Everyone is talking about data in all shapes and sizes: big-data, smart-data, analytics, and never-ending spreadsheets. It seems that brand strategists and marketers are more dependent and beholden to it than ever. But in this data-driven world, what is the role of good old fashioned human instinct and “gut feeling” in the new products and campaigns we work on?

As brand strategists and marketing strategists, our mission is to develop brands that are unique, valuable, and build strong lasting connections between brands and their audience. To achieve this, we’ve always needed data to inform our brand and marketing strategies, and today it’s no different. The difference is the huge amount of data we have access to, and the immediate availability of it. We often end up with more data than we can get our heads around or even understand. We only have to look at the recent news to see how too much data can be confusing even to a giant like Facebook who are measuring so many things (more than 220 metrics) that they’re getting their own data wrong.

So the question is: Is this information clouding our judgement? Is it confusing us? Is it making us trust our treasured instinct for branding and marketing communications less, which is the reason so many of us entered the field in the first place? Or worse, is the onslaught of data limiting our thinking only to what elusive statistics and algorithms can reveal to us? 

Steve Jobs was famous for making key decisions without consulting business data and he didn’t trust focus groups either. He was a visionary who followed his instinct. But unfortunately we’re not all Steve Jobs, so here are some tips to consider before getting ourselves tangled up in a web of cryptic data.

1. Being able to measure something doesn’t mean we need to do it

Our access to data means we know more about our customers and audience than ever before. But more doesn’t always mean better or more valuable. We need to step back and approach data collection and analytics through the thinking process we follow when we commission any piece of research: What is the business question? What information do we actually need? What’s the best way to obtain this information? We need to ask the right questions to find the right answers, otherwise we run the risk of confusing ourselves, our clients, and worse, our audience. Narrowing it down from the beginning will help you in the long run. Choose what data will be the most helpful and don’t be drawn into getting it all just because it’s available.

2. Data sometimes only tells half the story

We know people connect with brands emotionally and to a great extent purchase decisions are made on a subconscious, emotional level. Despite this, many organisations continue asking people in focus groups to articulate why they made a purchasing decision or why they think a certain way about an ad or the prototype of a new product. The results are more often than not inconclusive and disappointing. That’s because people are essentially being asked to rationalise a subconscious, emotional decision.

Focus groups might not be the best way to test an audience’s emotional response to a new product or an advertising campaign as they are out of the context in which people will actually use the product or see the advertising. However, they can be good to provide information on customers’ needs.

In the same way, data about customer engagement with a brand’s website will only tell you about the current state of that specific segment of your audience. Making assumptions that audiences who use other channels will behave on the same way in the future could lead to making wrong decisions.

In a conversation I recently had with Alex Alder, Customer Insights Director at Barclays, he said that “if nothing was to change, we could definitely use data to predict what the future would be like. But actually everything is going to change… We [marketers and insight teams] need to able to start identifying new trends and respond to those. Responding to those trends needs huge creative leaps, and that’s where intuition and instinct come in.”

3. The real value of data lies in the insight that we can pull out from it

In branding and marketing, mountains of data is worthless if you can’t pull out valuable insights from it. This means converting facts and data points into deep and valuable insights that can be used to identify areas of opportunity.

Knowing that your customers buy more of your product on weekends is a fact, understanding that they do it because they feel guilty about using it on working days is an insight. Understanding why people behave the way they do can open the way to new opportunities. But these answers are not on charts and spreadsheets – we still need our human instincts and experience to understand the “why,” and then work out how to use the insights strategically.

4. Data can lie

It’s easy to fall into the trap of blindly trusting data. We’ve all been tempted to make decisions solely based on what data is saying so we can avoid taking any apparent risks or back our decisions up with facts. Sometimes we even begin distrusting our own instincts because the data we’re looking at is saying something that contradicts it. But remember, data can lie. The 2016 political journey was proof of this, where complex algorithms and data failed to predict Brexit and Trump. Too many people trusted data so blindly that they didn’t see them coming.

Of course, this doesn’t mean ignoring important facts that can arise from data, but it does mean allowing yourself to look at data with a skeptical eye. If it contradicts your instinct, question it even more. Instinct is a unique asset, and a unique secret weapon. It’s an amazing combination of experience, understanding of human behaviour and communication. It’s irreplaceable and is often a driving force behind some of the most successful brands. 

5. Remember branding is an emotional discipline

Starbucks are successful at using big data on local neighbourhoods to inform where they open up new branches and Amazon uses data to provide a more personalized customer service. These are great examples of how factual data in its raw form can be used to bolster business. But the needs of store development and customer service teams are very different from those of the brand manager, advertising creative, or marketing strategist.

“Bold ideas and innovations that last are a result of taking risks and trusting our instincts.”

Branding is a creative job where emotional responses and natural instincts are key in understanding how to engage an audience emotionally. Data can guide and inform, but becomes even less relevant when it comes down to creating something new in branding, something that has never been done before, because it only looks at the past, how existing customers behave around existing products. It can’t tell us how a different audience will engage with a new product.

Alex Adler continued “data can lead you towards a median… but the real energy in the market is going to be in the emerging ideas. You have the opportunity not to talk about what everybody wants but actually, what just a few people want right now. This is where the energy is going to be and this is what you want to be known for.”

So, sometimes we need to put data on the back burner and follow our instinct instead, the same way that Steve Jobs did to create products that revolutionised the world. Bold ideas and innovations that last are a result of taking risks and trusting our instincts.

Even data-lover Netflix sees the value of leaving data out of the creative process. According to an interview with the CEO, “Netflix uses all data to help it pick and fund shows … and to help promote different shows to different people. But… it won’t use all of that Big Data to make shows.”

In summary, it’s true that using data and research as a tool can often bolster and support our natural instincts when developing brand strategies that help you differentiate and connect with your audience. But we have to be careful about what data we use, how we obtain it, how we interpret it, and be sure to pull out the most meaningful insights that will allow us create work that will truly resonate with our audience. At the end of our day, to truly innovate and break new ground we need to trust our creative instincts for the discipline we love and know so well.