When the latest marketing answers fail to produce the results you expect, maybe it's time to start asking different questions.

You don't need me to tell you that we're in a crisis of confidence: Consumers don't believe or act on the information we give them in the ways we'd hope, so we're losing faith in the strategies and tools we use to communicate with them. We're asked questions about sales, and we reply with answers about "engagement" and conversational "buzz."

Budgets are down, expectations are up, and the proliferation of new solutions for "engaging" with consumers in conversations seems inversely proportional to results that our employers and clients can value. We believe that somehow, sometime, all those efforts will coalesce—the dots will connect—and yield stunning successes, just like those celebrated in case histories and magazine articles.

I have news for you: We're chasing black swans. And if we keep doing it, we're doomed.

What's a Black Swan?

In his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Random House, 2007), financial trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb elaborates on the conundrum of swan coloring: Although your experience may be that you've only ever seen white swans, that doesn't preclude the appearance of a black one. Once you've seen that black swan, you can work backwards to come up with an explanation for it...but you can't rely on the same variables producing another one in the same way or place, or at the same time again. You may not see another black swan for years, if ever.

So missing the lessons of history doesn't mean you're going to repeat its mistakes, per se; you couldn't replicate them if you tried. The key variables that determine the outcomes of events, or the events themselves, are usually unpredicted:

  • A tidbit of information that nobody knew was relevant
  • An insight that was unique or occurred in a unique moment in time
  • A chain of events that produced a novel outcome

Scientific breakthroughs, terrorist attacks, and every surprising news story make perfect sense when studied retrospectively. But rarely, if ever, can they be forecast. More important, they can't be replicated, at least not with any certainty of the outcome.

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image of Jonathan Salem Baskin

Jonathan Salem Baskin (www.baskinbrand.com) is the author of Branding Only Works on Cattle and blogs at the Dim Bulb (dimbulb.typepad.com). Reach him at jonathansalembaskin (at) yahoo (dot) com. Don't miss Jonathan's online seminar this Thursday, May 21, noon (ET). Sign up for "What Matters Now in Branding: Ten Ideas to Get Refocused."