The mind of a marketer can be a delicate thing. We like to think that we’re logical, reasonable and objective in our insight. The truth really is that we’re all bad at being objective. We prefer to solve problems by asking: which ideas do I already have, and know well, and how can I apply them to the situation at hand? Daniel Kahneman calls this tendency the “availability heuristic”. And it is toxic to having a great marketing mindset.
I was reminded of this recently by something that happened in one of the marketing classes I teach. In fact, it’s something that has happened within the first five minutes of every class I have given since I started teaching properly seven years ago
It goes like this. I start talking about a particular topic; it could be positioning, segmentation or digital marketing – the topic does not matter. To get some class engagement started, I always ask for questions. Without fail, 100% of the time, someone puts their hand up and starts their next sentence with ‘I think that…’. They then proceed to give me an opinion about the topic, falling into the same trap every time: the mindset that their opinion is of relevance as a professional marketer.
I always follow with an illustrative example about my favourite topic in the world to show how ridiculous our opinions and ideas can be. This topic is one that I could talk about all day and all night: cars. Yes, I am a total petrolhead and own five cars, all in various states of decrepitude and disarray. Four of them are MGs, a brand that went bust as part of MG Rover in 2005, and which is a byword for unreliability among fellow petrolheads.
Now imagine, I tell the class, if I told you that in my opinion everybody should own an MG. Gradually, it dawns on them.
You think or you know?
There are many cognitive biases – flaws in the way we perceive our environments or make judgments – that affect our mindsets. And, what’s worse, you also have to allow for the self-serving bias of everybody else – because most people are not going to remove their biases successfully, the human condition being what it is. If you don’t correct for inevitable bias in your thinking, you will think that your mindset reflects everybody else’s.
When you hear the words ‘I think that…’ come out of your mouth, you are just one step away from post-truth marketing. It’s a ridiculous way to think as a marketer. As a former boss of mine used to say to me when I was spouting some fact-free opinions: “You think, or you know?”
The key to career progress is identifying the mindsets that determine success. By a ‘mindset’, I mean a way of looking at the world and the future that you hold onto consistently over a long period of time. Without the right mindset, our minds can take the wrong approach. Bad mindsets lead us astray, like looking at an out-of-date map, instead of looking at the road. And they are surprisingly hard to unlearn.
Thinking about your thinking
The problem is that our experience often deeply embeds assumptions in our minds that need to be questioned in the first place. We use our minds to experience the world around us, but we can also use them to observe the world from different angles and be conscious of the ways we are experiencing things.
When I look back to the start of my marketing career, I can see a common trend in how I grew my capabilities. It was changing my mindset, and not bringing the past into the future.
You can ask yourself ‘how am I looking at this?’ and ‘why am I looking at this way?’. In other words, you can think about your thinking, and learn to appreciate that your own specific experience and mindset is not the experience of others.
If the past year or two of ‘fake news’ has taught us anything that could be useful for the future, it is this: don’t believe yourself, your opinion or your own frame of reference. Quoting Kahneman again: “The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.”
Mindset is the foundation of career success
Everything you do in the future will be a function of your mindset. As we try to make sense of our day-to-day tasks – as well as our marketing careers – in the face of new technologies that are perhaps more transformative than anything we’ve seen before, how we think about the capabilities that these technologies bring is the key to our future. Bringing past ideas and opinions certainly won’t help.
When I look back to the start of my marketing career, I can see a common trend in how I grew my capabilities and adapted to the needs of the job in order to jump to the next level time and time again. It was changing my mindset, and not bringing the past into the future.
Changing your mindset and inner narrative in this way has the remarkable ability to move you forward. The bonus is that changing how you think about your mindset can be the start of one of the most transformative experiences of your life: knowing that other people’s thinking is really important too.
It is this combination that makes the foundation of future marketing career success: objectively thinking, learning and understanding about the future possibilities of technology, and objectively thinking, learning and understanding other people’s point of view.
Mindset determines everything
Mindset has to be the start of any change. Unlike, say, improving your technical skills, knowledge or habits, making a shift in your marketing mindset can take place almost overnight.
So, how to make this marketing mindset shift?
My first rule of thumb is that marketers must seek out the real answers, the right teachers and experts to work on their craft. In the noisy world of marketing, rarely does a good idea interrupt us. Marketing success comes toward those who search for progress, not easy answers or the snacky soundbites of 140 characters.
My second rule of thumb is that the standard quotations you will see strewn around the internet about ambition, being a team player, passion, perseverance and so on are applicable to pretty much any 21st-century job. Not for us marketers though. Ignore advice like this like the plague: these are just table stakes.
The third rule of thumb is having a natural curiosity about yourself, the world and your brands, but also multiple industries.
Create a full kit of tools and mental models from multiple disciplines, because all the ideas of the world are not to be found in FMCG, financial services, tech, retail or what have you.
My fourth rule of thumb is to learn to maintain your objectivity, especially when it’s hardest. Be willing to change for something better, and no falling in love with your own ideas. Charles Darwin paid special attention to evidence when it contravened something he believed and loved.
These are my four rules that I believe are the keys to creating a great marketing mindset. I’m sure there are lots more: what can you add to the list to create a new marketing mindset?