Let’s not neglect the magic of cultural insight

Let’s not neglect the magic of cultural insight

As the trend season commences, do not forget the most important weapon in your arsenal, writes Heather Dansie

Aside from the agency Christmas party, now is the time to start thinking about what 2018 might hold. The shiny new tech, new media formats, new challenges the economy might throw at your business. However, it may also be the only time of the year when you may even think about that intimidating, broad or supposedly fluffy concept - culture.

For if insight is the most overused word in our industry, is culture our most neglected source of it?

Over the years, we in the ‘insight’ world have laboured the point that information can only be an insight if it has a direct implication. ‘80% of your audience are women’ could only be an insight if, for example, you have been buying ‘All Men’ media infantry.

But even when we are using the term correctly we are probably over using it simply because with neuroscience, big data, behaviour economics and passive data collection, we have a wealth of shiny new data to explore and roll around in.

To the extent that creative director, Mark Earls at Ogilvy London has lamented, “It’s a shame we don’t spend more time understanding mainstream culture; too much of our research is still psychological (and increasingly physiological) rather than anthropological or sociological.”

Culture is difficult to measure (but it can be tracked)

William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed”, an unforgivable sin in our world of data measurement. However, culture can be tracked. The Overton Window monitors social acceptance of ideas from the ‘Unthinkable’ through to the ‘radical’, and ultimately ‘policy’.

Gartner’s Innovation Curve specifically assesses the teething stages of new movements and products. And with Roger’s Adoption/Innovation Curve we can quantify how many ‘innovators’ and ‘early adopters’ might be implementing new culture into their lives.

Are trends defined by the experts or the fresh eyed outsider?

Secondly there exists a myth that trends can only be identified by cool trendy individuals locked away in secret trendy rooms akin to the The Devil Wears Prada’s ‘bunch of stuff’ scene. As the opposite of a hipster, this always depressed me. Until I realised it wasn’t true. Dave Trott claimed in Predatory Thinking,

“Whenever I’m in charge of a pitch, we always write down everything we know abut the product, brand and market. At the point we heard we were pitching. Before we started researching. Because that is the only time we’re ever actually in the same place as the consumer.”

Ignorance can be an asset when it generates heightened curiosity. Looking, listening and asking the obvious questions often reveal more than expert assumptions.

Clarifying the role of different insights creates space for culture

Different sources obviously tell you different things. Clarifying what you learn from your different tools ensures learnings exist side by side than in conflict. It gives each nugget space to breathe and the chance to be reviewed clearly.

A business insight might uncover new supplier chain issues, new entrant threats or category opportunities. Whereas an audience insight might surface via a segmentation and describe how a key audience may be more or less likely to behave in a certain way compared to the masses. Competitive reviews should unlock marketing insights of what works and what doesn’t, and consumer journeys might reveal category challenges which your brand can solve.

A cultural insight on the other hand will examine the grey space between between people, places, activities. It reflects the myths we tell ourselves, the social norms we abide and the new behaviours that are quietly bubbling under the surface (e.g. Christmas jumpers, dressing flamboyantly, tee-teetotalism). It captures the underlying human desires that are yearning to be fulfilled, and the political and economic landscape that those desires exist in.

And when a brand provides the permission to consumers en-mass to indulge in these periphery social shifts they can harness the magical cultural currency that gives the brand crucial meaning and purpose in people’s lives, which as an insight, is worth it’s weight in gold.

Heather Dansie is associate research director at Publicis Media

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