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Why marketers require empathy to make data meaningful

By Phil Adams, Planning Director

February 9, 2017 | 4 min read

This is a story about data so big that you can see it from space.

sea shells

It is also an uplifting story about a lack of imagination and empathy.

The lack is ours.

We the sophisticated. We the educated. We the connected. We the informed. We the insightful.

We the ignorant.

My daughter is traveling in Australia and is reading Bill Bryson’s Down Under. She sent me a photograph of this passage and I have highlighted the most pertinent section in bold type.

“They seemed not to perceive the world in the way of other people. No Aboriginal language, for instance, had and words for ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’  –  extraordinary omissions in any culture. They had no chiefs or governing councils, wore no clothes, built no houses or other permanent structures, sowed no crops, herded no animals, made no pottery, possessed almost no sense of property. Yet they devoted disproportionate efforts to enterprises that no one even now can understand.

"All around the coast of Australia the early explorers found huge shell mounds, up to 30 feet high and covering at the base as much as half an acre. Often these were some distance inland and uphill. The Aborigines clearly had made some effort to convey the shells from the beach to the mounds –  one midden was estimated to contain 33,000 cubic metres of shells  –  and they kept it up for an enormously long time: at least 800 years in one case. Why did they bother? No one knows. In almost every way it was as if they answered to some different laws.”

The mounds are called shell middens. A more than cursory but far from exhaustive internet search appears to corroborate Bryson’s assertion that nobody knows why they are there. Lots of theories. No definitive explanation.

But it appears that someone does know. Sorry Bill.

Fortunately, this is one of those occasions when, rather than getting in the way of a good story, the truth makes it better.

The tour guide who showed my daughter round Fraser Island is friends with the local Aboriginal people. According to them the mounds were a means of ensuring a sustainable relationship with nature’s bounty. Shellfish were an important part of the Aboriginal diet and by discarding the shells on these mounds they kept a visible record of their eating habits. Each midden was a mollusc manifest.

The mounds made it plain to see if one species were being over-eaten and the locals would temporarily alter their diet to allow stocks to replenish.

Each shell was a datum. And the middens were databases.

We would call that data-driven insight.

Data driven insight triggering the next best action.

To the Aboriginal people it was common sense.

What is striking about this story is that we lack the empathy and the imagination to see what is staring us in the face. “Why did they bother? No one knows.”

Empathy and emotional intelligence are getting a lot of marketing press just now. Rightly so. But talk is cheap. As this story illustrates, empathy is not easy.

Stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another requires aptitude and application. Not everyone can do it.

The most important and profound things in life tend to be simple but not easy.

If emotional intelligence is to stake a meaningful claim as the marketing panacea du jour, brands need to find ways to turn the simple fluffy philosophy into difficult practical actions.

Phil Adams is planning director at Cello Signal. He can be found tweeting here


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