Is It Time for a True Goodbye?

As I reflected on a client interaction I had this week, I thought about how helpful it is for organizations to learn from the past and then also to let go. I had facilitated a meeting where we tried to embrace failure not as life-over, but simply as feedback—to have a more positive outlook on the unplanned learning lessons that failure brings a brand. It was a tough sell. These young, smart, good-hearted brand builders were perfectionists. They only ever saw A+ on their report cards. Red Fs would have been scarring.

This morning we woke up to our first snow in the foothills of the Rockies. Even though it was only a light sprinkling—like powdered sugar on our lawn—it seemed entirely way too soon. We were not ready to say a goodbye to summer. We assumed we had a couple more weeks to enjoy patio dinners, the window boxes in full bloom and the hummingbirds on the feeders. We had to readjust.

Later in the day, I read this from Jeffrey McDaniel: “I realize there’s something incredibly honest about trees in winter, how they’re experts at letting things go.” I appreciated this advance lesson about winter … it helped me set my favorite season aside and anticipate the cozy fires in the woodstove, cross-country skiing and holiday family gatherings.

Many of my clients are multichannel retailers who introduce hundreds of new products in a season. Very few of these new rollouts become brand rockstars (as I call their bestsellers); many more end up in the middle of the performance pack and the rest trickle towards the bottom. This is a repeat pattern. I believe there is as much value in the bottom learnings as there are in the top-of-chart learnings. The conversations about the bestsellers are just more fun.

As I reflected on a client interaction I had this week, I thought about how helpful it is for organizations to learn from the past and then also to let go. I had facilitated a meeting where we tried to embrace failure not as life-over, but simply as feedback—to have a more positive outlook on the unplanned learning lessons that failure brings a brand. It was a tough sell. These young, smart, good-hearted brand builders were perfectionists. They only ever saw A+ on their report cards. Red Fs would have been scarring.

But, here’s the thing: Unplanned lessons are the exact opposite of lesson plans … those neat and tidy curriculum plans teachers try to follow until the students show up and things go awry. We often learn more from things that don’t quite go the way we hoped than things that do. If we dare to review our actions.

In a BusinessWeek article entitled “Radio Flyer Learns from a Crash,” Thomas Schlegel, VP for product development at Radio Flyer shared his thoughts on a product launch that was halted. After months of development and lots of production time and dollars, Schlegel scrapped it. “It didn’t live up to Radio Flyer standard,” he said. According to the article, “his boss, Robert Pasin, CEO, told Schlegel failure was OK as long as the company learned from it. Pasin now holds a regular breakfast for new employees at which he impresses upon them the idea that failure is inevitable if you want to innovate and valuable if you can learn from it. And after every project ends—whether the project has been shipped or been killed—Radio Flyer is developing what Schlegel describes as an ‘autopsy without blame,’ in which everyone involved in the development of a product discusses four questions: What went well on the project? What didn’t go well on the project? What did we learn? And, what are we going to do next?”

Author James Joyce gives us a new perspective on unplanned lessons: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” Bravo to Radio Flyer. They made discoveries and acted on their volitional errors!

So, I switched gears in my client meeting and described to these Type A risk-averse professionals how another client actually embraces failures—publicly and light-heartedly. This company even had more than 300,000 customers take a tour of its flops: Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard. It’s a real live collection of 31 ice cream mistakes and missteps over the years memorialized for all to see.

Ellen Kresky, Creative Director for Ben & Jerry’s shares this: “One of my favorite things about Ben & Jerry’s is that we’re not afraid to acknowledge our shortcomings or failures to consumers. Take our Flavor Graveyard for example. We use it on our website, and you can actually go visit real tombstones at our Waterbury tour. The Flavor Graveyard features limericks to eulogize our flavor bombs. We even sell Flavor Graveyard t shirts. A few years ago we had a contest to bring consumers’ favorite flavor back from the dead for a limited time in scoop shops. A lot of us were secretly hoping that a flavor with a low gross margin would win so that consumers would benefit in more ways than one. And our wish came true. For me, this is an example of contrarian brand management. Projects like this help continue to build consumer love and trust, and manage to do that in an un-contrived way that stays true to our roots.”

I know it used to be a common practice for many multichannelers to take the time to have strategic post-mortem conversations evaluating a season’s results by sales channels (retail, on-line and catalog) and by customer segments. Product visual boards would be created and the nuances of what worked and what didn’t would be discussed along with promotional strategies and competitive tactics and offerings. In today’s attention deficit business culture where every one is chasing the next new thing, I’m afraid these important cross-departmental meetings have morphed into line item reports read individually and acted upon in silos. The subtle underlying threads of what didn’t work do not get fully analyzed and the real failure of this short cut practice is that similar mistakes get made again (and possibly again).

I am a proponent of serious, slow talk (like the Slow Food, Slow Travel and Slow Christmas movements!) post mortems where true learning and insights can occur. I have both led and participated in these with my clients and they work and are worth it. Stop and think time. Concentrated focus on the previous season’s happenings both for your brand and your customers’ experience with your brand. Free flow of information. Open agenda. Robust conversations. Potential surprise endings.

So, have you dared to slow down and look back with your brand team? Why not take time to better understand and collaboratively converse about your brand faux paus openly and then, and only then, bid them a true goodbye!

Mindset and Measurement

In her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck purports that people possess one of two mindsets: the fixed mindset or the growth mindset. Fixed mindset people are “always trying to prove themselves and they’re supersensitive about being wrong or making mistakes.” They fear failure. They feel that they are always being judged. Fixed mindset people feel that they have fixed traits and talents, and that they’re never going to get any better. For them, success is about proving they’re smart or talented. Validating themselves.

In her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck purports that people possess one of two mindsets: the fixed mindset or the growth mindset.

Fixed mindset people are “always trying to prove themselves and they’re supersensitive about being wrong or making mistakes.” They fear failure. They feel that they are always being judged. Fixed mindset people feel that they have fixed traits and talents, and that they’re never going to get any better. For them, success is about proving they’re smart or talented. Validating themselves.

Growth mindset people believe that “your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.” They welcome failure as a learning experience, an opportunity to grow. For them, success is about stretching themselves to learn something new. Developing themselves.

Which mindset a marketer possesses affects the way they approach testing and results measurement. Beginning my career in a traditional direct marketing environment, I learned early on that failure is a good thing. It tells you what doesn’t work. I thought everyone developed tests that had limited downside risk to determine the best media, creative and offers. We roll out the winning campaign and test against it time and again. Success is always evolving.

It wasn’t until I started in the agency business that I learned there was another mindset—one where in-market testing might uncover flaws in a campaign that could open it up for judgment. In the fixed marketing mindset, the agency team and the client select what they believe is the best approach. If time and money permit, then perhaps they do some research to validate their choice. But as David Ogilvy pointed out so many years ago, “Research is often misused by agencies and their clients. They have a way of using it to prove they are right. They use research as a drunkard uses a lamppost—not for illumination but for support.”

The fixed mindset marketers measure to validate their campaigns. The growth mindset marketers measure to challenge their campaigns.

Agency people can be especially prone to the fixed mindset, particularly when it involves admitting that the agency’s initial work or recommendation was not perfect. Once, I was analyzing conversion from visit to lead at a website. I found a problem with the way leads were being directed to the landing page; it wasn’t an intuitive interface for the visitor and it was a spot where visitors were abandoning the site. When I informed the account person about the issue she said, “We can’t change it now. The client already approved it.” Classic fixed mindset. Being wrong equals failure, even if admitting it means better results, learning and growth.

Clients who have lengthy, multi-layered approval processes are also prone to the fixed mindset. They resist testing because it’s too difficult to get multiple creative/offer variations approved. But perhaps they’re reluctant to admit to people across several departments and levels of the organization that they don’t know prospectively what’s going to work best.

The good news is people can change their mindsets if they change their perceptions of what it means to succeed and what it means to fail. Dr. Dweck relates that “John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, says you aren’t a failure until you start to blame. What he means is that you can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.”

Testing new approaches and learning what doesn’t work is a step along the path of continuous improvement. If we’re going to take our marketing results to the next level, we need to challenge the status quo, not preserve it.

Connecting Marketing Generations: Our Opportunity

Lucky is the marketing organization that has the best, brightest and newest marketing professionals—the “Rising Stars”—working alongside its experienced, proven marketing powerhouses. Sound like your company? Well, it could be

Lucky is the marketing organization that has the best, brightest and newest marketing professionals—the “Rising Stars”—working alongside its experienced, proven marketing powerhouses. Sound like your company? Well, it could be.

The speed of marketing is as fast as the speed of data—but are we incorporating all that’s gone before: The marketing maxims and truisms which are as constant as human behavior? We could be.

Are we dedicating all we need to training—both the newest career entrants to the discipline of testing, measurement, analysis and strategy, and—in the other direction—retooling for today’s marketing science and channel proliferation?

While marketing is at a crossroads of the true and the new, whichever generation we identify with, I hope that we are open and eager to learn from others. Call it “bidirectional learning.”

When Denny Hatch shared a perspective recently on the “Newest Generation of Direct Marketers,” I was taken aback by some of the posted comments. I believe folks mean well, but it appears that there might be something of a marketing generation gap opening among us. Is that happening in your company?

A dynamic career requires continuous learning. Today and tomorrow is a sharing, learning economy—for those who want to participate. That’s why I’m intrigued to see the Direct Marketing Association announce a new award—The President’s Award for Professional Development—recognizing a company or marketing department that has demonstrated a commitment to marketing education among professionals during the past 18 months, and can show results and impact for its efforts to train. Nominations are due June 27. Perhaps the winning company will have demonstrated bidirectional learning and the fruits it has borne.

In addition, as Marketing EDGE (a client) comes off its “stellar” Rising Stars event in New York (a top USA trend that night on Twitter!) earlier this month, let’s remember this is our marketing education organization, bringing the best and brightest of students into our field and our companies.


Marketing EDGE Overview from Marketing EDGE on Vimeo.

I’m not resigned to a marketing generation gap. No matter how old or how young, there’s a lot we need to learn from each other—and class is always in session. The opportunity is ours.