I just looked at the Money Magazine Best Places to Live 2019. This year It picked a place called Clarkesville, Tennessee as the best place to live. Looks like a wonderful town.

I’ve always liked lists of best places; whether its best places to live, best cities for outdoors lovers, best places to retire, and (my all-time favorite) happiest cities. As the author of many brand tracking studies, I appreciate the challenge of giving meaning to intangible, and often contradictory factors that make up a good life. Rating places is like rating good relationships or why people choose a brand.

For some, editorial teams spend months comparing reams of data on cost-of-living, crime, jobs and culture of a list of places. For others, the choices seem to be based on the availability and quality of local beer or coffee.

I’ve noticed that the best places to live are rarely the places most people actually live. In fact, the places most people live are on lists like “the most stressful city” (LA #1, NYC #2) or “least happy” (Detroit).

As a refugee/escapee from a lifetime of New York winters, I now live in Santa Cruz, a city that Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones of Happiness, and Dan Witters of Gallup rated as the second most happy place in the US in 2017. The study, published by National Geographic, listed Boulder as the happiest place. I can’t vouch for Boulder, except that I recall the seventies sitcom Mork and Mindy was set there; so, it makes sense.

From my perspective, the people in Santa Cruz seem pretty happy. Recreational cannabis is legal here. There’s great coffee, local beer and near-perfect weather most days. As for culture, the movies “Lost Boys” and Jordan Peele’s “Us” were filmed here. According to a few lists, Santa Cruz is also one of the most expensive places to live. This may be true, except nobody I know here buys anything other than surfboards, mountain bikes and those Santa Cruz logo sweatshirts—all of which can still add up.

In 2019, Wallethub issued their list of the happiest cities in the US. The study looked at an extensive range of criteria and was well-crafted. However, neither Santa Cruz nor Boulder made the list—they were both too small to make the study’s cut-off.

This is an important watch out for marketers (and people looking to move). Your analysis is only as good as the questions that get asked. While it seems obvious, we need to remind ourselves that brand, competitive, and consumer measures are colored by process, bias and inertia. Sometimes the omission is obvious; I’ve seen global brand studies miss a competitor that didn’t have a presence in the HQ market (e.g. Lexus?). But more often, the intel-gap is less obvious: studies force industry conventions on consumer response—I’ve noticed many financial services studies ignore the fact that most affluent investors have multiple providers.

My watch-out is to be deliberate about the framing and design of the data you’re making decisions on. Otherwise you might miss out on the happiness.