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Friday, July 3, 2015

When Predictive Brand Analysis Supersedes "Big Data"

Predictive brand analysis is a method of pre-inventing future products and services and/or of assessing the future profitability of existing ones. It relies on three things:
  • Continuous absorption by a dedicated person or small team of "objective culture," in the form of social media, news, television, film, magazines, books, music, fashion, food, art, and other forms of popular culture with an emphasis on material that is "viral" or very popular.
  • Nonjudgmental, intentional comparison of many sources of data that represent different views, normally views that are wildly opposing.
  • The formation of brand-based views about the direction in which popular culture is headed, based on the application of durable principles to one's observations.
I developed this form of analysis; its primary usefulness is to discover undervalued or unknown properties and capitalize on them before others do. A couple of notes:
  • It is related to, but different from, qualitative market research because it relies specifically on the framework and discipline of branding in forming conclusions.
  • It is different from, but can be complementary to, the use of "big data" because it relies on subjective personal opinion for the formation of conclusions. However, large-scale quantitative information helps by providing context, and also by balancing itself out - e.g. as one large survey says a single thing, another survey may mirror it or say the opposite, and it is left to the researcher to understand how and why this has happened.
As an example of how this methodology works, here are 10 predictions for the next couple of years, and their rationale. Absent some extraordinary interruption in the current social climate, you don't need a supercomputer to know that these things are going to happen.
  1. Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States. From a branding perspective, a personal brand or archetype is at work: Women are voting not for her in particular but for "a woman who has been through hell with a cheating husband in order to rise to the top of a sexist political system, who has the credentials to lead, who looks like a leader, and who will take care of us." 
  2. Job search and recruitment will be done nearly exclusively through a Tinder-type mobile app that draws its data via integration with LinkedIn. From a branding point of view, it's about the idea of "instant gratification for intimate and basic personal needs." Tinder disrupted romance by providing a partner with a swipe; it was only a matter of time before the same principle was applied to job search, which is about economic survival. (Look up Switch; thanks to Joanna Seich for telling me that this actually exists.) LinkedIn is a key factor for a couple of reasons. First, people choose brands based on familiarity and ubiquity - for professional networking, LinkedIn is akin to Facebook. It is where you build a professional identity. Second, people choose brands based on identity - and while they may not know what "Switch" is, they do know and trust LinkedIn to allow them to build a personal brand.
  3. Virtual doctor's visits using a Skype-like interface, chat and remote assessment devices will replace most office visits. This is because from a branding point of view, the entire interaction with a doctor puts the patient in a position of powerlessness. It's not who we want to be, and furthermore it's not convenient. Even if the computer is somewhat impersonal, it allows us to take control of our own health.
  4. Islamic culture will go mainstream, not only through religion but also in fashion, tourism, and an approach to business that is dramatically different from the Western model. From a branding point of view, Western culture is very "overdone" while Islam is frequently demonized in popular culture. As a response, trendsetters gravitate to it - their job is to disrupt social taboos - leading others to explore this culture which is seen as very mysterious, and even forbidden. There is the additional allure that Western culture is demonized in academic circles as colonialist, and an according desire to understand and recover the valuable artifacts of Islam that have been culturally marginalized or left by the wayside. An example of this fascination is the television show "Tyrant" on FX.
  5. India will become the new Hollywood. From a branding point of view, the unknown is an object of fascination provided it becomes an "ingredient" of mainstream culture. Popular stars like Mindy Kaling, whose parents are from India, and comedians Aziz Ansari and Russell Peters, are serving as a kind of "gateway," helping others to understand their cultures of origin and in the process demonstrating its appeal. (A similar dynamic is happening with Hasidic Jewish culture, but the trend is still in relative infancy.) Additionally, "Bollywood" is increasing in its sophistication and reach and increasingly demonstrates crossover Hollywood appeal. 
  6. African-American women will ascend the professional ranks as never before and their influence will be felt in the form of an astonishing diversity of literature, movies and television shows, music, fashion, religious leadership, business leadership and more. From a branding point of view, this has to do with having an African-American President and First Lady; sheer focus and determination (a recent study found that African-American women are far more ambitious than Caucasian women); the tendency to pay attention to omnipresent voices across multiple lines of business that carry a clear message (e.g. Oprah Winfrey); and a growing vocal opposition to the tendency of "White" culture to appropriate their cultural symbols (e.g. Azealia Banks, Chloe Valdary; the controversy over Rachel Dolezal).
  7. "Whiteness" will become a new subject for minority studies. This is a corollary to #4-#6 and is amplified by two brand trends, both of which fall into the category of "cult branding," - e.g. very strong ties among a small group of fiercely dedicated people. These include, loosely, people who are politically opposed to the President and who take race into account as part of that opposition. Related, there is an antifeminist movement that relies for its identity on the preservation of "white maleness." Finally, as brands tend to arise in opposition to the conventional thinking of the time, the predominance of leftist progressivism in the academy will likely be countervailed by those who seek to focus on whiteness as a numeric and qualitative cultural minority and isolate it for academic study.
  8. Life will take on a more and more modular and portable feel as homes and cars shrink in size and as shared ownership becomes the norm for personal possessions. This is reflective of the branding principle that value is found in leveraging the economic realities on the ground and turning them into a positive identity value. As permanent job opportunities shrink and it becomes more and more necessary to adopt a mobile lifestyle, a need to develop an affirmative sense of self will arise around financial issues that are impossible to escape.
  9. Increasingly, government, educational, business, and religious institutions will partner to remain relevant and preserve the social infrastructure through promoting volunteering, self-training, community gardening, and other sustenance activities. The operative brand principle here is similar to the above, except the underlying reality is social rather than economic: American society is more and more rejecting of formal institutions and centralized bureaucracies in favor of flexible, dynamic, small-scale and nimble grassroots partnerships that empower the individual.
  10. There will be a seismic shift toward prevention rather than reaction as a model for all sectors of society, from crime to healthcare to jobs and intimate relationships. Thought analysis will be used to determine aptitude and compatibility, and even to provide counseling and treatment before any negative social activity occurs. The brand principle here is social-attitudinal, as the dominance of Generation Y, or millennials, has placed a premium on teamwork over and above individual achievement: Any disruption of the social fabric is viewed as a moral crime. We can already see a power struggle developing between Generation Y and Generation X, as the latter (to oversimplify it) places far more emphasis on the individual "hero" as they protect their family against a mostly hostile world (e.g. "The Walking Dead"). It is unclear how the influence of Generation Z (those born after 2000) will play out, as they appear to have in their minds a model of social operation that transcends both the individual and the social in favor of the technological as a means of preserving a positive and prosperous order for humankind.
All of this analysis is drawn from reading social trends on a personal basis. It doesn't constitute an explicit or implicit endorsement. It isn't meant to be judgmental, and I hope that it doesn't offend.
It's mainly shared to demonstrate two things:
  • Brand thinking is critical not only to marketing but to business and society more generally.
  • Opinion-based predictions are helpful not only in their own right, but also because of the constructive nature of the debate that will inevitably ensure.
Although a machine can do a lot of things, it cannot yet replace human discussion, debate and ultimately collective insight. The principles of branding, well-applied, can help us get there.
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Photo by Keri Logan via Flickr Creative Commons. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.