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‘Brands need to invest in data to target the right consumers and develop innovative products or services’

Isime Esene is the Chief Intelligence Officer, RED | For Africa. Culture Intelligence from RED is Africa’s leading think tank on media, marketing and the culture which helps companies, governments and change makers with data and insight for evidence-based decision-making. In this interview with BUNMI BAILEY, he shares insight on how data analytics can help rebuild communities and businesses to survive and sustain themselves beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Excerpts:

In the last 20 years, we have experienced six significant threats – Ebola, SARS, MERS, avian influenza, swine flu, and now, COVID-19. If you look at how governments and brands were caught unawares, what does that say about how policy experts, political leaders and even companies choose to see data intelligence?

We really cannot argue against useful data or excellent insights, but we can agree on how institutions, corporations, or brands need to have data-driven leaders.

Experts have built up how important data has become for identifying problems and also driving growth. Researchers and brand experts are pushing more insightful information daily across media platforms than ever before – but then, we also have to engage a plethora of all leaders prepared to separate what currently appears attractive from what is essential effectively.

Secondly, public policies require long-term investment, especially intangibles such as disaster planning, which tend to be a lower priority. At the beginning of the pandemic, Culture Intelligence from RED launched, an innovative platform that gathers data of all COVID-19 interventions and links organisations to places or people who need support. Also, because Nigerians across the country provide necessary information on what they need directly, the platform has become critical way beyond the pandemic, especially to understand emergencies in specific states – hunger, infection rates, poverty, and many other issues.

But governments, private institutions, and not-for-profits have to see the quality in such information. To form a long-term strategy, we have to understand that even when we finally beat coronavirus, we have to help those suffering from its impact and rebuild our economy. Data is essential, but it becomes useful when leaders take it seriously and can act on it. Globally it is evident that many world leaders and organisations were not prepared for the pandemic.

Businesses and governments are witnessing remarkable retooling of the different communities and failures across many sectors. How can data analytics help rebuild communities and businesses to survive and even sustain themselves beyond the pandemic?

Government, retail, and media companies have shown the highest increase in data analytics investment globally, but COVID-19 has also impacted these sectors. The pandemic has disrupted everything from consumer behaviour to supply chains, and the economic fallout is still disrupting communities. Many things we knew before COVID-19 have changed.

So how do we move forward? Businesses and governments have to reassess what data remains relevant. Previously, organisations wanted to understand new consumer tastes and demands and anticipate possible needs, so brand executives invested in predictive analytics and used data to predict future trends.

But that will not work anymore because consumers and communities are dealing with new experiences. Instead, we have to focus on describing culture – collecting data on things that happened yesterday, and analysing them to predict what will happen today and tomorrow.

To rebuild communities and businesses that have been affected, we have to understand what they are going through now and use the data collected to implement solutions. Brands need to know how the consumer feels now and transform the data into insights for decision-making.

What does culture intelligence mean, especially in data analytics and offering solutions for governments, businesses and experts in the social sector?

Culture and intelligence are inextricably interlinked.

Consumers evolve, so intelligence cannot be fully or even meaningfully understood outside of its cultural context. In practical terms, culture intelligence analyses data to understand cultural shifts, dissect how people think and behave, and highlight how brands and products fit into their lives.

By analysing cultural insights, marketers and experts can establish context, patterns, and codes. We can also increase accuracy when interpreting consumer stories, especially from social groups that form micro-communities. Culture Intelligence captures events, anecdotes, habits to understand what’s next in trends, communication, and competitive environments. In turn, these new ideas are used to predict cultural movements and consumer needs.

The new tool Culture Intelligence from RED, what does it take to build a platform so industry-defining? What are the problems that the tool answers?

The tool has two different capabilities. One is the culture mapping function, which we call ‘The Masterlist’. Currently, we have more than 20,000 data points covering People, Places and Platforms. Spread over twelve different categories, including actors, singers, writers, music and film producers and more, these data points represent people and platforms that drive the culture. It’s a simple answer to the question ‘Where should marketing (sales, communication, brand, sponsorship) managers and agencies spend their money today?’.

The second is the culture insight functions to help commercial, social, and public sector players thrive in a diverse and competitive environment. Through ‘What The Streets Are Saying’, Culture Intelligence from RED tracks consumer behaviour via data, which we collect from our 500-member consumer panel spread across the country. We also culture experts – insiders – operating in diverse sectors to deliver intuitive qualitative insights that cannot be discovered through quantitative research methods.

Through Culture Intelligence from RED, Nigeria’s only culture intelligence tool, we help commercial, social, and public sector players thrive in a diverse and competitive environment.

How would you describe the deliberate focus on analysing culture rather than the essentials of numerical data?

Institutions can invest in social data, fieldwork or surveys, but numbers do not capture the whole picture. On the other hand, trends are about emerging popularities and have a short lifespan. Yes, we advise brands to jump on trends, but they are only useful for a short and quick marketing campaign. Culture Intelligence is about understanding rather than noticing cultural impact on brands.

Culture shapes, defines and moulds identity. More importantly, it serves as a mental and behavioural rudder in unstable times like we’re currently experiencing. In March 2020, we published a report on the effects that the pandemic would have on Nigeria, and we mentioned the unrest that will likely occur, including the specific states where it would arise.

Seven months later, the country was upended mainly due to the #EndSARS protest. Analysing culture provides an opportunity to delve deeper within existing dominant cultures or issues, and understand how they can grow into full-blown game-changers that alter societal attitudes and behaviours.

For example, what is the link between the pandemic and the protest? How do Nigerians see the demonstrations, and how will they drive interests or reactions among the majority? Apart from the pandemic, what are the underlying factors that led to the crisis, and how can we predict other big moments in the future? Unlike trends that are more easily discerned, culture insights highlight the white spaces between the dots and provide important grounding context to data points.

For brands in the country, the Nigerian audience is massively diverse – with different tastes, interests, opinions, how does Culture Intelligence from RED pierce through these complexities in understanding customer segments and also address clients’ demands?

A report I read recently explains it perfectly. We can imagine culture like the human circulatory system, connected and fed by blood vessels. Like the arteries and veins, Macro-culture are the big, dominant vessels with overarching beliefs and values that impact how we function. But culture intelligence tries to dissect micro-cultures, which are the capillaries or smaller vessels that link the arteries and veins through our organs’ networks. Basically, we seek to understand the ‘Why’ – because these are underlying codes and nuances that also influence attitudes and actions.

By analysing cultural insights, marketers and experts can establish context, patterns, and codes. We can also increase accuracy when interpreting consumer stories, especially from social groups that form micro-communities. Culture Intelligence captures events, stories, patterns to understand what’s next in trends, communication and competitive environments. In turn, these new ideas are used to predict cultural movements or consumer demands that brands can address.

What are the typical examples that would drive businesses to start investing to address changes in customer preferences, social behaviours, purchasing patterns, customer needs and various other important market positions?

Indeed, culture is not static. In this case, let us discuss customer segmentation strategy for brands and how brand managers leverage it for targeting. First, the mistake brand managers have always made is to place urban millennials in Kano, Akure, Lagos and Awka in the same box, and believing that brands can engage them the same way.

The current crisis demands a more intelligent segmentation approach. We can begin by understanding the consumer and their basic needs. People are dealing with new problems and realities, and brands have to adapt their communication messages from their brand image and personality objectives. Brands also need to invest in data to help them target the right consumers and develop innovative products or services.

How can such forward-thinking companies successfully transition, including brands in the continent looking to invest in data analytics and culture intelligence?

Data and analytics play a critical role in today’s business environment. The best leaders know how to focus, and they understand the essential data that drives their bottom line, employee engagement or customer commitment. As a consulting company, RED | For Africa helps companies through data-backed storytelling to change behaviour and create strong bonds between brand and customer.

Secondly, companies and organisations produce massive amounts of data, and they produce them regularly. So, forward-thinking companies must effectively use data and analytics and be clear about how they intend to use them. They must engage with their communities and understand the value of an honest image to grant their customers and employees loyalty.

Internally, it is also essential to build creative, multidisciplinary, and efficient teams ready to use data to respond to their consumer needs.

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