WHY MARKETING EXECUTIVES AREN'T THINKING STRAIGHT

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Recently my 9-year-old daughter said to me, "Daddy, you can't know about a place that hasn't been discovered." I asked her why. She replied: "Because no one has been there." In the disarming way in which children often reflect their discovery of a great truth, Stephanie was saying, "You can't know what you don't know."

It seems to me a great deal of the difficulty in marketing today has a lot to do with marketers not knowing what they don't know that they should know.

A recent study revealed that 29% of students in Washington believed their math skills ranged from good to excellent. Only 9% of North Dakota's students felt that way. D.C. school students rank last after all 50 states. North Dakota's students rank first. The study brings to mind the old saw, "The less we know, the more we think we know."

As a society, we are getting dumber. A recent international study found U.S. high school students placed 16th in math proficiency out of 16 developed nations surveyed. Other recent studies have yielded similar results in science and language.

It is disquieting to realize that the reins of government and commerce are now in the hands of the oldest members of the generation that first experienced falling SAT scores. Not that SAT scores tell everything. In another disturbing indication of America's declining functional literacy, the Times Mirror Center for People & the Media shows declining readership of newspapers, books and topical magazines. In fact, a U.S. congressional report released in 1993 reported 39% of Americans to be functionally illiterate.

So-called "outcome-based education" is the latest wrinkle in lowering the hurdles for U.S. students. It is essentially based on the idea of getting more students through school by moving goals closer to the student rather than stretching the student's mind to reach goals. Outcome-based education has made failure-avoidance more important than competence building.

We are getting dumber as a nation, but we don't know how much dumber we are getting because a person can't know what he doesn't know. That goes for marketers, too.

According to Bill Gorman's New Product News, 80% of new products failed in 1990. That's up from 70% during the previous 30 years. It should not escape our attention that behind every product failure there is a mountain of research predicting successful product release.

Let's face it. We are not practicing marketing with the astuteness we once did. Times change; we should be smart enough to change in sync. But rather than change, we blame clutter, consumers and dozens of other factors for marketing failures. Our egos simply won't let us question our own competence.

Many of today's marketers are handicapped by having grown up and been educated in a culture increasingly disdainful of "theory" and continuous learning. The idea of "subject relevance" in our schools has encouraged this attitude. No point learning what is not directly relevant to one's aspirations. Students are overly indulged in their desire to study only what they feel they will need for the real world. The trouble is, few know enough to do that wisely.

Emphasis on the relevant-or call it "the pract-ical"-has stood as a barrier against marketers learning about revolutionary changes in what is known about how the human mind works. Gaining knowledge of such matters requires entering the world of behavioral science. Oddly, marketers-whose business is to persuade minds-generally show little interest in learning how minds work.

How drastically would marketing communications change if most marketers came to realize that product features and benefits are the last thing consumers usually initially think about? And that among the now numerically dominant older consumer population, focusing first on product features and benefits often results in turning off rather than turning on consumer interest?

I asked a recent marketing MBA graduate how much psychology she had in her studies. She held up her thumb and index finger and closed them to within the thickness of a sheet of cardboard.

Is it any wonder that the rate of product failure has dramatically increased? Neither our schools nor business organizations are equipping marketers with the truly relevant skills for the competent practice of marketing.

Employing a marketer to move product today is a little like engaging a plumber to conduct open heart surgery. Both heart doctor and plumber work with pumps, but there is little similarity in the skills needed to repair a human pump and a mechanical pump.

If marketing was an industry regulated according to minimum standards of competence, at an 80% new product failure rate, no one in marketing could afford the malpractice insurance.

Mr. Wolfe, principle in Wolfe Resources Group, a marketing consultancy in Reston, Va., is author of "Serving the Ageless Market."

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