Common Sense is killing business

“For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong”.

This slightly bastardized quote from H.L. Mencken comes as close as anything to explaining a lot of the world we live in, at a time where rapidity trumps solidity, and every day we hear calls for acts of “simple common sense” from politics to business.

While politics occasionally manages to resist this form of populism, business culture seems to instead have taken up an attitude of “act first, think later” in an effort to be lean, agile and to give customers and shareholders what they want every quarter.

Nowhere has this process been more enthusiastically embodied than in marketing departments.

Just as marketing became more complicated, with more competition across categories, more platform and distribution options, more media clutter, fewer barriers to entry and more opportunities to juggle, we started looking for a shortcut to make sense of it all: The One Answer that would have changed the rules of the game forever and bestowed success upon those who embraced it.

We discovered loyalty and thought that the future of marketing would be about communities of superfans; we saw branded content and decided that we should all be publishers; technology made us think that every brand should be a hacker-mashupper-remixer; and when social media emerged we concluded that we all had to join the conversation, crowdsource our brand and revel in a future where people would engage with us, become evangelists of our brand and eventually, possibly, buy our products.

The one thing we haven’t asked ourselves enough is: why?

Right at a time of increased complexity when critical thinking would have been more important than ever, we decided to suspend it altogether and replace it with clichés. We did this over and over across blogs, conferences and tweets, until clichés became conventional wisdom and conventional wisdom became common sense.

Common sense has its own way of reinforcing itself: it sounds reasonable, everyone is doing it, so it can’t possibly be wrong, can it?

It can, at least if we bother to take a look at the real world outside our conjectures.

Brands failing

Brands in 4 out of 5 categories are seen as increasingly homogenous, with 80% of brand buyers knowing little or nothing about them. (Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, 2012). According to the 2013 “Meaningful Brands” worldwide survey by Havas Media, people wouldn’t care if 73% of the brands disappeared. And we’re talking about major brands that a global advertising network keeps track of.

These are today’s facts, and facts are stubborn things. We can’t treat them as someone else’s problem, and keep doing things the same way because we have deadlines to meet and expectations to conform with.

It’s time to stop chasing common sense shortcuts because, quite simply, they don’t work. Shortcuts mix cause and effect, and generate assumptions that are proven wrong by reality.

Common marketing sense states that since loyal customers are already sold on your products, they’re an easy source of growth: the truth is that in most categories loyal customers are already spending as much as they can, and growth generally comes from acquiring completely new customers.

Common marketing sense says that you have to convince people of something first in order for them to take action, whereas in many cases it is changing people’s actions that changes their mind.

The more we understand human behaviour, the more we realize that it’s way too complex to grasp it just with common sense. Add the potential for reengineering pretty much anything that the digital age provides, and you’ll see how we need more than shortcuts.

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Remember when we used to ask questions about everything?

It’s time for something different. It’s time for un-common sense.

Un-common sense means not taking anything for granted and instead starting questioning our assumptions, large and small.

It means once again learning to ask: why? Just like we did when we were children, but with the skills and insight we have developed over the years.

It means taking a step back, looking at the bigger picture, and knowing that what we’re seeing is not the way things are meant to be, but just the way things are until someone acts otherwise.

Un-common sense marketing requires time, talent and an uncompromising effort in everything every one of us does. If professional pride is not a reason enough to do it, here’s another one: according to a survey by Fournaise Group, 80% of CEOs don’t trust their CMOs and accuse them of losing sight of the real job, while 91% of them trust their CFOs. The professional background of most CEOs is further evidence of this.

Acknowledging that the challenges faced by marketing are at least as complex as the intricacies of international corporate accounting and much closer to the people who directly influence the business, and that they should be approach with sophisticated, inspired, clever uncommon sense, can go a long way towards regaining that trust.

P.S. Not only was no lemming hurt in the production of this post: they don’t really follow one another into oblivion. Neither should marketers.

(A version of this post was first published in The Business Times (Singapore), 16 July 2014, page 22)

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