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March 8, 2018
What Should Data Mean to a Marketer?

There’s a well-known disclaimer in the investment business: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” It’s a truism: everybody knows the market could crash this year, even if you made a 40% return last year. But it’s a truth that doesn’t seem to have translated for marketers.


Desperate to demonstrate our value, marketing pros are turning en masse to big data, attribution, and optimization to prove our worth and chart a course forward. Data is a valuable tool. But like any tool, it’s dangerous if you’re using it for the wrong thing. Truth (and opportunity) is often found where the data isn’t looking, and the false sense of security that data provides can actually lead to a brand’s downfall. In short, data is great, but it’s no match for insight. Here’s why:


There’s truth beyond data.

There’s an old joke about a drunk who looks for his keys under a lamppost because that’s where the light is. Historical data provides clarity, but not completeness. There’s a lot going on beyond the lamppost’s narrow field. If you’re staring at spreadsheets looking for the next opportunity, you’re doing it wrong.  


Consider the principle of optimization. It makes sense to refine and adjust a plan as results come in. But alone, refinement of past strategies only comes to one logical conclusion: a company “optimized” down to a single channel, a single vendor, a single customer. Not exactly a growth strategy.


When Lego was floundering in the early 2000’s, the data said kids don’t want tactile toys anymore. In other words, the data did its job by presenting a problem. In response, Lego should have applied their seven decades of experience to engaging a changing audience. Instead, they panicked, treated the data as the whole picture, and moved away from their core product—to disastrous consequences. Things only improved when they got back to their basics, while using new insights and creativity to solve the problem the data exposed. That was a tough—and expensive—lesson for a brand built on teaching kids to be creative.


There are monsters in the data.

The poet John Milton wrote about a boat that anchors itself to a sea monster, mistaking its giant back for an island. It’s a powerful analogy because the ship would have been safer out at sea, where things seemed much more dangerous. False safety is a far more lethal threat than recognized uncertainty.


Familiarity feels safe. A spreadsheet showing a clear trend, or a strategy built on your old strongholds, is appealing. But that’s the same reason your competitors will go the same direction. Brands die when they anchor themselves to the deceptively safe and familiar.


Blockbuster. Radio Shack. Kodak. Sears. The case studies of brands who faded into irrelevance are as numerous as they are cliché. But none of these brands thought they were anchoring themselves to monsters. They thought they were investing in data-proven, optimized strategies, because they were. And they were beaten into irrelevance by the brands who recognized opportunity beyond historical safety.  


Data can lead you to truth.

I love data. My firm’s IDEALS® study takes a broad look at huge data sets for entire industries. For verticals as disparate as death care, entertainment, and real estate, we’ve analyzed and segmented vast markets using formal, quantitative data. Our approach works because we’re very clear with our clients: the data will reveal information, but never answers. The answers rely on our ability to couple insight and creativity with what the numbers tell us.


Some of history’s smartest and most successful marketing campaigns have succeeded by learning historical patterns, and then going against them. An airline for people sick of airlines. An insurance campaign about the terrible things insurance won’t prevent. A beer spokesman who doesn’t always drink beer. Southwest, Allstate, and Dos Equis succeeded by learning their markets very, very well. That requires data. But then they made calculated decisions to trek into the unknown. That requires something else entirely.


Experience is invaluable. Past performance and historical learnings should guide or influence every decision a brand makes. But don’t mistake data for answers. Strategy relies on human insight: a complete understanding of the forces and interests and variables at play. Data can help shape that understanding, but it’s never a replacement for it.

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Eric Layer is Director of Account Management at McKee Wallwork and Company, a marketing/consulting firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck, and stale brands. At MW+C, Eric leads the charge to develop groundbreaking strategy on behalf of his clients, who include firms in healthcare, manufacturing, death care, hospitality, insurance, finance, construction, nonprofit, and franchise service. Eric has advised and ghostwritten for CEOs and members of Congress, and his PR work has landed front-page stories in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other national publications.
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