Gartner: Marketers missing a trick by not mining the minutiae of cultural phenomena

Gartner VP and analyst explains the big signals and implications for marketing leaders of four current cultural trends and why getting into the details is vital to engagement

Mining through the ‘minutiae’ of seemingly niche cultural phenomena could provide marketers with the toolkit for far stronger and more impactful engagement with consumers than purely relying on digital or survey data.

That’s the view of Gartner VP and analyst, Kate Muhl, who spoke during the analyst firm’s US Marketing Symposium this week on how marketers are potentially missing a trick by not reading the signs and symbols of the cultural fads right in front of them.

Today, marketers rely on a raft of customer data sets, from contact information to demographics, media segmentation, device graphs, customer traits and preferences, personification models, purchase history, Web activity, intent signals, location data and social media. While these are useful, they don’t necessarily shed a light on the time customers are not interacting with a marketer’s brand, or the prospects that haven’t yet been acquired.

What’s more, while quantitative and qualitative research through behavioural and attitudinal surveying is a “critical weapon in arsenal of understanding” consumers, it again isn’t providing the full picture on what all customers think.

Instead, Muhl advocated “mining minutiae analysis of cultural observation” in concert with these other approaches. She described it as a low investment and low-risk way to identify potential opportunities with consumers as well as finessing your marketing and brand approach.

“Mining the minutiae is about tracking and studying ‘seemingly’ niche cultural phenomena – aesthetics, home design, entertainment – and consumer behaviour and attitudes to understand what might be headed your way,” Muhl said. “Many marketers often write this data off as seemingly irrelevant. Yet these consumer behaviours and attitudes are a rich resource for early indicators and shifts in consumer preferences and expectations, and changes in culture that may force or inspire changes in consumer behaviour.

“Reading behaviours and actions closely to look what they may be emblematic of relies heavily on semiotics and study of material culture – what people own, use, do, wear or display. It’s the science of symbols and signs. Reading those signs can help us uncover consumer meaning.”

4 cultural minutiae worth mining

To illustrate the point, Muhl explored four current cultural trends: Sourdough, rewatching, algorithm hacking, and the rise of mysticism.

Interest in sourdough emerged rapidly at beginning of the Covid-19 global pandemic as people were locked down at home. Muhl pointed to spikes in Google search activity, as well as the reams of social media discussion around sourdough over the last two years.

On the one hand, this had clear implications for brands in the food arena. “If you were offering bread as a product, one takeaway may have been a changing palette, consumers eating more nuanced profile, implications for product development,” Muhl said.

“The idea people might want to bake more was indicator for anyone supplying baking supplies. So if you’re in the category, it was a trend people paid attention to.”

Less clear was what such behaviour signalled for the broader marketing fraternity. For Muhl, it was a dead giveaway on the level of anxiety and trauma experienced by consumers at beginning of the lockdown.

“One way to interpret this was offering consumers a sense of control, a nurturing distraction from the uncertainty outside the home, and a mini-drama you could handle trying to keep the sourdough going,” she said. “The full weight of anxiety may not have shown up explicitly through social listening or surveys as quickly as this move to getting sourdough going in your own home. So the opportunity for marketers was to get ready to be more responsive sooner if they understood how freaked people were out of the gate.”  

Muhl’s second trend, ‘rewatching’, reflects the growing desire for consumers to watch the same shows and familiar, nostalgic content. This trend was apparent prior to the pandemic as the growing list of streaming services provided access not just to new, different content but content consumers already knew and loved. Just look at the huge interest in Friends debuting on Netflix, or the return of The Office via streaming services.

“These sitcoms again became a source of comfort, nostalgia and sense of control. There was a sense of vicariousness too – younger consumers experiencing nostalgia with something they didn’t watch in the first instance, such as Gen Z watching Friends.”

The trend has led to media conglomerates fighting over old content, along with reboots and returning series. On another layer, this also has wider implications for all marketers, Muhl argued. Gartner’s own research showed consumers were using this content to unplug and to avoid being taxed too much emotionally.

“Rewatching was a way to unplug from tension, particularly narrative tension. You already know how it ends – so any tension that might be excitement in suspense movie isn’t as desirable in a time of high stress. It was bringing it back to the known,” she continued.  

“So a takeaway from this familiarity was the need for low-key, low-tension stories and experiences that offered comfort. The implications are there for more successful ways of connecting with consumers at a time of high stress.”

Muhl’s third consumer trend is ‘algorithm hacking’, which she described as consumers being more aware of algorithms and “taking steps to subvert or co-opt those algorithms for their own ends”. This could be for political reasons, such as K-pop fans during the US election bending algorithms to make it look like a campaign venue was sold out, or hacking Spotify to get more number one hits.

It’s a trend that should prompt marketers to be more cautious when deploying algorithms and collecting customer data, Muhl said.

“Primarily this has been understood as data privacy issues and we tend to look at it through this lens – companies using their data and allowing for more privacy hacks,” she explained. “But another indicator is how consumers see themselves in a relationship to companies and the role of tech inbetween.

“This is the consumer way of pushing back. It’s not just about data protection, but consumers seeking to gain, maintain and leverage control in their lives and in their relationships with marketers by co-opting tools designed to exact same goals upon consumers. It’s the power struggle between consumers and marketers.”

For Muhl, it’s a warning to marketers to understand how much more is at stake in the relationship consumers have with them and how their brands employ algorithms.

The fourth trend Muhl pointed to is ‘the Rise of mysticism’ through the return of new-age concepts such as tarot, astrology, and alternative ways of seeing the world. Again, these are clear trends influencing the wellness space.

“Outside that space, it’s a trend that seems easy to write off. But if you scratch the surface in this interest in alternative approaches to understanding life, it’s an outcry about the limits of data and quantitative tracking for finding meaning in our lives,” Muhl claimed.

“Mysticism is arising at a time we are all trying to track very closely our own behavioural metrics in an attempt to understand ourselves, consumption and make changes in our lives. It’s an indictment of how little meaning we find in all that quantitative tracking.

“It’s a caution sign for marketers relying heavily on data and personalisation to understand how much that can be a limited way of understanding how life works. Consumers are looking for alternative frameworks to understand what is happening in their lives. Astrology is not science but a framework for consumers to understand their lives.

“The key takeaway is there are limits to what all the data grabbing we do can do for bringing meaning to our lives.”  

So how do marketing teams ensure they’re able to mine these trends? One way is through the focus on customer data and market research.

“If you’re trying to open the aperture, requisition those resources. Agencies could help find out what is happening behind some of the trends. The right third-party data can be a low-risk way to start excavating,” Muhl said.  

Her second piece of advice is to foster a culture of mining minutiae. “Invest in insight and analytics leads that can combine qualitative and quantitative perspectives, but also have the space to tell these stories,” Muhl recommended.

As finally as a CMO, “put on your miner’s helmet”, she urged.

“You as CMO are the one who can most model cultural curiosity. A great CMO is going to pay attention to cultural phenomena,” Muhl concluded. “Remember your individual experiences of these trends are no more -but also no less – than that. It may indicate something larger.”  

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