Obscured by data
Data.jpg

I started my career in a market research agency.  I like a bit of data.  It can be so powerful and so transformative for a company.  Alongside experience, judgement and intuition.

But so often, I see good people in good companies letting themselves be blinded or even fooled by the numbers.  The company that thinks growth this year is good, when it is just the mirror of a terrible start to lockdown last year.  Or conversely, the company that blithely believes it can assume growth on last year, just like any other year, despite last year being enormously inflated by Covid lockdowns.  The companies (legion) who believe brand growth is all about penetration (a piece of maths that is often statistically true, if the time period of the calculation is 12 months, but that I have not yet seen add value).

The more data becomes available (loyalty cards, internet surveys, EPOS, social media behaviour tracking), the worse the problem becomes.  The sea of data becomes an ocean, and too often, people let their judgement drown. 

So what can you do to keep the data in check, to make it work for you and not against you, to stop it from clouding your better judgement? 

First, get yourself into stores or onto shopping websites.  The best Retailer leaders do this.  The best FMCG Commercial Officers (and CEOs) do this.  A fifty-page PowerPoint is rarely as productively stimulating as fifty minutes at the point of purchase.  The “store adoption scheme” for support centre staff in my time as Sainsbury’s was a game changer. 

Talk to people who don’t suffer your (our) industry biases.  The classic question “what would my Mum / Dad / child think of this?” is such a good test.  Study their confusion as the acronyms flow.  Observe their questioning look as you explain why your product’s packaging must be changed again.  Marvel at their loving scorn as you set out for them why your dishwasher capsules represent liberty and self-actualisation.  It’s not good for the pride but it is good for your business success.

Finally, trust your common sense.  Back to the “it’s all about penetration” dogma.  Does it sound sensible that frequency and loyalty could be unimportant?  That repeat rates don’t matter because it’s all about trial?  Of course it doesn’t.  No piece of maths should survive a bit of common sense, without at least some serious questioning.

Data can be good.  We need data.  But it can obscure, complicate and mislead.  In fact, it does so 82% of the time, amongst ABC1 adults in the South East. 

Don’t let yourself by overwhelmed by the data.  Keep it in proportion with these simple tips. 

Jeremy Garlick is a Partner of Insight Traction, consulting with FMCG and Retail companies.  He was formerly Head of Insight at Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Premier Foods.