In the world of modern marketing, data reigns supreme. Most consider it the foundation of successful brand strategy, if not the strategy itself. The more sophisticated the data, the more equipped marketers are to develop strategies to replicate what works and to discard what doesn’t. With a crystal clear picture of what consumers do and don’t respond to we can reverse engineer the most successful brands, replicate them, and trot them out like prize horses to collect our laurels. 

In order for creatives to embrace their own data-driven future, they can’t be forced to depend on data as the sole source of inspiration. Data and creativity can coexist in modern marketing, but only if we acknowledge the complementary differences between the two.

Crucial to this difference is the fundamental limitation of data. At its best, sophisticated data raises sophisticated questions for creative people to answer with intelligence, intuition, and imagination. It can direct our attention to things we don’t expect or take for granted — like a persistent aversion to the color yellow or a surging cultural affection for French Bulldogs — which raise further questions about how and why those things occur. What data can not do, however — even data driven by predictive AI — is answer those questions.

When misused, an excessive reliance on data can lead overzealous marketers to misunderstand or over-simplify complex social and cultural phenomena, and to create brands that bore, annoy, or downright offend their target markets. The people in a market may care about altruism and social justice, but that doesn’t mean they want or need their preferred underwear brand to care as well. Pure data analysts and statisticians know that correlation does not equal causation. It’s the rest of us who have forgotten this fundamental principle. 

Preferences can be tracked, but the subtler, more powerful dimensions of individual opinion and cultural consensus are far more complex. When we ignore that complexity, or outsource our responsibility to interpret it to algorithms, we inevitably end up with brands that seem phony, hollow, or totally obnoxious. In other words, we fail. 

Data should direct our attention to things that are too grand or granular to perceive with our own two eyes. The questions which data raises, if addressed, could be the creative fuel for more imaginative ways of engaging with the very real people who make up our markets. There’s no spreadsheet or predictive algorithm that can make those creative choices for us, as those tools are, by definition, designed to map or illustrate or analyze what is, not what could be. 

So how does this actually affect marketing professionals and the work they do? You could make the case that our reliance on data creates apathy, even fear, among creatives. If creative choices are only valued when they’re based on excessive analytics, creativity itself is discouraged. With creativity comes risk, and with risk comes fear. Data-driven choices reduce risk, and the fear that comes with it. But when we erase the possibility of creativity, we also eliminate the potential for growth that comes along with it. 

Sustained, meaningful brand engagement, also known as brand loyalty, is still more significant — and unpredictable — than knowing how frequently a customer cuts their fingernails, logs in to Instagram, or whatever else makes up their “psychographic profile,” which is a term that should be rebranded, if not banished entirely. 

Brand loyalty develops slowly, organically, and mysteriously. It’s the product of a few factors that are knowable, and about a thousand others that are impossible to quantify or predict. Demographic and behavioral data can tell us a lot, but it can’t capture the complexity of a person’s lived experience. A data firm may be able to map the flavor profile of the beer I prefer to drink down to the hop, based on what I buy and when, but it will never understand that I like New Belgium because it’s the first craft beer I ever tried on a rare chilly California night on a balcony in college. Why not? Because it was handed to me by a friend. I’m not the one who bought it. 

Experiences like this, and the emotions, connections, and memories that occur as a result are what make up our lived experience as human beings. As far as I know, that lived experience has yet to be algorithmically mapped, and hopefully it never will be. 

This should empower creatives, not intimidate or hinder them. It should inspire us to know that, contrary to popular consensus, there is a future ahead of us, and we play a role in designing, writing, and creating it. Marketing creatives still have the freedom to engage with their markets on authentic and imaginative terms. To discard that freedom amounts to both creative and commercial failure.  

It’s also telling that some of the most lasting brands were born before the data revolution, while those that derive from data blur together like so many pixels on a low-res screen. Nike created a brand that suggested a person could find confidence and satisfaction through bold, passionate action. Patagonia successfully conveyed that a person’s choices, in what they do or what they wear, could be a reflection of how they relate to the environment.

Put simply, what data can never capture is life itself.

Marketers who wish to create useful, impactful, and lasting brands that provide a tangible, experiential, and meaningful value to the people who engage with them, must be cognizant and curious about those living people who make up their markets. When we allow ourselves to think beyond data, we give room for creativity. With room for creativity, we give room for the growth that comes with it, unpredictable as it may be.  

Cover image source: Milad Fakurian