Hack into the Mainframe

What does TRA do? And what’s the big idea behind Mainframe?  

TRA uses insights into human behaviour to find growth opportunities for our clients. Basically, we understand what it is people want from your business and how best to deliver this in a way that creates mutual value.

We do this by curating huge amounts of different data and applying this to strategic frameworks.

The idea behind Mainframe was to take some of the thinking on why people do what they do and how to use this to solve business issues that has emerged from our work, and put it all in an open source space for other businesses to use – kind of a starter kit for customer-centric thinking to get people thinking in this space. We see it as a way to advocate for this type of thinking in business, which is really important to use because we have seen how effective it can be in stimulating growth.

In a time of media abundance, curation is key. Is that part of the goal with this site?  

Absolutely. The last study I saw on this said we have 2,000 minutes of media available for every minute we consume, so we wanted to make it easy for anyone in the industry to dive into some of the really big ideas that define how you become customer-centric. Like how you understand what winds of change are setting what our preferences are going to be in the next five years, or what the touchstones are that explain what it means to be a Kiwi in 2018.

Our purpose is to see people get better stuff from the businesses that serve them, and curated thinking is a big shortcut to seeing this happen through our eyes. We want conversations started in this space.

What’s a good example of your insights and understanding changing a decision and/or leading to a better one?

When we started working with Lion on the next big thing for Steinlager a few years back, we created with them a framework for innovation that built idea spaces collaboratively, rather than just screening and developing internal ideas. This surfaced spaces that would never have been uncovered by either party (user or maker) individually. The collision of precision Japanese brewing with the best New Zealand natural ingredients, in a way that celebrated on-point cultural currents really connected with people. That launch created $4.9 million in sales in the first year, but what’s more telling is that it accounted for something like 40 percent of all new product revenue for that year despite the fact there was over 1,000 new launches in that period. That really shows the power of starting from a point of human connection.

You’re in the business of selling expertise and insights to brands trying to navigate what has become a very complex marketing environment. What do you think marketers can get out of this? And is this content relevant to those outside the marketing department? 

There’s a lot here for anyone who’s job requires changing or reinforcing any behaviour to achieve an outcome, be it growth, staff engagement or social change.

What I hope people get out of this is some kind of starter that helps them unlock a way around a problem they are facing. Maybe you’re wondering how to position a new launch, or why your loyalty play hasn’t clicked with people. Everybody hits the same problems on their journey through business and we are lucky enough to have seen many of them – and lucky too that we have been paid to spend so much time thinking about why these problems exist and how to solve them effectively.

Through this curated collection of insights into people, and experience in different categories, I like to think people will find inspiration to act on problems, a starter that gets them on the right trajectory to deliver something of real value to whatever audience they serve.

There’s a whole lot of content on the site. How far back does it go? And is sharing the knowledge of your team an important part of TRA’s own marketing strategy? Has content marketing worked?

There is a bit there on Mainframe, and it’s great to look back and see just how much we’ve generated over the past couple of years. We are big believers in content sharing – outputs of your thinking are not the real IP, the structure and people who can create them are. We want to play a central role in driving business towards more customer-centric thinking, as this is what we see from experience creates growth – and also better outcomes ultimately for people. And we see content sharing as part of this process.

If you keep your ideas all to yourself, jealously protecting them against the world, it’s very hard to create space for new ones. Sharing is a path to growth.

What are some of the things that the brands you work with often under-emphasise or get completely wrong?

Most pervasively, the failure to start from a fully formed position of the message they want to communicate, the agenda they want to see served. Without that it’s really hard to find a point of connection and relevance with people – they become like those people you meet at parties who are just waiting for an opportunity to talk about themselves. We love it when people ask us about ourselves and it’s kinda like that with brands. You have to start from a point of purpose and values, but you have to let your message and agenda unravel more organically with the audience or subculture you exist for. Be more human.

The good news is this isn’t actually that hard to do, but it does require a much more dedicated connection to your people and a much less rigid state of control.

One of TRA’s major focuses is on cultural strategy. Why is it so important for businesses to understand the context they operate in, and how that context is changing?  

People have moved from valuing things and have even moved beyond valuing experiences – we are now at a time when people value meaning in their lives. But what influences that? Culture does.

The big global movements that land on our shore are taken up and evolved to reflect the unique Kiwi identity and then adopted by people to shape meaning in their lives and with their social groups. Why it matters is that cultural influences affect behaviour and decision making in relation to brands, social policy, customer experiences.

Has New Zealand changed that much? What are the new cultural codes that brands need to understand?

Yes, and no.

At the core, our same deep-seated identity is still intact. So what‘s changed is how that manifests itself in a changed world. And the changed world is both how the country has changed and how our relationship with the rest of the world has changed. Like no one refers to the “homeland” anymore, and everyone is sick of hearing “world famous in New Zealand”.

Seriously though, companies need to know how to read and reflect theses codes – it’s how Kiwis recognise each other and a company that attracts that sense of being recognised is half way to winning hearts and minds.

What can we learn from new immigrants? 

A couple of key things. New migrants see Kiwis for what and who we are so when we are trying to understand our identity and the codes that steer our beliefs and behaviours it’s helpful to have a third party view. They recognise how we use humour and our unique connection with nature for example.

Plus, they are way more flattering about how well New Zealand delivers on social equivalence than Kiwis are. Kiwis are pretty hard on themselves in how well we deliver on a code that is at the heart of being a New Zealander.

The other thing that matters is how they acquire brand impressions. New Zealander’s perceptions of brands are formed when they first experience a brand – perhaps back in childhood – but for a new migrant not only will they be learning about that same brand in a different time and iteration of the brand/product, but they will also be acquiring their knowledge fast. First impressions matter as migrants accustom themselves to life in New Zealand and the decisions they make about brands in those first few months will stay with them for the rest of their life in New Zealand.

Separate to this knowledge hub, you’ve also created a few new tech tools to help businesses in real-time, rather than through thought-leadership. Is it important to have both so you can look out at macro trends and down at how your business is performing? 

Yes absolutely.

We are super clear on what it takes to win in business, in terms of the demand side. To do this, two key things need to be in place:

  1. You need amazing ‘real time’ understanding of what people are doing and what this behaviour means.
  2. You need brilliant minds and strategic frameworks to apply this to a business problem or opportunity and communicate a path forward.

To activate this, we are really focused on how we can use data and AI to unlock insights into what people are doing and why – such as how transaction data or social media data can be used to decode behaviour or understand why some brands perform better than others based on what they say. And we are also really focused on how we make sure we are harnessing the best thinking from areas as diverse as management strategy and behavioural economics to inform how we apply this data to problems.

You need both.

How accurate is the social media sentiment? And can it be linked to real business outcomes?

Social media is brilliant in lots of ways as an insight into our shifting cultural and social dynamics – in aggregate all those tweets, post, pics, likes and shares tell us a huge amount about what we value and how the ‘herd’ is moving.

We have just completed a study linking social media behaviour to transactional data for New Zealand businesses and there is a measurable impact on the financial performance of businesses based on how they use social media.

Put simply, the more effective people are with social media, the more they sell. Our next steps are to turn this into a tool that can advise businesses on how to behave in social to maximise sales – it’s a super interesting space and it has massive potential to help businesses manage this complex environment easily.

TRA has come a long way since it kicked off. What’s next?

Through our eyes, we are at the beginning of a whole new era, where the range of data sources available for understanding people will fundamentally change, due to advances in connectivity, processing power and AI. Suddenly, everything that is bought, interacted with or published is becoming available for use, and the scale of this information opens up possibilities for understanding people and their desires that was only dreamed of previously.

The new game is learning how this can be harnessed, and developing ways of accessing and curating this to make it usable as a strategic planning tool. This is where we find ourselves now and we are investing heavily in driving capability and thought leadership in this space.

It’s really exciting times and promises, more than ever, a path to customer-centricity for business that can drive massive business change.

  • Check out TRA’s new content platform Mainframe here

This story is part of a paid partnership with TRA.

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