The Art of Knowing People

TRA Manifesto: Volume 1
The TRA Manifesto lays out how we think about people. It's thinking which informs what we do and how we do it in partnership with our clients. For marketers, the book challenges traditional ways of doing and sets out to inspire better through the art of knowing people.  

The Manifesto is published in two volumes, this is the first. Volume 1 considers the art of knowing people at an individual level, at a national level and finally a shared, cultural level. Volume 2 will share what we as TRA know about people – how they behave, think and feel. 
Representing Individuals

Crowds of people stream into a sports arena. Large audiences file into a cinema to watch the latest movie release. Queues form around city blocks for the latest pop-up shop or restaurant opening.

When we see groups of people gathered en masse for a shared purpose, we can often fall into the trap of seeing them as a monolith – a group of people who are all the same. However, every group, no matter how large, is truly just a collection of individuals, each with their own unique, diverse and wide-ranging motivations, choices and circumstances.

An audience is a group made up of unique individuals living dynamic, complex lives that encompass far more than buying a product or engaging a service. Organisations that know about the individuals in their audience will build a deeper understanding and long-lasting connection with the people they want to talk to and serve. In this chapter, we talk about how.

Inclusion is not the same as being heard

Historically, insight professionals and marketers have drawn on nationally representative samples to make reliable, evidence-backed decisions.

Representative samples can be found using different methodologies, but are these always fit for purpose?

In large-scale quantitative surveys, for instance, overvaluing some variables could drown out the perspective of the diverse voices. Questionnaires, on the other hand, designed with the ‘average’ respondent in mind might be interpreted differently by respondents from different cultural backgrounds and cultures.

In qualitative work, there's also evidence that when the composition of the group is designed to be proportionally representative, diverse voices are lost because people want to feel part of the wider group.

Ultimately these examples show that if we genuinely want to know people, we must recognise their differences.

Traditional demographic groupings are less relevant than they used to be

Society and people’s lives have changed to the point where traditional demographics no longer describe people in meaningful ways. Consider these two famous faces. Do you think they respond to the same messages or the same tone of voice, read the same media, or care about the same things? 

King Charles III

Born in 1948
Raised in the UK
Married Twice
Lives in a castle
Wealthy + famous

Born in 1948
Raised in the UK
Married Twice
Lives in a castle
Wealthy + famous

Ozzy Osbourne

Different demographic groupings have come closer to classifying together people who have something in common beyond their buying patterns. However, care needs to be exercised to avoid creating fictional characters open to bias.

Grouping by generational differences is common i.e. Gen Z vs Millennials, but studies have found that group cohesion across generations versus withing generations is far stronger than we often think. A study by BBH Labs, for instance, showed that group cohesion among Orangina drinkers was 4.5 versus Gen Z at 0.2.  A fizzy orange drink creating more common characteristics than a generation is telling us something we should listen to.

Another technique for circumventing the limitations of traditional demographics is to look at the life stage. While life stage is a common denominator that can determine specific needs, the way those needs are fulfilled will be different depending on life journeys – both what came before and what lies ahead.

Knowing people in a post-demographic era

The art of knowing people in this post-demographic era means knowing them in ways that reflect their lives, passions and beliefs.

Cognitive profiling is an alternative approach designed to solve some of these problems. Personas, for instance, have helped marketers, creative teams and customer experience designers see beyond the demographic data and realise they are marketing to real people. The problem with personas, however, is that they leave too much open to personal interpretation and representative bias.

TRA MindSets: going 
beyond demography

Our solution for cognitive profiling is to study people’s underlying approach to life – their MindSets. To understand this, we surveyed over 300,000 New Zealanders and 10,000 Australians since 2018.

MindSets are mental operating systems that influence what we believe, the attitudes we hold and what kind of things motivate us. They are the lens through which people see any issue, information, choice or behavioural decision. Knowing this helps us define target audiences who are more likely to identify with our organisation or brand, messaging and product.

Read more about MindSets
Using segmentation to analyse data and identify patterns

Segmenting people into relevant subgroups is one tool we can use to find insightful and actionable patterns – it will give you clues as to what will resonate and in which combinations.

How you choose to segment a population into groups should be determined by your reason or motivation. Any creative process will benefit from having a clear focus on who you are creating for. Doing so will drive tighter briefs, outcomes and creativity.

Check out what is 
happening at the edge

Instead of relying on representative groups, look to the fringes, the margins, and the outliers.Ideas that emerge from outliers may not be representative, but they will feel novel and interesting. Many marketing and organisational successes come from outliers.

There are many examples of products we think of as fully mainstream that emerged from catering to the specific needs of people at the ‘margins’.

Instead of writing outliers off as abnormal, understanding why they are such heavy or atypical users could give you inspiration for innovation or more distinctive messaging. While these ideas may not be representative, they will leverage what it means to be human as part of a wider population.

The art of knowing people isn’t to know every person

In this chapter, we challenged many traditional ways of collecting and analysing data and presented some alternatives.

Doing so allows us to question what we are trying to achieve and how best to go about that – even when those questions might be hard to answer or difficult to get across the line. While it's not easy to let go of traditional demographics, competitive advantage can be gained by those willing to be the first to take the step.

Ultimately, the art of knowing people isn’t to know every person – it's to know people in relevant sets and analyse the data in meaningful ways.

We know a nation's people

Beginning in the 1960s many young Australians and New Zealanders settled in Ladbroke Grove, London. We are, after all, a social species. We find comfort in being with people we know. That was the beginning of what became known as ‘Kangaroo Valley’, centred around London’s Earl’s Court.

Often when referring to national differences, we resort to nicknames and stereotypes – even when we know we shouldn’t – because these shorthand references help summarise a specific group’s distinctive features.

Yet stereotypes are only surface-level descriptors, obstacles to understanding a group of people on a deeper level. They don’t help us understand the underlying drivers of unique national characteristics or the indicators of cultural evolution and change.

To know people, we need to know them as members of ‘a people’ a national group with common characteristics stemming from their nation’s history, features of the land and shared national experiences. To understand 'a people', we need to understand the dynamics or underlying drivers of national characteristics, particularly as they evolve.

Without a deep analytical approach to understanding nations, it’s difficult to use today’s insights effectively, plan for the future and adapt to major shifts. To help us understand unconscious signs of identity and predict behaviour in times of change, we can look at how the system of cultural codes works.

A nation’s cultural codes have deep roots

To know individuals, we look at unique features – their buying habits, beliefs or personality. To know a nation, we look at universal concepts – the characteristics that hold true for 'a people'.

The nature of a nation is made up of history, geographic features, origin stories and significant shared experiences. These things form the taproot of a people, exerting influence as a nation grows.

Understanding the underlying drivers of a nation’s cultural codes enables us to interpret, predict, and ultimately leverage them. Deeply rooted and robust, cultural codes evolve in response to environmental changes without losing their core foundations or ‘DNA’.

It's a case of push and pull, nature vs nurture. A nation’s culture is what shapes people and our shared history influences the way they react. At the same time, culture is nurtured by global shifts and environmental factors. Appreciating this dynamic furthers our knowledge of our audiences for marketing, behaviour change and customer experiences.

Multiculturalism accelerates the evolution of cultural codes

Antipodean populations are becoming increasingly diverse. In Australia, over 50 per cent of residents are 1st of 2nd generation migrants and over 40 per cent of the population are in New Zealand.

New migrants both adapt to and contribute to cultural codes. What parts of the national culture will new migrants adopt? And how will their influence contribute to the evolution of national cultural codes? The experience of new migrants demonstrates the multiple forces sculpting a nation's cultural codes. The riverbanks are stretching and reforming.

The same but different

National culture may be difficult to describe and may feel intangible, but that doesn't make it any less real. In chapter one, we introduced TRA’s MindSets as a way of measuring people’s underlying approach to life. Through MindSets, we identified key differences that help us better understand the people of each respective nation.

New Zealanders for instance, have a more aspirational outlook than Australians, looking to get ahead and change their position in life. This finding spans demographics of age, gender, income and ethnicity. Australians on the other hand, report higher levels of contentment – they are 13 per cent more content with their position in life as it currently stands.

Knowing these differences is more than just an interesting conversation. If your organisation or brand exists on both sides of the Tasman, cultural codes offer critical insights on how to turn up differently in everything you do – from tone of voice to proposition. Sending the right signals is a valuable skill, brands that demonstrate national cultural codes are liked more because we trust, align and identify with what we know.

Fairness codes:

Connection codes:


Social Equivalence

Earned Success

Connection to Nature


Outward World View

A deep dive into the universal cultural codes of New Zealand

If we truly understand a nation, could we have predicted New Zealander's counter-intuitive compliant behaviour to COVID-19 restrictions? To develop a deep understanding of Kiwis, TRA has tracked the cultural codes of New Zealanders since 2016. By exploring the Kiwi Codes, we can see clues strongly predictive of the nation’s seemingly out-of-character COVID response.

Perhaps the strongest predictive signal of this behaviour is the underlying value placed on 'connection' by New Zealanders. This value is deeply rooted in the nation’s DNA, springing from characteristics such as a sparse population and distance from the northern hemisphere. As a result, despite a strong sense of individuality, New Zealanders like team players and embrace the spirit of sports teams. The Government’s communication strategy, which asked the ‘team of five million’ to act together, demonstrates how understanding a nation’s psyche can be used to great effect.

While this is an example from New Zealand, every country has its own unique set of codes. To truly know people, we must look beneath the surface at the national cultural codes driving and informing behaviour.

Read more about Kiwicodes
Knowing ‘a people’ helps me how?

A brand or organisation that understands, reflects and demonstrates the nation’s cultural codes is consciously and unconsciously recognised as being ‘like us’. TRA data shows that people are more likely to feel warm toward brands that exemplify their country’s cultural codes.

This holds even for global organisations and brands. Acting like a national brand is more important than being a national brand. As economies struggle and supply chains falter, buying local will be more important. For overseas brands, this means looking and talking like locals is imperative.

Being on code can make the difference between someone identifying with your brand versus feeling that your business is an outsider, resulting in a loss of trust. When the stakes are this high, a deep understanding of evolving national characteristics is a must-have.

Culture is the air we breathe

Culture is the mechanism by which we transmit shared meaning. It's like the air we breathe, infiltrating and influencing every aspect of our lives – unconsciously and consciously – through the choices we make.

The fact we share ideas and concepts with people we have never met, people who live in different places, circumstances, and even different times, is what makes us human. Cultural insight offers us a different way of knowing people. It equips us with shared meaning with which to connect with people.

The power of shared meaning

Think about immediately recognising a stop sign as you drive. The sign’s shape, colour and lettering have no intrinsic meaning, but our culture has ascribed a meaning everyone understands.

Rather than explaining everything in detail, we use signs or symbols that carry shared meaning. It’s not just about literal signs and symbols – things like our clothing, the way we speak, the products we buy and the ways we spend our time all hold cultural weight and meaning. Those shared meanings create a sense of shared identity and belonging, an essential ingredient for living in social groups.

Organisations and brands that misread cultural signals will find it hard to connect with their audience. That’s where the risk around cultural understanding arises. There’s a fine line between ‘on code’ messaging and ‘off code’ messaging that misses the mark. That’s why cultural intelligence is so critical – plenty of brands have got it wrong, causing serious reputational damage.

The unique power of cultural insight

Using current cultural insight to forecast the future can feel like reading tea leaves. Remember when Steve Jobs said:

"I'm not convinced people want to watch movies on a tiny little screen"

It’s near-impossible for any product, developer or tech expert to tell you what the future will look like – they are too busy solving today's problems. The future is unknowable. The future cultural context of people's lives, however, is knowable.  

Though people are affected, sometimes dramatically, by advancements in products and technology, culture is the dominant influence on human experience. It's culture that determines how new advancements are experienced and it’s culture that affects how we make decisions about them.

So, how can brands and organisations be culturally relevant today and future-proofed tomorrow?

Culture is a dynamic 
force over which we have little or no control

Culture's constant state of flux is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to track and observe. Cultural data tends to be messy and unstructured, reflecting the many cultural signals and forces influencing us.

So how do we tame, structure and make usable cultural data? The first step is creating a system that collects and curates nascent cultural signals and observes how they are shifting. At TRA, we use the concept of Cultural Currents to describe the idea of a general movement that can accelerate, slow down, divert into smaller eddies, or bifurcate when it encounters an obstacle.

Currents don’t spontaneously or randomly appear, they are triggered by significant upstream changes – changes organisations and ordinary people have no control over. It's easy for example, to see how technology influences culture. Over the past two decades, advancements in technology, social media and hardware have influenced how we feel about everything – from security, privacy and personal identity to how we make friends and entertain our children.

While all cultural shifts may not be this obvious, it doesn’t mean they’re not just as influential. Culture is just too dynamic, its constant evolution means that a snapshot in time is outdated before we can take action.

How far do you need to see?

We need always-on methods to monitor cultural currents and the skills to see where they're taking us. Those skills define cultural insight. To gain insight, we use nearsight, foresight and farsight.

Nearsight is the application of cultural insight in today’s world. It's how we translate cultural meaning and determine what's 'on code'.

Foresight is cultural analysis that helps us navigate future scenarios. It answers the ‘what if’ question, giving you a leading edge through a fresh take on a challenge or category.

Farsight uses cultural signals to guide the direction and action of your long-term strategy.


Signals of culture are hidden in plain sight

Fashion is a billboard for today's culture. Clothes signal cultural movements and groups a person relates to, they are a signal of their identity. Knowing what your audience wears tells you so much more than the clothes they’re likely to buy.

Group identity stems from bundles of related opinions on issues, interests, sources of influence and so on. Having a shared identity, and adopting the shared cultural norms of a group, eases decision-making fatigue. The reward? A sense of belonging.

For marketers, cultural groupings are a ready-made playbook on how to talk to people (and what about), what products or services to develop and how to understand behaviour.


Planning for foreseeable challenges

Cultural foresight is a planning tool that helps us navigate uncertainty and change through the exploration of potential scenarios.

As humans, we’re hard-wired to avoid the unknown because it protects us from harm. In business, uncertainty can be an opportunity but we still need to manage it to reduce risk. Foresight gives us the insight to make better business decisions, leveraging the benefits of cultural change while reducing unpredictability and risk.


Longer-term strategies need a longer lens

Designing for the future cannot be based on what is happening today. If you can google it, it’s already old news. Farsight takes a longer lens approach to identify cultural currents to leverage. Cultural farsight is based on a deep analysis of broad patterns or clusters of cultural signals.

Signals can come from any source, they include things like product developments, nascent social movements, marginal behaviours and everything in between. They are continuously collected and curated continuously to indicate upcoming shifts and help us assess the speed and direction of change.

Tools of the trade: 
always on signal scanning

Culture can feel intangible, messy and difficult to pin down. When the stakes are high and the work is complex, it’s crucial to have a set of robust methods and best practices to guide you.  

Cultural insight cannot be gained by simply looking at individual signals, it’s based on deep analysis of signal patterns. Patterns, and changing interconnections within them, are what give us cultural foresight.  

At TRA, our framework for analysing patterns comprises of three meta-currents and nine macro-currents.

By reading the patterns in the signals, we can see the drivers of shared meaning and plan longer-term strategies – we can know people in their future.

Knowing people in their future

Knowing people means knowing individuals and knowing what individuals have in common at a national level. Both are essential to truly understanding people, but without cultural analysis, a key component is missing.

Knowing how to uncover patterns in the data to identify Cultural Currents gives us access to crucial insight. Culture is a window into shared meaning and, importantly, it’s a window into the future.

the book

The Manifesto is bigger than what you’ve read today. To access a full copy of the book:

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Manifesto Volume 2

Knowing people at an individual, national and shared societal level is the beginning. This knowledge must be coupled with a broad understanding of the best thinking and practice in marketing, behaviour change and communications.

In Volume 2, we'll explore these topics and consider how marketers need to reflect on our own biases and behaviours.