Human After All

It’s easy to forget the importance of empathy in the face of new technology but, as Crowd DNA director Paul White explains, for cultural insights, it will always be the star of the show...

In the world of research and insight, it’s easy to be tempted by new methods, new delivery systems and new technologies. And while staying current is really important, delivering great results always comes back to the core skill of qualitative work: empathy. 

Nursing scholar, Theresa Wiseman, breaks empathy down into four key attributes:  

 1. Seeing the world the way others see it

2. Beginning from a non-judgemental space

3. Understanding another person’s feelings

4. Communicating your understanding of that person’s feelings back to them.

A perfect place to start, but we like to think there’s a fifth step to this process in cultural insight work, and that is: Communicating people’s feelings honestly and objectively to the client that commissioned the research.

So, if empathy is the cornerstone of our industry, why is it so easy to forget? Short answer: we unknowingly participate in systems that push it out of the conversation. Consider the chat you might have with a food stall trader compared to a targeted ad telling you the latest lunch deals. Both are marketing the same thing, but feel very different. We can’t change the current model of communication, but it has pushed us further away from IRL interaction. Short-termism then compounds this with quarterly targets and the need to make quick wins. So we all stay on the treadmill, often unable to take a long enough view to address larger human needs and do something truly empathetic.

This perspective is intensified by a tendency to focus on the newest, slickest methods – because, honestly, suggesting we’ll talk to some people and build recommendations on what they said (yet again) doesn’t sound as exciting as whatever the latest method might be. In our opinion, as long as your methodology is answering the problem you’re trying to solve, you’re on the right track. No need to get starstruck by the latest eye-tracking, VR gadgets or neuroimaging if it takes you away from the initial problem – a problem which is almost always a human one anyway.   

Next, if we know empathy is in short supply, how do we build it in? It starts by remembering our own humanity. At Crowd, we treat our colleagues and clients like humans and create space for people to bring themselves into their work and interactions with participants. By being present and using active listening, we are able to develop deeper connections and quickly bypass the researcher/respondent relationship. There is always insight to be found by truly listening, seeking to understand and not being scared to ask why. 

Don’t be afraid to advocate for human beings. All of us (even global heads of marketing and CEOs) happen to be people – and looking for commonalities between yourself and your customers is key. When we make business decisions in boardrooms (or Zoom calls) with little view of the outside world, the people at the end of the process can be easily forgotten. Instead, bring real people into the room in any way possible. This could be audience immersion work, insightful videos to build empathy or literally inviting your living, breathing customers into your process. 

We must stop reducing people to their ability to consume products. It’s a false shortcut that does no one any good. People are consumers some of the time – but they’re people all of the time. They have lives, worries, families, goals and dreams. It’s only by being more empathetic as professionals and companies that we are able to realise this, and harness the power of cultural insight to add true value to people’s lives.

Safety First

Brands need to pay attention to our perception of safety like never before. Crowd DNA’s group managing director, Dr Matilda Andersson, offers five new safety cues to consider as society opens up...

A sense of safety is one of the most fundamental needs for human survival and wellbeing. The feelings associated with being safe have had many manifestations in the past, but never have they been so complex, confusing and important for brands to acknowledge. As society opens up (albeit at different rates around the world), hygiene, health and protection will be firmly front and center of people’s minds. 

We used to take the feeling of being safe for granted in the Western world, but certainly not anymore. People are now searching for it, their decisions strongly driven by it. With the web of safety cues already embedded in design, language, experience and behaviour, it’s necessary for brands to understand these changing cultural codes and how to create a sense of safety for their customers, employees and wider public. Every channel is up for grabs and no brand is exempt. Leaders need to recognise that perceptions of safety happen subconsciously, meaning that tiny nuances in design or behaviour can make or break a brand. Here are five cues of safety to consider as society opens up.

Safety is consensual 

Safe and healthy relationships, whether personal or transactional, are all about consent. They’re about how to interact and use our bodies, what information to share and what to hold back. Covid, in many ways, has also been about consent: negotiating how close to get, when and where to wear face masks, even giving someone a hug now requires an extra layer of consensual decision making.

It’s important for brands to communicate with transparency and without pressure so that consumers feel in control and able to consent at all stages (from signing up to newsletters, to navigating staff at IRL checkouts). Gen Z, who have always championed safe spaces and consensual interaction, are leading the way and have the opportunity to educate older generations on consent. 

Safety is local, empathetic brands 

Small and local outlets are seen to care much more about their consumers than big, global brands. Over the past year, constant changes to restrictions have meant that local stores the world over have become well versed in adapting to shifting safety requirements. There’s a general perception that big businesses think profit before people, so smaller outlets can often ‘feel’ safer as they have the flexibility to adjust to new standards.

In London, for example, boutique retailer Glassworks upgraded their personal shopping offer to include ‘lock-ins’, where the entire shop is closed for a more personal (and safe) experience. This is another reason why local brands are winning out. Safety is dependent on being empathetic; genuinely listening to consumers’ fears, and quickly modifying the environment to make them feel safe at every turn. 

Safety is being equal and part of a network 

Safety can’t discriminate. Brands who leave people behind, ignore calls for diversity and inclusion, or fail to keep their workers safe need to be held to account. It’s not an option to protect only some; everyone needs to be included in order for individuals to feel safe. For example, despite the fact that Covid disproportionately affected marginalised communities around the world, entire populations have felt shaken. It’s about creating a sense of networked safety for everyone (including the environment).

This can also be seen in brand responses to the BLM movement. Promoting and uplifting Black-owned businesses (often side-lined in white, big brand-dominated industries) is one way forward. Beauty icon Glossier set aside $500,000 in the form of grants to be distributed to Black-owned beauty businesses, and delayed the launch of their latest product ‘in an effort to focus attention, and that of their audience, on the ongoing fight against racial injustice.’ It’s important to remember that brands are also part of a wider network. 

Safety is the ultimate luxury

Constantly being vigilant about safety is exhausting. Taking a break and indulging in a care-free moment is the ultimate pleasure nowadays – yet, without safety, we can’t have this kind of experience. To truly sit back and relax, everything needs to be safe. This includes safety from infection, but also from physical and psychological harm, bullying, racism, misogyny, and all other forms of harassment. This doesn’t mean that brands need to hunker down and promote a secluded form of protection to be considered premium. It’s about looking after your consumers in a holistic way – their body, mind and emotions – to signal that everyone is safe, but included, and everything is in hand behind the scenes.   

Safety welcomes a new design standard 

The last year has placed a spotlight on how reliant we are on nature for our safety and wellbeing. We’ve seen many examples of design changes because of previous pandemics (the introduction of private chambers after the Black Death; urban parks and water sanitation after cholera outbreaks). This time round, the interaction between outdoor and indoor is the most important for brands to acknowledge – bringing the outside inside, or vice versa, and celebrating the great outdoors as part of overall consumer wellbeing.

This could be literal space that adjusts to the needs of people in the moment, or longer-term air purification devices that are installed in public spaces, such as shopping centres. But designing for safety doesn’t have to mean rigidity and sheets of wipeable plastic; brands should experiment with materials that are both aesthetically pleasing and naturally hygienic, such as wood and copper, too. 

This post is based on conversation from Matilda’s appearance in the Style Psychology Human Discussions podcast

If you’d like to discuss the changing cues of safety and what they could mean for your brand, please get in touch: hello@crowdDNA.com

Crowd Tracks: Gaming

No longer reserved just for those locked in bedrooms, gaming has become democratised and more diverse. Our latest edition of Crowd Tracks loads up...

The fourth edition of our regular social data report, Crowd Tracks, is here. This time, it’s all about gaming as we explore unstructured data surrounding the category using our Culture At Scale method.

Gaming has triumphed as one of the saviours of 2020. In a year of uncertainty and confinement, it provides us a tool to escape on the one hand, but remain connected and plugged in on the other. Narratives within gaming culture are also shifting. No longer seen as (entirely) harmful to mental health, games are being presented as a space for self-care. And, while it may be long overdue, the industry is now taking steps toward greater representation and inclusion. 

The full report features:

– Viral stories around the world – from BTS launching their latest single in Fornite, to the UK government calling for a public enquiry into paid-for loot boxes

– A brand leaderboard ranking the social juggernauts of the gaming world and continued dominance of MMOGs (massive multiplayer online games)

– A global hashtag analysis of Instagram, unpacking the conversation and importance of community, humour and creativity in gaming

– A spotlight on Dontnod’s latest game Tell Me Why – a brave and complex adventure confronting issues of sexuality and mental health

Trends analysis of the evolution of games into entertainment ecosystems and the ongoing issues of diversity in gaming.

Download the full copy of Crowd Tracks: Gaming here.

Culture At Scale at Crowd DNA

At Crowd DNA, we’re constantly tracking conversations online across a range of categories. We deploy social media and other unstructured data sources in a number of ways; either as a stand-alone method (including producing one-off and periodical reports for our clients) or integrated alongside semiotic, ethnographic and quantitative approaches. If you’d like to find out more about how we can use Culture At Scale to meet your business challenges, get in touch.

Click State: Brand Allies

In the third part of our Click State series, Crowd DNA New York explores the changing role of brands in America through an analysis of digital activations and online conversations...

This post is part of our Click State series in the lead up to the US election, analyzing digital activations and online conversations (using our Culture At Scale method) and turning emergent trends into valuable learnings. You can read the previous post here.


‘Vote’ was once a message used only by brands already engaged in politics. Now, it’s a must for all. Just as Covid-19 turned parking lots into outdoor movie theaters and parks into yoga studios, brands are reimagining their role as influencers of American culture. By analyzing how a selection of brands are activating digitally and the subsequent conversations online, we can spot the new, emerging standards that they are being held to. Americans are demanding a whole lot more from the businesses they support – and during the intensity of the election, those demands are being met, even if it means losing customers.

Pick A Side

With this year’s surge in Black Lives Matter activism, Americans got comfortable boycotting brands. This also brought a wary eye to performative activism. No longer is a vague post in solidarity enough. This election, consumers demand that brands clearly state candidate allegiance as there’s an understanding that shopping a brand can translate directly to campaign funding. Movement for and against brands is swift, too. Always left leaning, Patagonia took the plunge with playful messages on their tags, driving up social support for the brand. Goya, on the other hand, shocked Latinx brand loyalists by pledging support for Trump, sending consumers into a fierce boycott. Such breaks in brand loyalty show how deeply Americans value businesses that pledge a side regardless of a loss in profits.

Holding Space For Voting

Whether it’s physical space or virtual space on an app, brands are lending themselves to the fight. Just like the perfume brands that manufactured hand sanitizer in response to Covid, KITH and NBA are repurposing their spaces to house voter registration, forgoing business as a result.

Virtual spaces are being transformed too. While Uber and Instagram seem unlikely places to get informed, they’re trading app real estate for voting resources. Voting, registration and ballots can feel intimidating – but brands can use their established and trusted relationships with Americans to educate them in spaces that feel familiar and less intimidating than the Board Of Elections office.

Speaking Youth

With campaigning geared toward older voters, aging candidates and low tech voting options, the election can feel out of touch for younger Americans. These voters are also new to traditional politics; unsure where to register, get information, or actually cast a vote. Taking advantage of their credibility factor and ability to relate to young Americans, brands like Snap and ATTN: are bridging the gap. These brands are using colloquial language, emoji and relevant references to speak the way these voters talk among peers. Key to this is that these brands usually relate to younger Americans with similar messaging, making these efforts feel natural.

As Americans raise the bar on their expectations, we see the role of ‘brand’ change. Generic messages that speak to the entire population, or t-shirts that read ‘vote’ without any larger action, no longer have the wow factor. In a climate where most Americans feel a lack of guidance from the government, social conversations and digital activations prove that relationships are being elevated. With brands now being seen as trusted partners and institutions, consumers demand their dedication – whether that be explicitly stating candidate allegiance; genuinely committing to political education; or even giving up valuable resource and space for voting activity, Americans expect full devotion from the businesses they support, just as they would from a political candidate.   


Source: Brandwatch tracking data from Jul 1, 2020-Oct 20, 2020

KITH: (“voter registration” OR voterregistration OR “register to vote” OR registertovote) AND (kith)

NBA: nba AND (“voter resgistration” OR voterregistration OR “register to vote” OR registertovote)

Goya: goya OR “goya foods” OR goyafood

In our second installment of Click State, Crowd DNA New York turns to TikTok to uncover learnings from a platform full of politics, creativity and a lot of personality...

This post is part of our Click State series, analyzing conversation online (using our Culture At Scale method) in the lead up to the US election and turning emergent trends into valuable learnings. You can read our first post here.  


To uncover the full force behind TikTok, we have to debunk misconceptions – it’s not all lighthearted, silly content, and it’s not just a playspace for Gen Z. Instead, TikTok’s short form layout lends well to disseminating punchy information. If Twitter and Instagram forged the way for concise content, TikTok enables creators to add drama and flair to that same message. The platform’s democratic nature also provides everyone with the ability to post to the homepage. And it’s that accessibility that makes TikTok a level playing field when it comes to mobilizing around the election.

When browsing other social platforms, we see similar memes, clips, headlines and infographics. Yet the content on TikTok is always something new. By conducting social media analysis we can examine those differences further and start to uncover emerging, TikTok based themes around the upcoming election.

Democratizing Knowledge On #TikTokTaughtMe

From iPhone usability hacks to science explained, #TikTokTaughtMe enables users to share and expand their knowledge. This hashtag, paired with others like #Election2020, has given TikTokers a way to quickly educate themselves and others. From how to debate someone with opposing views to what certain laws mean, the hashtag creates a safe space for learning and sharing knowledge. This type of openhearted content highlights TikTok’s ‘come as you are’ ethos. It sets the platform up to welcome a diversity of opinion, while always striving to be better and learn more.

TikTokers utilize #TikTokTaughtMe to share and build knowledge
TikTokers utilize #TikTokTaughtMe to share and build knowledge

Making The World Smaller

Actor and rapper, Daveed Diggs, released a song denouncing Trump supporters as white supremacists. Users then merged it with the national anthem, which liberal TikTokers from conservative families are now using to confront relatives and catch their reactions on film. This is TikTok making the world feel smaller. Rather than being isolated in a town of people with opposing views, TikTokers are able to take to the platform to feel camaraderie. Such content empowers users to start difficult conversations, knowing they have the support of an online community behind them.

Challenges can provide TikTokers with a common space to relate to one another
Challenges can provide TikTokers with a common space to relate to one another

Being Your Authentic Self

TikTok Trump supporters are using #MAGAchallenge to show their love. The videos are varied, but all express proud support regardless of the opinions of others. Many use the song ‘I Like Trump,’ which voices similar sentiment and unifies the posts. In every election, some Americans shy away from voicing support for ‘unpopular’ candidates. But, with TikTok’s vast niches, there’s a place for everyone to express their true selves and feel heard. And when TikTokers feel supported, they feel empowered and free to speak their mind.

TikTok makes space for its users to be themselves and find others like them - near and far
TikTok makes space for its users to be themselves and find others like them - near and far

By analyzing these themes coming from conversations on TikTok, we can see the ability that social media has to create safe learning environments, build support systems and empower its users. But it is also clear that content can no longer be recycled across all social media outlets.

For brands to cater to their audience in authentic and impactful ways, it’s important to realize each platform’s use cases. Authenticity, empathy and camaraderie are built into all of TikTok’s features. So in a year where there’s a new breaking headline everyday, learning how to wield these features (as well as TikTok’s creativity) will help brand communications cut through.

Crowd Tracks: Beauty

From ‘skintellectuals’ to K-pop collaborations, our new instalment of Crowd Tracks exposes the changing face of beauty over the past four months...

Download the full copy of Crowd Tracks: Beauty here.

We’re back with round two of Crowd Tracks – a social data dispatch highlighting emerging trends using our Culture At Scale method. This time, the spotlight is on beauty, as we look back at the viral stories and online conversations sprucing up the category.

The last few months have been turbulent (to say the least) and we completed most of this edition before the full extent of the Covid-19 crisis became clear. While the observations still have relevance both now and post-pandemic, we’ve also made some adjustments to reflect the new beauty behaviours that we’re starting to see.

The full report features:

– Viral stories from around the world – from female politicians breaking beauty taboos, to the growing appetite for halal and vegan cosmetics in South East Asia

– A brand leaderboard highlighting the companies that are making the biggest waves in beauty through nostalgic throwbacks and K-pop collaborations

– A spotlight on how UZ deployed a cloak-and-dagger campaign at New York Fashion Week to ignite a cult following

– Deep-dives into active beauty, the industry-wide paradigm shift putting power in the hands of consumers and creating a new generation of DIY dermatologists

– Our view on how Covid-19 is set to accelerate the virtual beauty space as people stay home and get creative with AR filters and lenses

Download the full copy of Crowd Tracks: Beauty here.

Exploring the virtual beauty spectrum from 'creative face' to 'perfect face'
Exploring the virtual beauty spectrum from 'creative face' to 'perfect face'

Culture At Scale at Crowd DNA

At Crowd DNA, we’re constantly tracking conversations online across a range of categories. We deploy social media and other unstructured data sources in a number of ways; either as a stand-alone method (including producing one-off and periodical reports for our clients) or integrated alongside semiotic, ethnographic and quantitative approaches. If you’d like to find out more about how we can use Culture At Scale to meet your business challenges, get in touch.

Moving The Goalposts

From streetwear ambitions to curated content platforms, Crowd DNA's Gabriel Noble spots five talking points in football...

With the season well underway in Europe’s high profile leagues, we’re getting to see the innovations and cultural connections that football is trailblazing, as it looks to compete with other major global sports – and indeed for a share of audience time versus other entertainment options more generally. Here’s what we’re seeing…

Football meets streetwear

When PSG played Liverpool earlier this season, you might have noticed something unusual. Rather than wearing jerseys with the Nike tick, they were emblazoned with the Jumpman logo of Air Jordan, a brand rooted in streetwear and basketball. The PSG x Air Jordan collab illustrates how football clubs are beginning to realise their potential as brands in popular culture and, as a response, building on their own merch capabilities. PSG have set the standard, but as lines between football and fashion continue to blur – Poet & Yinka’s collaboration with Puma on their LDN City pack boots, Virgil Abloh’s Off White kit, or Nigeria’s World Cup kit – other teams will surely follow suit.

We expect to see kit sponsorship deals balloon, as the likes of Nike and adidas capitalise on this development and integrate the clubs they sponsor into their lifestyle ranges. On the flipside, as streetwear continues its journey to the mainstream, more brands like Palace (see their adidas Wimbledon collab) and Air Jordan are likely to play in this space with limited edition ranges, or, at the very least, third kits, football apparel and boots.

PSG x Air Jordan
PSG x Air Jordan

Championing football’s new cultural angles

As football continues to secure its place outside of sports culture, so the media outlets diversify also – from the likes of Versus who ‘showcase the cultural convergence happening across the worlds of sport, music and style’; to Mundial, who build on football’s casual culture and produce a magazine filled with fashion features and untold stories of the game. Diverse voices are coming to the fore too. Through the likes of Caricom, which explores the space where football and the black experience intersect; and Season Zine: dedicated to empowering female fans. This year has also seen Eniola Aluko join the Guardian as their sports columnist, giving further credence to this progressive shift. In 2019, women’s place in football will no doubt rise, as the Women’s World Cup edges nearer. 

Season Zine
Season Zine

Owning the conversation

Over the last few years, clubs and players may have been asking themselves where they fit in the content landscape, and how they can own the conversation with their fans. Through Amazon’s partnership with Manchester City in their All Or Nothing doc, we might be getting a taste of what’s to come, as top clubs put out their own long-form content. The same goes for players, as we saw the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Raheem Sterling feature on Player’s Tribune, a platform that connects them directly with their fans. However, this trend doesn’t come without others losing out. Many commentators fear it might lead to less transparency and an exclusion of traditional media, with clubs and players looking to control their own message.

Player's Tribune
Player's Tribune

Integration of football and eSports continues

Football leagues and clubs have been getting more involved in the eSport space. The MLS introduced the eMLS Cup for the first time this year, with each club being represented by a Fifa gamer. Its success hasn’t gone unnoticed, and it has now been announced that the Premier League are doing something similar. In the past, eSports and traditional sports have seemed disparate and incompatible, as League Of Legends and Dota dominate. It’ll be interesting to see whether this push by top clubs and leagues can put Fifa at the same standing as eSport’s incumbents, giving the game a more meaningful place in the eSports category.

eMLS Cup
eMLS Cup

La Liga goes global

Probably the most controversial of developments, the 2018/19 La Liga season will potentially see Barcelona play Girona in a competitive game in Miami, at the Hard Rock Stadium. As clubs and leagues look to grow their fanbase across the world, it was only a matter of time before this was trialled. But the backlash to this demonstrates that there’s a way to go before football mimics American sports like the NFL, who have been present in the UK since 2007. In the meantime, we can continue to see pre-season as a way for clubs to connect with fans across the world, through the likes of the International Champions Cup, where the world’s top clubs play matches across the US, Europe and Singapore.

Miami's Hard Rock Stadium
Miami's Hard Rock Stadium

As well as these five areas, other interesting developments include the way tech is being used to produce immersive fan-focussed experiences as Siemens, The Economist and Bayern Munich provide the opportunity to track a game’s big moments through the voices of fans. Amazon have also finally made a break into Premier League rights, while OTT service DAZN continues to expand and grow in size across the globe, most recently setting up shop in Italy. From the pitch upwards, a lot is changing in football.

SHOPPING AT AMAZON 4-STAR

Crowd DNA New York's Eden Lauffer ventured to the Amazon 4-Star store, a new concept launched in SoHo, to check out how this omnipresent brand is seeking to bridge the online and offline...

The last year has seen the likes of Toys ‘R’ Us, Sports Authority and Brookstone either downsized or closed for good. There are myriad factors behind their economic woes – but the strong presence of online retailers, backed up by reviews and cheaper prices, is a big one. The main culprit: Amazon.

A 2018 NPR study found that 67 per cent of American online shoppers trust Amazon “quite a lot.” Consumers are even willing to go as far as to let Amazon deliver packages directly into their homes via Amazon Key. So what does a brick-and-mortar store offer consumers that Amazon can’t offer them online?

The 4-Star offer

Planted in a high traffic area of SoHo, Amazon’s 4-Star store sits in the vicinity of the Marc Jacobs headquarters and the MoMa Design Store – a sign of how Amazon seeks to position its new offering. The pitch: a collection of best-selling items, sold by Amazon, with (you guessed it) a four-star or above rating.

The store showcases a strange mix of products, where reusable lunch bags sit beside limited edition Chewbacca toys. Among all of the seemingly randomly placed Swell bottles and Flappy the Elephant toys, the store’s central focus is the electronics section. Within that section, the tables with Amazon products like Alexa and Kindle have ‘try me’ labels.

Bringing the online, offline

On the first table of merchandise proudly stands a ‘Most Wished For’ sign. Shelves and tables are labeled with typical Amazon categories – some with a local twist, such as ‘Top Selling Around NYC’. There’s even an offline version of Amazon’s recommended items, with products labeled “if you like this, you’ll also love this!”

Each item in the store has an electronic marker detailing that item’s current price, and its up-to-date four star rating. Many items have two prices – a discounted one for Prime members, and a full-price for the uninitiated – perhaps a sign of the future for Prime membership online, too.

A place for advice

Consumer trust in Amazon is furthered in the 4-Star store, especially in the the case of their own brand electronics that were formerly only available to try via purchase. Stores like GameStop and Apple give consumers a space to play with electronics and speak with experts before making a purchase. In the 4-Star store, employees are friendly and informed, instilling confidence in shoppers’ purchase decisions.

Making your city feel smaller

While Amazon is teeming with reviews both raving and scathing, consumers have no way of knowing who these reviewers are. In the 4-Star store, signs like ‘Top Selling Around NYC’ make fellow shoppers feel within reach. The NYC specific tables also come equipped with actual user quotes about several of the products, whether it’s superglue, a power strip, or a hot new book.

New York can be isolating, but with a view like this of what those around you are doing, the city feels warmer and more inviting. For example, on the ‘Trending Around NYC’ table, shopper quotes discussed the values of a hand vacuum, something particularly relevant for small New York apartments.

The verdict

The store does an excellent job of bringing the Amazon experience offline. Yet, finding specific products is likely easier online, and the strange mix of products in the store means it lacks a clear focus. However, with our world barreling in the direction of online only, an attempt at building community between shoppers seems like a nice gesture – considering Amazon’s leading role in the ever-changing retail landscape.