Human Insight, Emotion & Magic in a Big Data World: Heineken CMO Sets Us Straight

Is the pendulum starting to swing back towards common sense? Are businesses starting to realize that more they need more than data to thrive?

A good sign emerged last week with Jonnie Cahill’s speech at the Brandweek conference in Palm Springs last week. Cahill, the CMO of Heineken, “urged the marketing industry to return to its roots, bravely push the line and focus on the fun,” according to an article in Adweek.

I was heartened to see Cahill advocate three key points that I’ve been hammering away at – with mixed success at best – over the past year.

Point 1: Big Data is amazing but it’s not everything.

Analytics-driven approaches are “the timely, smart, efficient, right thing to do,” the Dublin-born Cahill said on Wednesday. “But they mask the fact that we’re not having enough conversations about the things that make people smile.”

Brand communications need a joy infusion, he said, because as an industry, “We’re prioritizing measurability over magic.”

As one of my clients put it to me recently, a VP in a major consumer goods company, “We’re doing more research but we have fewer insights.” Do insights emerge from the numbers?  Can the data get us to inspiration and “joy?” While the answer is absolutely yes, I wouldn’t count on it. How many recent marketing breakthroughs can be directly attributed to big data? Not IHOP. Not Burger King. Not the Popeye’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich.

These success stories can be traced directly to courageous, risk taking CMO’s such as Burger King’s Fernando Machado and IHOP’s Brad Haley.

My mantra in marketing is that in life, love, politics and marketing, the facts never matter. What always matters more are the feelings behind the facts, the human motivations at the root of behavior.

Digitally gathered quantitative and qualitative data are limited by definition. These data ignore the critical role played by ignore the human senses, and as a result, are incapable of fully engaging us. Breakthroughs are more likely to come as a result of live, personal interaction with our consumers and our colleagues. Listening to what consumers tell us, but also observing their body language and tone of voice. Being in the moment. Having the ability to follow up and go deeper. Absorbing this multi-sensory experience in the context of a very important marketing principle that’s not taught in single business school: What’s the overall vibe?

And then, having the ability, again, in the moment and immediately following, to discuss and analyze consumer feedback with your colleagues and brainstorm ideas that capitalize on it all.

The magic – the smiles and the joy – lies with people, not numbers. So as Cahill says, leveraging big data is “the right thing to do.” But not the only thing to do. Numbers do not equal empathy.

Point 2: Understand “What You Make”

The exec, whose tenure at Heineken has included stints in Russia and the Netherlands, sells beer for a living. Or does he? In fact, he and Heineken sell “first kisses, dancing, bad jokes that are funnier than they should be and if we’re lucky, second kisses.”

 Oreos, meanwhile, hawks not just cookies but “parenting, joy, childhood, getting home for a bedtime story,” and Rolex shills “achievement,” not just timepieces. “It’s not a watch,” he said, “it’s a stamp.”

The very first question I ask my clients is “What do you make?” If you’re in the beer business, you can’t say beer, or if you’re in the software business, you can’t say software.

“Purpose Driven Brands” are all the rage now, but it’s nothing new. Marketers have long understood that brands need to stand for “something bigger,” that they have to ladder up to a value or principle that transcends category and product.

Again, Big Data’s contribution to understanding your brand’s values are limited. Great brands are almost always the result of  human passion, the single-minded vision of an individual.

It is possible to map the overlap of consumer values against brand values to understand the essence of a brand, but again, when the process is devoid of personal, human interaction we put ourselves at a distinct disadvantage. Nothing will get to the heart of brand values, consumer values and their intersection as well as psychotherapy-like, in-depth, in-person interviews. It’s the spontaneity that leads to the “aha” moments.

Point 3: Emotions Trump Facts

At an environment where consumers are inundated with choice, brands must be in the feelings business, Cahill said, using a blend of logic and magic, science and art, intellect and instinct as a competitive advantage. 

Nothing good comes of a culture of insecurity and a cover-your-ass mentality, he said, quoting the classic truism, “Shit in, shit out.” He urged the industry to return to its roots, bravely push the line and focus on the fun.

I made the point earlier that the facts seldom matter. Does anyone really buy anything on a strictly rational basis? Of course not. Can feelings like “fun” or “belonging” be quantified. They can, but rely on these measures at your peril.

Do you think that IHOP decided to launch its hamburger initiative by calling burgers “pancakes” because that’s what the data said? Or that Wendy’s created a snarky, wise-guy online persona from a qualitative research recommendation? Nope.

Marketing has come a long way in the past decade. Now it’s time to undo some of the damage done but getting back to common sense principles and practices.

Look at the data. Rely on your instincts. Trust people not numbers.

Cahill gets it.

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