Gut Check: Data Shouldn't Trump Intuition

Why I Followed My Instincts and Revamped a Project Months in the Making

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My team at Xerox is working on a major repositioning effort that 's supposed to make our partners, prospects and the general public rethink and appreciate our services, technology and their impact on the workplace. Ultimately our goal is to shift perception of Xerox -- yes, we know what you think when you hear the name Xerox. It's a mighty task that requires creativity, consistency, collaboration, patience and a tough gut.

Christa Carone
Christa Carone

Months in the making, one project is a creative piece that links the company's heritage to its growth in business services and helping people make that connection with a mental "a-ha!"

Recently I viewed a near-final version. I'd hoped to see a home run. After all, we had shared the creative execution with many people and received a ton of positive feedback. But after watching it again and again, I wasn't sold. In fact, I worried that we weren't really nailing the message we needed to convey. What's more, I knew deep down that more research wasn't going to change my mind. After losing some precious winks of sleep, I made a bold decision that probably irked a number of folks who had worked tirelessly on this project. I called for major revisions, a move that slowed down the project and, yes, cost a few extra dollars. But when you know, you know.

Indeed, marketers "know" more than ever. We have information about our customers' needs, preferences, purchase histories and spending patterns, and insight about the messages that prompt them to act. Thanks to social-listening tools, we also know what they are saying about our products, services and our brand. And that 's the tip of the iceberg. I wouldn't want to give up the data that helps us make fact-based decisions quickly. But I fear that marketers' access to and obsession with measuring everything takes away from the business of real marketing. It's impossible to measure squishier, meaningful intangibles, such as human emotion, personal connection and the occasional "ahhhh" moment. Those things often come with a marketer's intuition, and they deliver big-time.

Steve Jobs got that . His understanding of human desire helped Apple create crave-worthy products, such as the iPod, before consumers knew they wanted them. In fact, consumer data told Jobs that consumers wanted a better Discman. Instead, he decided to make a smaller player that held entire music collections. I know I'm among many who are grateful for his foresight.

I'm not advocating snap decision-making. And Jobs-style, go-with-your-gut action doesn't work all the time, as Xerox has learned. Back in the mid-1990s we launched the DocuCentre multifunction category. It was a brilliant concept that created a new category: one device that could print, copy, fax and scan -- the Cuisinart of office systems. Consolidating all those single-use devices into one multifunction system aligned with our ultimate objective of simplifying the way work gets done. But, then we complicated it. We added bells and whistles that were fancy and fun and made perfect sense to us. But it was too much, too soon for customers. Rivals of ours that rolled out lower-cost versions with fewer features did better. We've since corrected course, and we continue to strengthen our market-share leadership.

Research might have helped us avoid that bump in the road. We need things like web analytics to help us track purchases and consideration, so we know how and when to target prospects with relevant offers. But less is often more. I believe that is true of data.

Famed psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out that simply following one's intuition often leads to "automatic thinking," a more shallow form of decision making, especially if you work in an unpredictable environment (hello, marketing). Decision makers should carefully consider relevant information before making judgment calls. In my case, getting feedback from people who saw our new creative project helped me carefully consider the facts while I tossed and turned in the wee hours. Ultimately, my innards trumped our data. As for the project, we'll know later this year if my gut was truly right. In the meantime, I'll enjoy sleeping more soundly.

Christa Carone joined Xerox in 1996. She has been the company's chief marketing officer since September 2008.
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