Whenever we try to figure out a future outcome — like ‘will this new product work when I launch it in the market?’– marketers enter a minefield. If it’s a success, should we readily convince ourselves that we understood that this was going to happen, and our sheer greatness as a marketer made it all happen, and that we were in control. Or, if it fails, do we comfort ourselves with the reality that the marketplace is filled with random and interrelated variables, external factors and unknown human behaviour?
So, what to do? I believe the two of the most important factors to be a successful marketer are A. being an expert on understanding and getting inside people’s minds, and B. being an expert in understanding our own cognitive biases.
Sometimes these biases seem laughable, and don’t really matter, like my bosses trying to convince me that a certain sports sponsorship is perfect for our brand – a sport and a team that just happens to be his favourite. But, sometimes, they really do matter, such as believing that just because we are addicted to catch-up TV or Netflix, and don’t watch live TV, therefore the Great British Public does exactly the same. And, of course, they don’t.
One problem is that it is hard to clear the slate. Our worldview, our smartphones and our choice of social media feed give us the illusion that we are absorbing objective information, whereas we are, in fact, observing biased information because we tend to choose our news from customised sources. We often imagine ourselves to be paragons of impartiality, whereas we actually might be a collection of crazy beliefs and biases.
The two big biases for marketers are ‘cognitive bias’ and the ‘availability heuristic’. The former is the tendency to focus on and remember information in a way that confirms our preconceptions and worldview – in other words, we see reflections of a truth we have already assumed. The ‘availability heuristic’ is the one where the boss relies on immediate examples that come to mind when evaluating a specific idea or plan that you have put forward that are, essentially, totally subjective opinions. I have sat through far too many diatribes based on the bosses’ everyday experience and ideas, as opposed to the experience and worldview of actual, you know, customers!
Let us marketers own up to the fact that we are all creatures of our own environment, prone to lazy assumptions and biases.
We could all benefit by becoming aware of our own ignorance, and spend a lot more effort to recognise the lens through which we are seeing the world. Putting this into practice is painfully hard, but it appears to me that we must actively seek to disprove our most cherished assumptions both as people, and as marketers. We need to remember that our main role is to see through the eyes of our customers, and we only can offset our biases by deliberately and proactively always trying to see a different perspective.