The esteemed Australian marketing professor Mark Ritson recently passed along an article in Mumbrella written by Josie Tutty. In this article, she asked a set of experts for their thoughts about the following question:
What has marketing science taught you?
Rory Sutherland responded with “Humility”, Byron Sharp with “Changing my own mind can be immensely satisfying” and Mark Ritson with “How much marketing is involved in science”.
For my response, let me share a thought that’s been bothering me about all areas where social science dominates – whether business, marketing, psychology or innovations.
For all their strengths, the risk in these sciences is that of the nomothetic. Each human or business situation is incredibly unique. Accumulating data and looking for commonalities always loses the uniquenesses of the specific – the ideographic.
I find the resulting “laws” are sometimes good guidance to keep in mind. But, as a practitioner, these laws are not often absolutes (although some of Byron Sharp’s are damn close). In every situation practitioners need to operate from the ideographic: what does THIS company need at THIS point in time.
These sciences have the same potential error as medical studies. Drug X might put Cancer in remission 6 out of 10 times. Does your doctor know you’re one of the 6? If you aren’t and he treats you according to the averages, you will lose critical time with the wrong medicine.
This is a critical issue in marketing or working with innovation because we usually only get one chance to get it right. We need respect the limitations of these sciences because “but the averages said” won’t make the Board happy.
The Nomothetic is particularly irritating in studies comparing advertising styles. These studies suggest “all things being equal advertising style X is more effective than advertising style Y”. And they ignore a truth of great advertising: THINGS ARE NEVER EQUAL and those things which are different dominate those things which are shared.
For example, we’re told “all things being equal” people recall funny commercials better than those which aren’t humorous. In a neutral environment of people who don’t care about the product/category or are in an artificial environment of forced viewing, I’m sure this is true. Except, that’s NEVER where you want your advertising to appear.
Advertising is important in affecting those people likely to buy your products or services. That means, people who care (at some level) about your product and/or category.
What should we take away from that study? The primary impact I see about humor is that if you need to PROMOTE YOUR AGENCY and/or WIN AWARDS, then making humorous ads for your clients is the best way to make that happen – regardless of whether those ads are helpful for your clients.
Humor is sometimes an excellent approach. And there are times where humor is incredibly damaging. For example, the closer the advertising is to the time of purchase, the less humor helps – and the more it runs the risk of alienating people who are in your market.
That said, for a positive marketing science example, Byron Sharp’s work has shown how the rise of a broad belief in the Pareto Effect applied to marketing was wrong as shown in the evidence. Unfortunately, even today, the belief that there’s the most profit to made from existing customers is an article of dogmatic faith among too many marketers.
The Nomothetic error also affects academics suggesting “laws” for Innovation. I’ve written quite a bit lately about the challenges of innovation – and the dangers I see in the bureaucratization of a practice which only succeeds by focusing so clearly on success that it ignores many company rules.
Unfortunately, a great deal of the innovation writing these days repeat the nomothetic error. We see, for example, in Tony Ulwick’s work around Jobs to be Done and outcome driven innovation the reversion to the norm common in much nomothetic work. The best way, and he’s found it, to create a method for risk-free or low-risk innovations (contradictions in terms, of course) is to make processes so safe that they’ll only deliver low impact (not the impact generally hoped for from innovation).
We need be particularly cautious about the academic base of much of the innovation writing – including Christensen’s esteemed work (which I recently discussed in a post). Searching too hard for “laws” creates error where there was none previously.
The need to balance nomothetic and ideographic considerations is true in all social sciences. Many practicing psychologists find academic work miserably unhelpful because it focuses entirely on the nomothetic – yet their challenge is treating this person, today.
Academic approaches always tend toward the nomothetic. Professors don’t get published often for saying “well, each situation is unique”. They get published for suggesting they’ve found “general truths shared across cases”. I’m reading the Everett M. Rogers book Diffusion of Innovation right now. The opening 1/3 is about how “diffusion of innovation” developed as an academic field and it’s scary – the perfect display of the errors of the nomothetic approach. Regarding errors drawn from this book, many in tech chose to leap to misperceptions about “early adopters” which are often attributed to Rogers writing – errors that come from this field’s nomothetic approach.
And that leads to the the only absolute truth in practicing marketing or innovation: The situation in front of you is the most important truth for you to deal with. Beyond that you may find in science key ideas that will be a tremendous help.
Copyright 2018 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved