Thoughtless marketing: The Call to Think.

When I was a young lad, my days were often filled with trips to the principal’s office followed then by long stints at the kitchen table staring eye-to-eye with my father who usually posed one of two questions:
  1. Son, when will you stop using your head as just a hatrack? or,
  2. Son, do you think it’s time to get your mind out of neutral?
For the record, I have absolutely no ill-will towards my father for his discipline was always couched in genuine love and it definitely taught me to engage in actions of intentional thought and questioning logic. What am I actually doing? And moreover, why am I doing it?

Having just gone through the Thanksgiving weekend, I had the chance to catch up on some reading and two poignant pieces shone through:
  1. HBR’s piece by James Ryan on 5 Questions Leaders Should be Asking All the Time
  2. Comment’s piece by Hannah LaGrand on Thoughtlessness, Sloth, and the Call to Think
In an unwaveringly parallel manner, both Ryan and LaGrand’s works should jolt every marketer to ponder those two childhood questions that may well be at the core of marketing: What am I actually doing? And moreover, why am I doing it?

Before exploring the two cited pieces, it is imperative that readers absorb the information through the lens of historical realities; the past is often filled with events and decisions that cause present-minded individuals to cringe yet, only when studied in their absolute truths can we draw true insights for bettering our paths forward.

Consider:
  • Nautical navigation improvements after the tragic events of the Titanic; a boat touted as “unsinkable”
  • NASA’s rigorous pre-launch procedures after the Challenger Shuttle exploded on liftoff
  • Nuclear power plant safety protocols after the Chernobyl meltdown
  • US Mortgage policies after the 2006 housing market crash

The point of course remains: albeit each of the above events caused massive damage, financial loss and human tragedies, the lessons derived from the past force us to critically think and enable a better future. Said poignantly by Marc Bloch:


“Misunderstanding of the present grows fatally from the ignorance of the past.”


We have to know our past – even if it’s littered with tragic mistakes – if we hope to better our future.

A horrific example of thoughtlessness:
In 1961, German-born, Jewish American political theorist, Hannah Arendt travelled to Jerusalem on behalf of the New Yorker to cover the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. The shocking twist that occurred was that although the world anticipated hearing a story of a villain and of unequivocal evil, Arendt’s report was of a man who had no real motives at all and that he simply “just followed orders”. Actions just being done out of pure thoughtlessness.

The report was met with public outrage:
Many thought Arendt was somehow letting Eichmann off easy or downplaying the monstrous nature of his crimes. However, Arendt remained that Eichmann's crimes squarely fell into the realm of everyday, mundane habit; a startling point showing how habits are seriously dangerous. This pattern of habitual thoughtlessness was subsequently paralleled by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung in her works as: “the overwhelming urge to stay with the comfortable and the known rather than risk change, even if it promises improvement.” and as “remaining complacent in the present and the status quo…preferring to accept lackluster rather than responding to the demands of today.” 

Later, in her 1971 book, The Life of the Mind, Arendt continued to wrestle with this “thoughtlessness” phenomenon: There is something in the act of thinking itself, she argues, regardless of content and conclusions, that constrains evildoing and plays a key role in our ability to make moral judgments. Arendt pondered a worrisome possibility: What if, in an age of so much stunning advancement, we have somehow forgotten what thinking really means. In a society so prone to thoughtlessness, the need to think is as contemporary as ever.

Arendt worries that in the modern age, while we have been wildly successful in the use of our intellects and our knowledge about the world has grown more rapidly than ever before, the work of reason has been dangerously neglected. But Arendt warns: “to ‘stop and think’ can be terrifying. It is to bring under scrutiny those things that are usually the backdrop to our lives.” 

This cry of calling us to think then is picked up in Ryan’s work where he astutely charges readers with five essential questions if they seek a true position of leadership and influence. Said differently, Ryan is giving tools to enable real thinking and stop thoughtlessness action though the following: 
  
Wait…What? A call to slow down. Practicing the exercise of understanding – critical to making informed judgments and decisions. What if Pepsi’s internal brand team did this one simple step before launching the Kendall Jenner ad campaign.


I wonder Why or I wonder If? No more “we have always done it like this.” Status Quo stifles growth and results in just more of the same. Consider how Volvo stopped fighting the car-feature market. In the early 60’s, “safety” was considered a highly unmarketable idea. Ford had tried it and failed miserably. Yet, Volvo asked I wonder if (something new) would work. 15 years later, Volvo’s practices of laminated windshields and seatbelt designs became the standards in the USA.



Couldn’t we at least…? Start asking this and get unstuck and moving forward. In 1979, Sony had two independent divisions: one working on a portable music device, the other working on outdoor-friendly earphones. Sony’s Masura Ibuka fused the two together by asking: “couldn’t we at least” and the era of the Walkman emerged.



How can I help? Not only does this underline the human desire to help it enables the one in trouble to truly understand the issue they’re facing. When Buenos Aires considered a massive economic development promotional campaign in the late 1990’s, rather than having an agency develop the “usual”, the city addressed the real issue: there was nothing of interest to make people come here in the first place. The solution: the Puente de la Mujer bridge: a remarkable engineering feat: 800 tonnes of rotating cantilevers and swing mechanisms.



What truly matters? This should be a regular conversation, externally and internally. 

Irv Hockaday, long-standing and brilliant past president of Hallmark Cards tasked his agency, Euro RSCG with the 5 most scary words any marketer could ever hear:

Do NOT do any advertising


Hockaday wanted insights on his business and not just another campaign. He asked the question: what truly matters?

Bob Schmetterer, Chairman and CEO of Euro Worldwide heralds Hockaday’s question as a revolutionary turning point in creative thinking:

“There is a payoff [to asking the hard questions]. A big payoff. For those businesses and agencies that can instill the magic of creativity into the very fabric and nature of business itself, the rewards are there, and the rewards are great.”


Marketers are in a world that is a flurry of flux:
Again, Coke cans their CMO, Pepsi botches a campaign, Digital Disruption is everywhere, Influencer Marketing is paramount, United Airlines blunders, and on and on it goes. Pick any market on any continent and you’ll find scores of brands clamouring for real leadership action. 

What if…you answered the call?
To wonder and wander beyond the safe limits of status quo? To exercise the desire to truly understand what’s going on or at least, have the courage to try. To disagree. To be vulnerable. To put down the mobile phone and imagine a different way to approach brands, a new way of working and perhaps a different path to reach the same end goals? 

What’s truly exciting is finding the marketers who are doing it. The ones that are asking: I wonder if…or, Couldn’t I at least…or, How can I help or ultimately…

What truly matters?
But where do you start? There are thousands of webinars and training programs out there that seek to enhance the current way; to learn to do what you’re already doing but perhaps a bit better and so on. But so far, I’ve only found 1 program that answers the call laid out by Ryan and LaGrand: a call to think, to lead and to change the status quo. Blazon Online’s 5-seminar series built specifically for marketers. It deftly unpacks the necessary strategic thinking required for today’s market and practically gives marketers solutions for real issues. 

So…stop and think:
What if? I wonder? Why? Couldn’t we at least? What truly matters?

Yes, it indeed can be terrifying: It brings under scrutiny those things that are usually the backdrop to our lives. But paraphrasing LaGrand and applying it to marketers around the world:

You can’t get a firm grasp on the Promised Land when you’re still in the desert. 

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