When data is no longer enough

“Data is the new oil” said Clive Humby in 2006. Many similar prophecies have been voiced since, and many of them have been right. Data, while still for the most part scattered, unorganized and underutilized, is shaping the way we consume, live, love and think.

At least that used to be true, pre-covid, Russia’s war in Ukraine, inflation, food crisis, energy crisis, pre-whatnot. The world is throwing disruptive global events at us with an increasing speed. Our hyper-connected world brings them to our doorstep instantly. Economic projections are upgraded and downgraded on a weekly or even daily basis, instead of a quarterly or an annual basis as before. We have entered an era of hyper-cyclicity. The human mind does not follow, let alone cope with it. Data, even when assisted by AI and machine learning, more often than not, shows a rear-mirror view. The problem with, say, customer data is that it reflects past or real-time patterns in a fairly static world. But what if those patterns do not mirror the true hopes, dreams and fears of a consumer or stakeholder in a rapidly changing world? People act and respond in a predictable way, but what goes on inside their heads is a totally different story.

This new, radically uncertain era requires a re-calibration of how we try to understand our customers and stakeholders. When a person struggles with soaring energy and food prices, it is easy to draw the conclusion – based on data and current behavior – that he has put the consumption of sustainable and more expensive goods on hold for a while. That might be true, but his angst over the climate crisis has gone nowhere. Data will not show how he might channel his desire to contribute to a better world, now and in the near-future. Anthropology will. You need to know what moves, inspires, touches and stirs. Anyone who is interested in the future should be interested in people, because people are not just pushed around by overarching and determining forces, structures and processes. They are also shaping, using and inventing them. So every (business) challenge is by nature “a human challenge”.

Studying end users’ and stakeholders’ needs and their underlying motivations is crucial to understand how they relate to the turbulence around them. Numerical data alone will tell you merely half-truths at best, or truisms at worst. In a state of flux, the past is not the best guide to the future.

For the brand or business owner this means two fundamentally important things.

One, you must find and use instruments to understand global events, shocks and phenomena. You should start working with scenarios. Understanding the new global context is no longer nice-to-know. It is a must-know, because your brand will, sooner or later, be affected by the global turmoil. It will also help you stay ahead of the game, and help you in being proactive, ready and relevant when things do change. There are no black swans, only grey rhinos. Many of the events we have witnessed during the past 10 years have been a long time coming, we just failed to recognize them.

Two, amid radical global change, you must dig deeper to understand what consumers, end users, stakeholders – human beings – need and dream of. The fundamental task of a brand is to fulfill those needs and dreams, and this does not happen by analyzing data points of current behavior. This is where business anthropology steps into the picture.

Elina Reponen is a business anthropologist, who works as a research and insight senior advisor, because she finds people and the deep drivers of their behavior endlessly intriguing.

Fredrik Heinonen is a partner at Miltton and a strategist, who after 20+ years in the business still finds it staggeringly fascinating how hard it is to find meaningful structures in a chaotic world. The work continues.

For more information, please contact

Elina Reponen
Senior Advisor, Research and Insight
Fredrik Heinonen