Big data is everywhere and on the minds of everyone, but small data is what you really need to pay attention to, according to Martin Lindstrom, author, change agent and brand futurist from Denmark. Lindstrom was the keynote presenter on March 9 at the IHRSA convention and trade show in Los Angeles where his presentation was entitled "Forget BIG Data – Small Data Defines the Future."

In his work with companies as varied as LEGO Company, IKEA, Jenny Craig, The Walt Disney Company and others, Lindstrom has learned the importance of listening to the customer to find out what the big data won't tell you. But most importantly, he has learned about observing your customers and looking at the world and your business through the eyes of your customers. 

That is knowledge that Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, drove home to Lindstrom when Lindstrom visited the company to find Kamprad at a register checking out customers. When Lindstrom asked him why he made this a part of his day, Kamprad told him that it allowed him to look people in the eyes and find out why they bought what they bought.

He received similar insights from Michele Ferrero, founder of Italian candy company Ferroro SpA. When Lindstrom visited the company, Ferroro crawled around in the aisles of his candy stores because he wanted to see the stores from the eyes of his customers—children.

What both men shared was the power of observation. Lindstrom said that 85 percent of what people do each day is irrational, so observe instead of just asking questions.

One teen-targeted clothing company did research on girls to find out why even though girls loved the company, its sales were decreasing. Big data showed that girls were waking up 23 minutes earlier today than they did 10 years ago. Deeper digging showed why: girls were taking an average of 17 selfies each morning as they tried on clothes to ensure they would fit in with their "tribe" at school that day. The store realized the importance of peer input on girls' clothing choices. The problem was, the company had recently decreased its fitting room size, meaning their customers couldn't bring in their peers for clothing feedback. So the company installed a wall at the back of dressing rooms that allowed girls to take a picture and post that picture to Facebook to get feedback from friends, which helped increase sales again for the company.

So the power of observing customers and looking at your brand (and their world) from the eyes of customers are two of the biggest factors in success, according to Lindstrom. Other insights Lindstrom shared included:

  • The gap between being in balance and out of balance with communication is a business opportunity.
  • Boredom is the foundation of creativity.
  • The biggest opportunity we have is to transform people's lives.
  • People have an internal age that is often much younger than their external age. Communicate with them at their internal age.
  • Smells and sounds are important for connecting to people.