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December 20, 2006
When Metrics Lead to Bad Decisions

While metrics are valuable, sometimes ignoring them is your best strategy.

The other night I witnessed a moment of pure brand evangelism the likes of which CMOs must dream about (when they aren't having nightmares about tenure shrinkage):

Sitting at the head of a crowded dinner table was a BMW Mini owner raving not only about the thrill of driving her zippy little auto, but also about the unique experience that defines being a Mini owner.

While listening to her gush about the Mini experience — more like a fan describing a great movie than a customer talking about a product — it struck me that what I was seeing was a validation of Mini's marketing approach. Playing the role of armchair quarterback, my take on Mini's strategy has been that they are making a concerted effort to harness the power of passionate brand advocates.

If that's the right assessment, then the strategy was a smashing success, perfectly designed and executed — but the outcome was as measurable as the proverbial tree falling in a forest. Unless I go buy a Mini and tell the dealer what influenced me, they'll never know just how well the campaign worked. And that's just fine, because first and foremost the objective of marketing should be to generate results, not measure them.

Mini's recent marketing efforts demonstrate a fact worth keeping in mind as '07 dollars are being allocated: sometimes great marketing can be absolutely successful, while at the same time unmeasurable.

So what, beyond an expense account-fueled supply of house red, would inspire Ms. Mini to go viral over dinner? Well, for starters she was pretty psyched about the "secret decoder" that Mini sent her (note to practitioners of direct mail: There probably aren't a whole lot of secret decoders that wind up in the trash).

With her secret decoder, she was able to decipher the message in ads that ran in national magazines with the headline: "MINI OWNERS: USE YOUR DECODER. Non-Mini Owners: Get your complimentary decoder with the purchase of any Mini." The rest of the ad — for those of us in the non-Mini owner's camp — was pure gibberish. (To check out a good summary of this campaign and to find out what the secret message was all about, go here.)

In order for this campaign to ever have seen the light of day, the agency and the brand had to have the courage to stay true to their strategy even in the absence of direct measurement metrics (cost-per-dinner-anecdote?). And make no mistake: in today's environment, it really does take courage to buck the measurement trend.

As I hear marketers planning for '07, it is crystal clear that dollars are most likely to be assigned to initiatives that can demonstrate measurable ROI. Now on the face of it, that sounds perfectly reasonable — marketing investments should be held accountable for business results — but there's a David Letterman-sized gap where the logic falls apart.

Let's agree that the only purpose of marketing is to get people to buy stuff. Well, instead of allocating dollars to programs that actually drive the desired outcome (selling stuff), they get assigned to programs that measurably drive desired outcomes. Measurement is very important. But sales are more important. And when the urge to measure inhibits the ability to sell, then the tail is wagging the dog. Bad dog!

For those of us who work on the interactive side, here's an all-too-familiar example of measurement driving bad decision-making: a major retailer needs to drive sales of its bread and butter product, the Gizmo. The research definitively states that consumers are most likely to research Gizmo purchases online. We also know intuitively that if we can advertise to consumers who are actively considering a Gizmo purchase, we'll have the best chance of generating a sale.

But, there's a catch: Gizmos aren't sold online. They're only available in the store. So the brand manager decides not to allocate funds online because the dollars can't be tied directly to online sales. If our purpose is to generate the maximum number of total Gizmo sales (and it is), not just measurable Gizmo sales, then we've clearly gone off track. But variations of this story happen all the time.

What's so admirable about the team at Mini is that they did not fall into the measurement trap. I'll bet they have lots of research suggesting that the best way for them to sell cars is to get current customers to pass along the message. So they put a campaign in place to facilitate that process, with their eye on the true outcome, not some watered-down, measurable proxy for it.

So, let's cut to the chase: did all this talk about Minis get me to buy one?

Well, no. But I did add The Italian Job to my queue, which probably generates some nice royalty income for Mini, proving once and for all that marketing that inspires dinner conversation is in fact ROI positive. Measure that.

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As leader of Carat Fusion’s client services group in Boston, Adam Cahill  guides the strategic direction and builds strong business relationships with a set of clients including Wachovia, RadioShack, Reebok, and John Deere. Before his days in the advertising industry, Adam was a lower school assistant teacher in a first grade classroom. he earned his B.A. in psychology at Trinity College and his MBA from the Olin School of Business at Babson.

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