Our Monday morning run takes us through Matheson Hammock Park and out to the marina, a small spit of land that juts out into Biscayne Bay. If you stand just so, you can look out across the endless bay and see the same unspoiled vista that the Tequesta Indians enjoyed hundreds of years ago. Some mornings we get there early enough to watch the sunrise. One time we saw dolphins frolicking in the surf. And sometimes we run past cars parked under the streetlights in the marina parking lot. I always assumed that an expensive car or big SUV sitting in the lot at 5:30 in the morning meant that its owner was out on their boat somewhere in the Caribbean – Bimini maybe, or the Abacos. But today one of my running buddies, commenting on a shiny black Lexus parked by the yachts said, “That’s what happens when your wife throws you out of the house and you need a place to stay.”
Funny, in a million years it never would have dawned on me that that was why that car was there. Clearly my runner friend and I have very different life experiences that helped us to see the exact same situation in very different ways. In marketing, that’s what researchers call “self-referencing criteria.”
When you assume, you make an “Ass” out of “U” and “Me.”
Years ago our branding firm tried to establish a working relationship with the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island. We had great ideas for them to incorporate online and nascent mobile technology into their marketing programs. So after convincing the gatekeepers in Atlantis’ South Florida sales office, I flew to Nassau and met with the resort’s owner, Sol Kerzner. Thanks to his successes in the Bahamas, Dubai, and South Africa, Kerzner was a billionaire developer who looked every bit the part, from the personal jets at his beck and call to Ian Douglas, the urbane and capable executive assistant who shadowed Kerzner and took care of his every need.
After we made our presentation, Kerzner shook his head and said, “That’s ridiculous. No one will make hotel reservations on their cell phones. How many people even carry the bloody things around?”
Before you laugh at that statement, you need to understand that Kerzner didn’t carry his own cell phone. When he needed to make a call he’d just tell Douglas to call his wife, his banker or whomever. Because Atlantis’ CEO evaluated our idea with self-referencing criteria, the company didn’t become an early adapter of mobile technology.
Years before that we had been hired by Bacardi Imports to create a new brand marketing idea for their spiced rum. Specifically Bacardi wanted us to introduce the product to a younger audience than the 50-somethings that had been buying Bacardi Añjeo to sip and savor.
When we made our presentation, we showed it to our direct reports at the spirits company, and a special guest – one of the Bacardi family themselves – who had stopped by to watch the show. After we were done, he spoke up. Señor Bacardi wanted to know why we hadn’t talked about the great history of the product, Bacardi’s “two ells” he called it — Legend and Legacy. After all, he said, that’s why our customers buy our products in the first place.
“With all due respect, sir,” we countered, “That might be why you drink the product, but the twenty-somethings we spoke to couldn’t care less about that. In fact, we have pretty extensive research to prove how disinterested they are in anything other than their two ells — getting Loaded and getting Lucky.”
Most of the other Bacardi folks in the room recoiled at our gumption – apparently they weren’t used to seeing anyone disagree with an actual Bacardi. But to his credit, Señor Bacardi thought for a moment and then agreed that maybe we did have more relevant insight than he did and asked us to proceed. His openness allowed the whole room to put their self-referencing criteria aside and consider options they might not have thought of before.
Because we make mistakes when we make assumptions, the advertising industry has built a robust research protocol to make sure that strategic decisions aren’t based on a survey of one. However, in our personal worlds it’s a lot harder to put our biases aside and remain open to ideas that at first may not jibe with our own lives and sensibilities. But often that different viewpoint is where the real opportunities for connection and success lie. After all, Bacardi really doesn’t care which ells you respond to as long as you’re buying their bottles. And that black Lexus sitting in the Matheson Marina parking lot might have belonged to a happy fisherman, a hapless husband or someone else that maybe we hadn’t even thought of yet.