Don’t assume what you’re trying to prove.

So often it seems that the knowledge we bring to bear on developing marketing strategies and sales tactics is based on a limited set of criteria as one might find in a Marketing 101 class.  We add to this past experience and parallels to other brands, in other categories.  Especially within large and established companies, the tendency is to proceed on what we know, what we have tried, and what we know about the brand and its customers.  All of this is necessary—but it’s not complete.

Human nature is fickle.  People don’t always do the expected.  Choice can be random.

The reasons consumers walk into a store and buy nothing are usually more interesting than the reasons why they do make a purchase.  (Paco Underhill has written about these shopping experiences with insight and delightful investigative skill.)  With online and social behavior consumers have infinitely more choices and paths to search for what they want to know.  Along the way they make discoveries they didn’t intend; they take left turns; they move from one brand to another as quickly as a click.  We all know this.  Yet marketers stick with the old methods based on “learnings”—I’ve always wondered what this means.  Presumably, things we’ve learned.  But the word is empty and implies something superficial, vague: awful marketing jargon.

We need to know more and apply everything we know without the bias of learned experience.  This is hard.  It takes a suspension of belief to open up to everything we don’t know and imagine something new.  We try to imagine the destination before we know the roads to take.  This only leads us back to where we started.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in her August 15th New Yorker article about Neanderthals:

“We know the end of the story,” he (Shannon McPherron of the Max Plank Institute) told me. “We know what modern culture looks like, and so then what we do is we want to explain how we got here.  And there’s a tendency to over interpret the past by projecting the present onto it.  So when you see a beautiful (Neanderthal) hand axe and you say, ‘Look at the craftsmanship on this; it’s virtually a work of art,’ that’s your perspective today.  But you can’t assume what you’re trying to prove.”

Isn’t that just what we try to do?  Assume what we’re trying to prove?  We know so much and never use a 10th of it because we’re so busy pursuing our assumptions. Marketing is deadly serious, yet could be so much more fun if we allowed everything we think we know about a situation to be set on a shelf to wait for later, possible,  validation.  Then we can pull out from the deep crevices of our brain all the bits and pieces of random associations and surprising insights culled from completely other experience.  It’s not Right Brain versus Left Brain.  It’s Whole Brain thinking.

John Seely Brown of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge writes that new tech start-ups more often succeed in unearthing new ways of thinking about their product because they don’t assume a market positioning in advance.  They have no market experience to fall back on to lead them to assume what they’re trying to prove.

We can’t know everything, which is why small teams of different kinds of specialists work best.  The last man said to know everything was Alexander von Humboldt, who when he died in 1859 was the last great generalist before an age of specialization definitively set in.  His work ranged across geography, geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, climatology, chemistry, astronomy, demography, ethnography and political economy.  He enjoyed cult status around the world as a scientific hero and genius.

We’re not so lucky.  The ease with which we can Google anything, look up anything on Wikipedia, ask questions on Quora, ask our friends in groups on LinkedIn and the like makes us lazy.  We don’t have to tax our brains.  Just when we need it most, we don’t engage in deep thinking.  Marketing needs to try harder.

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