Uncertainty has a bad rap. It’s almost universally unloved, especially among marketers. It is something that we naturally retreat from (just look at the response to the 2016 election or Brexit). In fact, marketers go to great lengths to eliminate uncertainty on the way to developing new businesses, experiences and products.
This discomfort has led us into a “Certainty Economy,” where marketers rely on behaviors that reduce risk, like copying and pasting business strategies (e.g. the Uber of…), formulaically running ideas through quantitative research, and following processes that purport to lead to original strategies and ideas. While these approaches may sound intuitive, they don’t actually make things any more certain.
What they do is make marketers feel more certain, by creating the illusion of certainty. For example:
Illusion 1: The Copy-Paste Guarantee
There’s a reason that we point to things that have already succeeded to show the fantastic potential of something new. When someone says “I’m going to create the Uber of X,” it turns heads. Who wouldn’t want in? But this kind of shortcut often skates over important details, like the unique dynamics of the category you’re entering or a proven consumer need. Not every industry can be ‘Netflixed.’ For example, the now-defunct ‘Artify’ was a subscription-based art handling service. It failed because the demand for ‘on-demand’ fine art just wasn’t there to begin with.
Illusion 2: The Research Confirmation Crutch
All research is limited by the chosen sample and methodology. It helps marketers learn something specific and gives them an indication of what would happen if an idea was unleashed into the real world. But it’s just a clue. Too often marketers see research (especially quantitative research) as something that can give them the definitive answer. Once an idea hits the ‘right’ research benchmark, they see it as a guarantee of success.
Illusion 3: Following a Formula for Inspiration
Creating a process is natural and it helps us to institutionalize what is working. But it’s incorrect to think that following a process will always lead to breakthrough ideas. Process can get in the way of the best work and can be stifling, as it doesn’t always provide the oxygen a team needs to fuel original thinking.
So what should marketers be doing to move into 2017 confidently—not just with the illusion of confidence?
Get in the Field for a Reality Check
Get out and experience the ‘real world’ that consumers live in every day. It’s essential. Marketers can’t afford to drift away from reality. It’s important to see the world through the eyes of a consumer.
IKEA has long been at the forefront of ‘reality check’ research, looking for ingenious ways to observe people and how they interact with furniture. IKEA’s Head of Research Mikael Ydholm practices getting out of traditional research facilities and observing people in their natural environments—or what anthropologists call participant observation. This has helped the brand uncover surprising insights, like that people in Asia tend not to sit on top of their sofas. Rather, they sit on the floor and lean on them. Another surprise was that people don’t just eat in the dining room or the kitchen. They eat in the bedroom. They even eat in the bathroom!
Prototype to Illustrate Potential
More and more, the best way to illustrate the potential of an idea is to make it real -- Or at least almost real. Maybe not the final, perfect thing, but a prototype that creates a glimpse of what an idea could be. Working with Allbirds, an innovative footwear startup based in San Francisco, Redscout invited creative consumers into our offices. We put Post-Its, Play-Dough, and pipe cleaners in front of them and asked them to play the role of product developer for a day. At the end of the session, we had more than a dozen prototypes hobbled together for new kinds of footwear. While none of them were perfect, they were concrete and evocative, and they got us much closer to a final product.
Build Trust to Motivate the Team
The best way to thrive in uncertainty is to build more trust. When marketing teams have more trust, they reduce the need for processes and leave employees feeling empowered. Marketers have permission to run with their own ideas. They can sprint where others might walk. They can go back to the drawing board if they’ve had an ‘a-ha’ moment or a better idea. Trust among a team creates room to meander, to get stuck, and to break through. It creates room for gut instinct and for inspiration.
There will always be uncertainty in innovation, which is why it’s not easy. It’s also why it is so powerful when done well. By challenging the notion of certainty and becoming less reliant on lazy models, perfunctory research, and restricting processes, marketers can get more confident, more inspired and truly do their best work.
Eric Matis is a strategy director at Redscout.