A tell in poker is a change in a player’s behavior or demeanor that is claimed by some to give clues to that player’s assessment of their hand. A player gains an advantage if they observe and understand the meaning of another player’s tell, particularly if the tell is unconscious and reliable. — Wikipedia

Tells don’t just exist in a game of poker. They exist in life. We, as a group of people, create these tells, and we give these tells meaning. For example, when someone drives up in an expensive car, we assume they’re well-off. Here, the car serves as a tell for the person who is driving that car. The assumption associated with that car however, that the person is well-off, is the meaning that we as people have assigned to that tell.

Tells are nothing without their associated meanings. There are millions of tells and meanings created by people to make sense of the world around them. So, culture, is quite simply the study of these tells and their associated meanings.

Interestingly enough, in today’s world, a majority of these tells relate to our consumption habits — i.e. what we buy, where we live, how we live, where we spend our time, what we wear, what we adorn, etc.. And those that don’t pertain to our consumption, relate to who we are as people — our beliefs, values, the communities we belong to, the people we are seen with, our choice of vocation etc.. Understanding the linkage between who we are as people, and what we consume is the study of consumer culture. And it is the holy grail of research — to really grasp why people do what they do, and why trends change or evolve.

When we launched MotivBase, we knew that if we had to truly master an understanding of consumer culture, we had to find a way to not just capture, but make sense of these millions of tells and meanings that exist in the world around us. Because if nothing else, our job is to provide our clients a shortcut into understanding culture, and more importantly, a shortcut into knowing where it is headed. But in order to get there, we had a few problems to solve:

  1. There are millions of tells and meanings in culture. And they are all interconnected. A tell in relation to food bears some relationship to a tell in the context of sport, while also connecting to a tell around social and political values and so on. We had to find a way to not just understand these tells, but also capture their relationships with one another.
  2. Old tells and their meanings change over time. We can’t just identify a tell, and walk away. Culture is alive. I somewhat equate it to a glacier. You can’t see it moving, but if you don’t pay attention, it’ll pass you by. Which meant it wasn’t enough to just capture the relationships (between tells). We also had to stay on top of their changes.
  3. New tells and meanings emerge, all the time. Pre-recession, the simplest way of knowing if someone was doing well for themselves was to look at the house they lived in, and the car they drove. Today, much of that has already changed. We’re now dealing with a growing group of people who’d rather spend their money on incredible culinary and travel experiences, than on objects they can own — like a home or an automobile. Which means the tells of wealth are not just changing, they’re reinventing themselves. And we have to find a way to keep up.

Studying 1 million consumers.

We began our journey with an ambitious goal. Employing our digital ethnography methodology, we wanted to study 1 million consumers across key markets around the globe. We figured that studying that many people would not only teach us about the relationships between tells in various industries and market categories, but would also give our research process a much needed boost in scale and expediency.

The outcome of this journey has fundamentally changed our business and our capabilities.

  1. As we started to capture various tells and their associated meanings, we very quickly began to see the patterns of connections between them. We also realized that many tells have become universal amongst most European, North American and even Asian markets. Their associated meanings have cultural nuance to them depending on the country we are looking at, and its own cultural/historical baggage. But the tells themselves are becoming globalized.
  2. We learned that there’s a consistent pattern that explains how new tells emerge, and why some of them make their way into mainstream culture, while others remain confined to smaller populations. This pattern now allows us to help our clients predict emerging trends and impending changes in their market categories.
  3. Newer projects started to become easier. The more tells we captured, the quicker we became at completing specific research projects for our clients. And the faster we got, the more we were able to scale our research. We went from doing projects where we studied a few hundred people, through the means of digital ethnography, to projects where we studied over 8000, still completing massive research projects in markets around the world, in a matter of 3–4 weeks!

And the best is still to come.

Building our database: The largest and only repository of consumer culture.

Halfway into the process of studying a million consumers, we realized that our existing system of storing and classifying tells and their meanings was no longer sufficient. The more consumers we studied the more tells we identified. The more tells we identified, the more relationships we unearthed. And the more relationships we unearthed, the more powerful our database became. So, we decided it was time to make an investment. Three months ago, we officially began development of our very own graph database.

The purpose was two-fold:

  1. To visualize consumer culture — see the various tells, their meanings, and their relationships to one another.
  2. To be able to query our database, and understand in a matter of seconds, the cultural relationships between things, brands, people, places and much more.

The end result will look something like this.

With great power comes great responsibility.

The more tells we capture in our database, the more important it becomes for us to not just ensure that they’re constantly updated (as the meanings associated with them change or evolve), but also ensure that new tells are captured. We now have a team of researchers dedicated to the task of building and continuously improving our database. And it has become inherently part of our business and our Intellectual Property.

While we are not ready just yet to give our clients access to this database (for one, there’s much development to be done), behind the scenes this database is the reason why we are the only company to be able to conduct large scale ethnographies in a matter of weeks. Our clients are already reaping the benefits of our database as we are able to deliver analyses of emerging trends at the category level, and identify the triggers that will change tells and their meanings in culture.

What do you want to research today?