Cory Manna is director of Client Strategy at Sparks and Honey, a cultural consultancy company. They use tech-led cultural intelligence to help organizations understand the accelerating change.
Q. At Sparks and Honey (SH) you have a very unique approach to servicing your clients. What makes it different from other consultancies?
SH is a tech-driven cultural consultancy. We quantify cultural behavior at scale, to identify consumer-centric solutions, ultimately to drive relevancy for business challenges that our clients face. We’re constantly monitoring, exploring, researching and studying culture to define it, along with the actions that are affiliated with it. We are a culture driven organization and culture is at our core. A wide range of diverse perspectives and different types of people are being taken into consideration, along with different attitudes and the biases that come along with them. It’s our job to understand everything that goes into decision making so that we can ultimately help our clients address their business challenges.
Q. It sounds like deconstructing culture, and then seeing how the different components behave and why. How do you define “culture” at Sparks & Honey?
We think culture is everything. We don’t rule out any aspects, we want to study and understand it all. That can be in a range from straightforward consumer behavior to ‘fringe’ areas like academia, the research and new reports of studies that are being conducted. We’ll also look in the commercial space, look at business decisions, patents, new products and services, new categories that are being developed. Also media and media coverage — what’s being talked about, what topics are getting attention. That attention is ultimately going to be disseminated throughout the culture and will shape its perspective. Policy and legislation are areas that interest us as well. A cultural consultancy has to take all of those variables into consideration. We’ve got a wealth of tools and automated systems as well as consultants who are collecting data across a myriad of categories and areas of culture so that we can look at it holistically to synthesize.
Q. Is there a way to keep track of inclusiveness in culture to know if different kinds of people are being taken into consideration?
Part of what we do is trying to make sense of culture’s ‘messiness’. It’s very unstructured, very noisy and there’s a lot of work that has to be done to sift through it all.
Our clients need to make decisions based on behaviors at scale, so we look across the horizontal, see behavior patterns that might be emerging and then start to tag them. We focus our system on those patterns, to understand how big they are — how many people are leaning into this, what is the response. We’re then looking at what’s emerging and what are the new trends. Then we take that information when it has reached scale, to begin defining that trend, and ultimately give it a label to bring it forward into our work. We are covering the entire spectrum of culture to understand where there are energy and behavior, new diverse perspectives or new types of tribes that we want to understand, track and bring forward.
Q. Does it ever happen that you predict a trend and then it doesn’t turn out to be as defined as you once thoughts, or it goes in a completely a different direction?
Absolutely. It’s fascinating to see certain things that we thought were fringe become trends, as well as things that we thought would have a lot of energy and end up tapering off. For example, we’ve started to see some elevated importance on bringing nature into communities. The medical industry is responding by giving prescriptions to go out in nature, and treating it very much as a solution to deal with ailments. That was starting to manifest in Japan as something called Forest bathing, getting a prescription to spend an hour a day outdoor hiking — and companies had to honor it because it was coming from a doctor. That’s why we’re bringing forest bathing forward as a trend, this mentality of healing naturally by going out into the world. There are also trends that appear to be here to stay and then they end up fading out. Pokémon Go is an example: it exploded when it was released two years ago, and it had a big peak; but though it’s still very popular, it also had a quick crash.
Q. Can you give an example of a challenge that you may have had, and how you solved it through this approach?
For one of our clients we were very much focused on understanding the future of work, and most importantly thinking about what is changing in the dynamic between the employer and the employee. We found that the two different parties work at two very different speeds. Employers are very much set up in an established, traditional model of working, but due to external forces employees expectations of what work means have started to change in very obvious ways, and they’re continuing to. Traditional modes of working aren’t relevant anymore. Due to technology, there’s a trend we’re calling constant connection — now we have the ability to always be on, which makes the lines of work and personal life start to blur. How does that manifest into behavior, and in how employees expect their work environment to be? If I’m going to be on calls all the time, I may as well be at home more often, and I expect my work to be able to accommodate that. Another trend we’re tracking is this topic called Taboo toppling. People now have a much higher level of comfort sharing their personal ailments, specifically around mental health. There’s also a lot of behavior and action taken around the use and exploration of illicit drugs to provide actual health benefits. It started with the mainstreaming of marijuana and the acceptance of its medical purposes, but also a lot of people are looking into taking mushrooms and other illicit drugs to help fix certain ailments and behaviors. But employers don’t know how to navigate that space, and they’re the ones responsible for maintaining an engaged workforce. Therefore, they need to be able to provide solutions that are flexible to a workforce whose attitudes are changing. We’re seeing this gap being formed, and our clients are trying to understand how to create an environment that matches the employees shifting experience, shifting life, shifting expectations.
We’re seeing this tension between traditional infrastructure and a dynamic workforce. We have to figure out what is motivating the reason for employers to maintain the traditional mentality and what is also motivating this workforce to become more dynamic, what are the trends associated with both, and how to bridge that gap and reconcile those differences.
Q. It’s not just about spotting trends, but understanding what’s behind them, what’s driving that change, so you can come up with solutions.
The trends are our own proprietary tech taxonomy, they serve as a language to articulate what we find. They’re also used to help understand the motivation behind different behaviors. Our job is, then, to come up with ideas and solutions that will be relevant because they will come from addressing those trends and the behaviors behind them. Once we have the trend layer around a particular subject matter, we can know the motivations, behaviors and challenges, so that our solution-driven ideas can be more applicable, more relevant and drive greater impact.
Q. Who are these solutions for?
The Sparks & Honey approach is culturally centric, so we start by bringing the outside into the work, not by coming up with something inside first. We see ourselves, mostly, as modern age cultural anthropologists — we see the world at large, and where we actually find the most ability to thrive and accelerate is when the clients ask broad, audacious questions. The less definition there is, the more we’re able to look outside, do the research and understand where are the biggest opportunities to bring a culture-first perspective into the work.
Some clients may have a more specific task at hand, so we can approach it in a few different ways. If it’s very particular we can explore the question at hand and understand whether it’s relevant for the audience that they want to speak to, or whether the question they’re asking is the right one based on the topic they’re trying to understand. We can also help them find the people they should be speaking to. We can tackle it from both perspectives: bringing the outside in, exploring to understand the areas for growth for business; or, if there’s a very specific ask, we can come at it through that lens and find the right way to explore the problem. Clients need to have an open mind to accept and take into account the trends that affect their businesses. Often we have to balance the aspect of fringe versus scale and application right away, but one of the areas that we like to focus and excel the most on is the fringe — getting to see behavioral changes early enough so that a client can bring it into their work stream, study how they want to lean into it and do it when they can still affect change.
It’s a risk aspect, and certain clients are very open to the idea and they want to familiarize with the fringe, see things early and be culture disruptors. Other clients, however, are more risk averse and they need to wait until something does hit the mainstream scale, even when we catch very obvious cultural preferences in time. For example, we were flagging the use of CBD oil and CBD in general in more packaged goods environments, for our packaged goods clients. That’s a provocative and even controversial recommendation to be making when dealing with products that live on grocery stores, especially in very particular conservative parts of the country. However, we saw that start about two years ago, and now we see a lot of products that are coming out with CBD built into them — drinks or other consumables — and our clients now want to do it. That’s not a specific trend, it’s just a pattern of behavior we caught.
Q. How did the daily briefings at Sparks & Honey start? What are they about, how do you decide what to cover? What do you get out of them?
The daily culture briefings are something we’ve been doing since day one of the organization. It was the heart of what the company did in the early days, and it’s a time where, every day, everyone comes together for an hour and unpack what has been percolating in culture over the last 24 – 48 hours: what signals, what behaviors have we seen carrying the most energy over that period of time.
It’s a real-time brainstorming exercise where we go through about 30 different topics or stories, and talk about these signals that perhaps connect with others we’ve seen in the past, as well as behaviors. These conversations will serve in the future as a genesis for when we start to think about, or name, new trends and when we need to flag something to keep our eye on. Then, that information becomes integrated into the automated side of our system so we can see if it really becomes a new trend. We’ll also connect these signals to existing client work, so if people are seeing certain patterns that are consistent in other categories that may have implications into something else we’re working on, it’s a great chance to look outside to see how others are leaning into trends, and that way gaining insight and knowledge. Therefore, the briefing serves multiple functions — it gives us a chance to unpack culture in real time.
Q. What path brought you to Sparks & Honey, to doing these type of work?
Previously I had worked at several, more traditional advertising agencies, always in the client strategy and account services areas. In doing that work, I had grown a little tired of developing strategies and insights that were mostly qualitative-based. Maybe even a bit born out of a hunch, rather than a phenomenon that could be quantified. I wanted to get insights and learn facts that could end up being much more impactful and compelling for the individual. I started to focus on going upstream and getting engaged more in the insight part of development, and Sparks & Honey was a natural fit. Their whole existence as an organization was built to measure and translate the culture’s natural behaviors, quantify preferences, and to provide meaning to what we usually see as just everyday behavior. SH turned out to be a great intersection between strategy, marketing and innovation — that’s what I was looking for.
Q. Do you see any exciting trends around bringing in more disenfranchised people and reducing biases?
We’ve been seeing that a lot. However, there’s still work to do as a culture at large to become fully inclusive and remove bias; I don’t know if we’ll ever reach that point, but it’s a great goal to strive to.
We work with a different kind of trend, what we call elements of culture. They’re trends that give me hope and represent the inclusive mentality that we’re seeing more and more. Taboo toppling is one of the most relevant — we’ve seen it a lot around mental health awareness. People seem less concerned about being alienated because of what might be perceived as a personal flaw. There’s another trend I call perceptual diversity — welcoming, bringing in and develop diverse points of view, and another one that we called ‘outsiders welcome’. So much of this is manifesting in the world today, with examples like more natural sized models in the fashion industry, or when certain age barriers get broken down and women like Maye Musk serve as the face of international makeup brands. Opening up minds to that perspective create a conversation and make people rethink the norms they usually associated with things, and then obviously opening up that access to a lot of other people.
My favorite one, probably because it’s the most relevant for me, is the trend ‘new masculinity’, which has manifested over the last several years in breaking down the norms of what is called toxic masculinity. The idea that masculinity is no longer fixed in traditional sports, blue collar, beer drinking based mentality. Men that feel comfortable wearing gender-neutral clothing, and using makeup products like concealer, for example, to make themselves look younger. There’s a comfort with behaviors that were associated with the female gender, and that are now embraced by men — we see a lot of conversation and a lot of behavior around dads being around for their children; stay-at-home dads are nothing new, but generally it’s about being a present father rather than being the man who comes home at the end of a busy day, and just wants to be left alone with his newspaper. It’s the breaking down of an attitude and a mentality, and this inclusiveness that benefits all the spectrum of men.
Q. When we place people in labels and assign them specific qualities and roles inclusion breaks because you expect everybody to fall in a bucket. But the fact that those dividing lines are getting blurrier, and that people are becoming more accepting that it’s okay to have a range, is very exciting.
We’re seeing a lot of fluidity across a lot of different spectrums, which is critical, and we’re playing with the concept of ‘ish’ being the new ‘ism’. Rather than being defined by an ‘ism’, people are much more open-minded to try certain things out. There’s much more fluidity, which is really exciting and I hope it continues to foster, grow and permeate more throughout our culture.