Dear CMO:

I’ve heard three pieces of good news over the past few weeks. First, I understand that the feared AIDS epidemic within the heterosexual communities of developed countries is no longer a threat, according to the World Health Organization. Second, I learned that not only is the US not in a recession but that the economy grew 0.9% in the last quarter. And third, I learned from the Director of the CIA that the war on terror in Iraq, and against Al Qaeda in particular, is basically over (and that we, the good guys, won). All things considered, this is pretty good news, don’t you think?

Does it strike you as curious that none of these stories have made the front page, literally or figuratively? I think I know why. And don’t worry, I’ll bring it back onto solid marketing ground shortly.

We are creatures of habit. We desperately do our best to act in a consistent manner. When we don’t, we feel personal and societal pressure to revert back to our previously taken positions. When the major media decide that we’re in a recession — actual definitions aside — they find it virually impossible to say we’re not. This combination of arrogance and inflexibility is what the ancient Greeks called hubris.

I had a conversation the other day with a client who referenced a colleague’s thesis that described how even with actionable competitive intelligence extracted from top tier competitors, most companies do not change their strategy or tactics to take advantage of it. Even when we find the enemy’s battle plans in the trash can, we don’t change our strategy. We may read it, second guess it, or tell ourselves smugly that we already knew it — but we rarely do anything that we hadn’t planned already to do.

Gerald Zaltman makes the point in his excellent What Customers Think that the vast majority of marketing research is done to validate previously developed preconceptions. We do research not for insight: we do it to prove to others that we were right all along, and we cut corners and squint at the data until the trends we walked into the room with begin to emerge, regardless of how tenuous the connections appear to be.

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Key Takeaways:

> We have a deep psychological need to be consistent with previously taken positions, even when those postions no longer hold any relevance. This can get us into trouble, make us look foolish, and blind us to new possibilities. And if this is true of us, it’s true of others, too.

> We can’t undo several millenia of neural programming and change how we think — after all, we’d just appear ‘flaky’ to our friends — but we can acknowledge that “consistency happens,” which is often enough to shed light into those blind corners long enough to open us up to new possibilities.

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In the language of influence that we’ve discussed, this idea touches upon several key principles of persuasion:

  • Consistency: we have a deep need to be consistent with stances we’ve taken.


  • Liking: telling your target that they have always had an open mind — assuming they have — is more than just idle flattery. You are building a relationship.



  • Reciprocity: by giving an unexpected and highly relevant gift — the ability to gracefully accept new information and opening your target up to more options without appearing socially foolish, you’ve sown the seeds of a reciprocal “gift.”



  • Authority: Let’s assume you begin your counter argument by retreating and arguing against your own best interests: “I realize you’ve already make commitments to do X, which I can fully understand and respect, so I won’t try to overwhelm you with facts and figures… you’ve clearly gone down this path before… but I think the real reason we should consider Z comes from your position on Y, which feels very similar to the proposal we’re discussing…”


Helping intransigent targets of our influence get out of the psychological corner they’ve painted themselves into is something you should see as a gift, not as manipulation. If previous statements have gulag-ed your listener to be psychologically predisposed to reject your idea, perhaps the answer lies in building a bridge from their isolated position today, through other positions they’ve taken (philosophies, problems solved in the past, etc.), to the newer and safer ground of your mutual interests. After all, remember that there are always other options and we’ve all made countless public positions that we can use as examples.

Ask yourself: how many interesting options and possibilities do I reject every day because they don’t reside squarely in the little corner I’ve painted myself into?


(Photo courtesy of Flickr)