How a Star Trek convention explains the secret to selling more stuff

Star Trek conventions are diverse places. There are young children, old women, and, generally speaking, people from any number of different countries and backgrounds. At a recent convention in Chicago, there also was IBM (s ibm) Director of Business Analytics Erick Brethenoux.

Surrounded by people he didn’t know, Brethenoux says he felt closer even than he sometimes does with members of his own family. At one point, he made eye contact with a young woman and both knew exactly what the other was thinking; her boyfriend wasn’t in on the mind meld. “During those two hours,” Brethenoux told me recently, “I had that feeling of belonging that was a little disturbing.”

And, he added, replicating that feeling is exactly what good advertisers should be looking to big data to accomplish. “How can you take that concept and build trust around it?” he asked. The answer to his rhetorical question is that you have to listen completely to what customers are talking about online and figure out their emotional attachments to certain things.

Manufacturing kinship

Only most marketing folks looking at sales data, for example, can’t tell if there’s Star Trek convention going on in within their customer bases; they just see a gathering of people at a convention center. Brethenoux preaches something he calls  the “kin” theory in order to figure out what’s bringing this cluster of people together and, better yet, to figure out how to be the company bringing them all together.

Done successfully, he said, “the attachment to the brand becomes very Apple-like.” The theory is that consumers will hold a special place in their hearts (or at least their subconscious) for brands they associate with the sense of kinship they experienced, and they’ll be more willing to become repeat customers. Some customers might share a sense of kinship around one topic, while others will rally around something completely different, but it’s that sense of belonging to a group that matters in the end.

Erick Brethenoux
Erick Brethenoux

When he was working in the insurance industry, Brethenoux explained, the company discovered a group of young men under 25 years old who owned sports cars and were surprisingly low-risk drivers. This, of course, goes against the conventional wisdom that young men in fast cars are about the least-insurable people on the road. It turns out they were all sports-car aficionados who housed their cars in safe places, didn’t drive them in bad weather and made all their repairs themselves (this was good because it meant fewer expensive trips to the garage).

The company reacted by creating a special policy category tailored to avid car collectors, one that Brethenoux said spread like wildfire and helped the company earn its money back about tenfold. And although, admittedly, the insurance company just cared that these guys took care of their cars, the insured felt like the company really understood their passion.

In the realm of athletic shoes, Brethenoux added, a marketer might look beyond just a shoe’s functionality (i.e., what sport it was designed for) and start looking at what the people who buy it are doing when they’re not wearing shoes. I can’t help but think of number of teenagers sportings Airwalks and Vans in the 1990s, or my yuppie brethren of today sporting barefoot running shoes from REI. The easy conclusion to draw is that we all participate in a certain activity, but the harder part is digging deeper to find out if there are other, more personal interests we might share.

Those ’90s teenagers might be wearing skateboarding shoes, but a love of indie music might be the real tie that binds. My fellow yuppies might all like trail running, but a large number of us might also be into microbrewing and craft beers. It’s capitalizing on this knowledge, Brethenoux said, that really forms a bond between brand and consumer.

Big, social data says a lot

And thanks to all the data people are giving away for free with their web-browsing behavior, as well as on social media, forums, user reviews and other places, brands can drill down pretty deeply, Brethenoux said. The consumer’s voice about who they really are and what they really like is louder than ever.

In the case of Brethenoux’s Star Trek obsession, he said, a marketer might have been able to piece together his affinity for the franchise from other data points. As he explained it, a guy who spends a fortune on Star Trek Lego sets and digital content, who’s a member of the National Space Society but works in software rather than space exploration, and who prefers exploratory video games to first-person shooters, likely feels a strong connection to Star Trek.

Although, he noted, despite all the hype about using analyzing social media data, most companies are still pretty unsophisticated, using it for simplistic and not-too-valuable insights such as overall brand sentiment. “We talk a good game about social data,” he said. “Very few actually leverage it effectively today.”

But hotel and airlines companies, in particular, might want to pay better attention to what’s actually possible. “A little increment in a market that’s so aggressive in terms of competition,” Brethenoux said, “is where a little difference can make the biggest difference.”

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user Magic Madzik.