about firsthand observations made in consumers’ homes,
in restaurants, in night clubs, in sports clubs, when driving,
or on the phone. These seemingly insignificant, seemingly
irrelevant observations, once connected, have the potential
to identify the vital causation that big data has, so far, been
Srikanth Velamakanni, co-founder of Fractal Analytics, one
of the world’s leading data-mining companies once said, “I
cannot count the number of businesses that have asked us
for a big data solution without really knowing what they are
looking for—they’re seeking the correlation without knowing
the causation—the small data.”
I tend to say that true creativity happens when combining
two ordinary things in a new way. In many ways, this is the
essence of both small data and big data. There’s probably
nothing as powerful as combining creativity with structured
thinking. The most exciting thing is that we’ve just begun this
So next time you hear the term “big data,” think “small
Only a couple of years ago,
you wouldn’t be able to attend a
conference without hearing “big
data” mentioned over and over
again, nor could you have attended
a board meeting at which big
data didn’t dominate the agenda.
Everyone was intrigued by the
notion that a black box of data could
magically produce deep insight into
humans’ deepest needs, thereby
revealing billion-dollar innovation
opportunities. Like a kid in a candy
store, every CEO proclaimed, “I want
one of those!”
The term “big data” was supposedly
coined by John Mashey in the mid-
1990s over a lunch-table conversation
at Silicon Graphics. Since then,
experts have proclaimed big data to
be some sort of crystal ball, a window
into the consumer’s mind; but in recent
years, many perceptive industry
experts have begun to conclude that
the picture is incomplete. Big data has
its value, but something is missing.
What’s needed is a counterbalance to
By Abbie Walker,
SVP, Director of Strategy
Understanding small data starts with a simple
“When was the last time you were in one of
your consumer’s homes?”
Can you remember? What were you doing there?
Were you engaged in conversation with them about
their lives, needs or goals? The answer from most
agencies and clients is more often than not, “Never.”
Frankly, that’s a travesty.
Most of our business at Jack Morton depends on
understanding the needs and goals of our consumers
and effectively communicating the value of our
brands and products. Why doesn’t our research start
in consumers’ homes?
What can small data teach
us about consumers?
Through adopting concepts from Small Data, we have come
to understand the wealth of information that can be gleaned
from visiting consumers’ homes, from the smallest items they
own, to the house itself. A consumer’s house is an unbiased
autobiography of the people who live within it; you just
need to learn how to read it.
But how does one “read” a home?
The first step is having genuine curiosity about the person
and the space. What do they value over all else? What
do they collect fanatically? What made them
choose to arrange something
a certain way? Why did
they choose one item
The human side of causation
As planners, our research tools only tell us part of the story. We all know that self-
reported research is inherently biased and ethnographies only show us behavior.
Yet we continue to rely on research methods whose results may be flawed. In trying
to get closer to our consumers, we seem to be moving ourselves further and further
away from the human beings who actually do the buying. We’re using big data
as a fix-all, even though it only points us to the correlation of behavior, not the
causation. We’re looking for the wrong things in the wrong places at the wrong
In order to communicate effectively, we need to find the real need behind human
behavior. So what do we need to do to get to that real insight? We need to truly
understand our consumer, to experience their life, their priorities, their environment,
and to synthesize their personal ‘imbalances,’ as Martin Lindstrom calls them.
Imbalances are our conscious or subconscious need to resolve an issue in
our psyche. It may be a need to appear more important, successful, loved,
sophisticated, creative, or the need to resolve a fear or concern. We all have these
imbalances to some extent. Purchasing is the easiest and most efficient way to
rebalance ourselves, but it goes deeper than simply buying; it’s how you treat these
items too. Is your toothbrush head facing down? You’ve probably got problems with
your sex life. Where do you put your fridge magnets—at eye level, or lower down?
It could be the difference between your own dreams and your aspirations for your
child. Do you collect champagne corks? Perhaps it’s a desire to be perceived as a
higher social status.
These are all tiny clues—small data that surrounds each of us—that hint at what we
want and aspire to.
Exceptional brands create
For us as brand experience experts, small data gathering and
analysis is an imperative. How can you create genuine, useful, or
extraordinary experiences for people if you don’t know what’s fake,
useless, or ordinary for them? We must uncover the one thing they seek
most in order to establish balance.
It’s clear that embedding ourselves in the world of our consumers, and getting
closer to them both in terms of proximity and empathy, is going to be the best way to
understand their desires and needs. Immersion into their lives leads us to better, stronger
ideas that drive through a true understanding of people.
Small data is the missing piece that gets us to genuinely extraordinary
experiences, time and time again.
Is data killing creativity?
No, and here’s why
By Ben Grossman
VP, Strategy Director
From the first time I cracked open a statistics textbook, I was hooked. It began what has
been, for me, a long-term love affair with numbers, confidence intervals, experimental
design and more. As a methodical thinker and strategist at heart, I was infatuated with
the ability to state, with a certain level of confidence and margin of error, the answers
to big, practical questions.
And while I’ve continued to promote data to inform marketing decision-making and
remain a big believer in it, I’ve also come to see its shortcomings. Used irresponsibly,
hard data can kill creativity. The myopic marketer may ask why that’s a problem. But
creativity works. An academic study reported by Harvard Business Review shows that
creative campaigns are twice as effective as those lacking creativity.
Creativity moves hearts and minds, but most importantly, it moves
I’ve found a new love working inside global creative marketing agencies: the collision
of data and creativity. That’s where the magic is happening today. That’s the future of
The problems with big data
So how can data kill creativity? Typically, big data mishaps play out in a few key
ways across the brand landscape:
1. Leveling effect
By its very nature, big data provides companies with averages and medians. With
an increasingly large swath of competitors within industries relying on this data for
guidance, it can have a leveling effect on brands, leaving them exploring the same
creative territories and preventing innovation. Ultimately this means undercutting
differentiation and the ability to charge premiums on goods and services.
Sometimes, we rely on big data to help us make big decisions, because it is
emblematic of a level of vetting that can make risk-averse C-suites comfortable. But
marketers should be cautious prior to relying purely on large data sets to make
decisions. Sometimes the data, often through poor research methodology, can be
a red herring that emphasizes correlation, rather than causation. While the data
can often inform decisions, primary research can still be a critical step to informing
3. Bad brand behavior
Perhaps one of the most frequent misses for brands is that, especially in the digital
world, it’s easy to become disconnected from customers and the brand experience
they are having. Some headlines and calls to action (CTAs) aren’t meant to be
combined. Sometimes, individual consumers defy the norms of the data set.
Sometimes, media buys are incompatible with creative messages, and it takes going
small to see it.
Experiences driven by small data
And while an influx of big data can end in creative and customer experience
mishaps for brands, there’s no question that data is still important. Indeed,
the experiences we create with our clients are only as good as the insights
that drive them.
And data can provide that insight—which is where small data comes
in. Its focus on small, seemingly insignificant observations about
people have the power to unlock huge, differentiating results.
We put the small data approach into practice with our client,
Eaton, while creating a campaign targeting IT professionals.
Through visiting our audience’s offices and talking to them
directly, we learned that people in IT like to decorate their
office spaces and show off their IT infrastructure. We turned
these seemingly small, inconsequential insights into a
campaign where IT professionals created customized
infographic posters of their “IT Empires.” The result?
The initiative outperformed traditional expectations by
276%, delivering a projected ROI of 1028%.
Creative briefs that contain these
kinds of small-data-driven insights
inspire our creative teams, triggering
their imaginations and yielding
breakthrough ideas that get results.
Right data, right time
It’s well documented that the way creativity works isn’t as much of a mystery
as we once thought. Science has essentially explained that presenting the
mind with the right data at the right time, putting our imagination within some
constraints and iterating on our ideas can all drive creative excellence.
Here’s how those elements fit into our process:
We start small—in terms of data,
that is. We’re looking for the
small details about people, the
brand, culture, conversation,
or a given offering that focus
into an insight and inspires our
teams to dream up extraordinary
ideas. These insights can be
the product of in-home Brand
Experience Subtexting (our
small-data research method co-
developed with Martin Lindstrom),
focus groups, friendship groups,
secondary analysis or whatever
else our strategists deem
appropriate given the client’s
During our ideation stage, we
provide creative stimulus that
drives original thinking, without
getting bogged down in the
details. We encourage our
innovation and ideation to be
catalyzed by disruptive outsiders,
fresh thinking and cross-category
interaction among our creative
Of course, it’s critical for
ideas to be aligned to a
business objective. We conduct
quantitative and qualitative
primary research that tests for
receptivity to our concepts or
The power of big data often is most
relevant as our experience enters the
marketplace. These larger swaths of data
can help us personalize experiences,
determine the way people encounter
them, assess efficacy and drive
improvements that perfect our work.
The success of this model is why we can
comfortably and happily say that data,
used properly, is critical to creativity.
Small data, in fact, is critical to creativity.
But used improperly, any data—big or
small—does have the potential to stall
great creative thinking.
So at the risk of oversimplifying:
Next time you set out to seek
data, think small before you go