Stalin Was Right: Why Statistics Don't Always Matter

Big data may be the hot, new thing, but to create a successful innovation, you still need to strike an emotional chord.
November 01, 2012

Back in 1995, I was driving Accenture’s (then Andersen Consulting) business process reengineering practice. I traveled the world helping companies downsize. Although downsizing wasn’t the objective of reengineering, it was often the outcome.

While working on one particular project, I knew that 10,000 people were going to lose their jobs as a result of our work. Somehow I was able to rationalize away the impact on the lives of so many people.

Three is More than 10,000

That is, until I was watching a television show about three executives from that very company who were laid-off a year earlier. One person cried the entire interview. Another was optimistic even though he had not yet found a suitable job. And the third person committed suicide.

The next day, while at the client site, I confirmed that the stories were true. I immediately dismissed myself and never returned to the project. After watching that TV show, I could no longer be a contributor to even one lost job.

Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

As I discovered personally, 10,000 lost jobs was a statistic; one lost job was unbearable.

Big Data and Human Desire 

Lately, innovation and innovation marketing has been left in the hands of statisticians. It lacks the personal touch.

Big data is driving the decision-making process in many organizations. But numbers cannot address the subtleties of human desire. Statistics only capture what we see on the surface, and can rarely tap into deeper needs.

In order for an innovation to be successful, it does of course need to tap into the needs of the masses. But sometimes the best way to find those needs is to look at the individuals. Listen to your customers directly; not just through surveys, focus groups or data mining as these methodologies can have significant drawbacks.

Surveys and focus groups tend to lead consumers down a particular path due to the way questions are structured. Also, the questioning process taps into the conscious mind; buying behaviors and hidden needs are often only uncovered by tapping into the subconscious. 

Data mining, analytics and big data typically capture information about existing customers. But it does little to identify needs of non-customers and ex-customers. Plus it can only capture information about current products and services.

Capture the Customer

Instead, observe your customers. Watch them in action. Watch their struggles. Look for unarticulated needs. What are their pains? And find ways of tapping into their personal interests so that you can share their individual stories and contributions.

One company that has done this particularly well is Kimberly-Clarke. They launched their Huggies MomInspired Grant Program. In a nutshell, mothers who have an idea for a new product can obtain funding and support to bring it to market.

Although the products address the specific needs of one mother, as it turns out, most parents have the same issue. And in many cases, these opportunities are not uncovered through surveys or data mining.

One added advantage of the Huggies program is not just in the identification of new products. The inventor becomes the spokesperson. They become an evangelist, telling their personal story. It is the personal story that humanizes the product making it more appealing to consumers.

Emotion Sells

Humanizing is the key here. Buyers can’t relate to statistics, generic features and functions. But they can connect with the stories of individuals whose lives are changed. People buy on emotion, not intellect. They want a human connection.

If you want to innovate effectively, stop dealing only with impersonal statistics, data and numbers. You do this by identifying the real impact your product or service has on the consumer through observation or stories.

My speeches are to hundreds or thousands of people. At the conclusion, clients often conduct satisfaction surveys. While I generally receive the highest ratings, the responses are too abstract for me to get any real value.

Yesterday I had received a letter from someone who attended a recent speech. He said that the techniques I shared enabled him to solve a problem that had plagued him for a decade. This one personal example provides more value for me than 2,000 “very happy” responses and “great energy” comments on a survey. In addition, this example had an impact on my motivation; I felt energized. It also helped me understand what is really resonating with the audience and I can continue to refine my offerings.

If you own a small business, receiving a high Yelp rating is great. But that is impersonal. Gather stories from customers, in their own words. Go beyond the evaluation of the food, dry cleaning, or whatever you offer. Learn about the deep impact that your service has had in the lives of others. Has your restaurant brought families together? Has your dry cleaner freed up time so that parents now have time to spend with their children?

You are not selling a product or service. You are selling an emotion.

Create a Connection

Humans crave connections with other human beings that they can relate to.
After hearing the stories of those executives who lost their jobs nearly 20 years ago, I took a leave of absence. After several months of reflection, I decided that I no longer wanted to be responsible for the loss of any jobs. Instead, I wanted to help create jobs, so I launched Accenture’s process and innovation practice focusing on growth. And this launched the career I have today.

The 10,000 lost jobs statistic had no impact on me. It was just a number. It was only by hearing personal stories that I was motivated to change. And it is through personal stories and an emotional connection that buyers will be interested in your innovations.