Put your goggles on for a clearer, simpler view of marketing
A view from Richard Shotton

Put your goggles on for a clearer, simpler view of marketing

Complex marketing approaches are all the rage: Big Data, machine learning and AI. But marketers should consider more closely the case of swimming goggles.

Goggles are a simple bit of kit – certainly compared with shark suits or cutting-edge pool design. In fact, they’re so basic that they were first used 700 years ago by Persian pearl divers. But despite their simplicity they only became widely available in the late 1960s.

Before goggles, the chlorine in pools limited swimmers to an hour or two of training a day – any more and their eyes became blisteringly painful. After their introduction, they could swim four, five, even six hours a day. By the 1970s, once the impact of the extra training had reached its peak, world records began to tumble.

My colleague, Lisa Akins, and I analysed world record data collated by swimming coach, Rick Madge. In the 1970s, 325 long-course world records were broken – that’s double the rate over the next thirty years. In fact, more records were broken in just two years (1973 and 1977) than in the entire 1990s.

A simple bit of moulded, see through plastic revolutionised performance.

Marketers should pay more attention to simple solutions

This lesson on the power of simple changes is one that marketers should heed. We too often obsess over the complexity of our methodologies. It’s as if we believe we can replace the hard work of thinking with the high costs of measurement.

The origin of an insight is immaterial. What matters is whether we find a truth about consumers that gives us an advantage. Our industry’s belief that insight generation requires complex methodologies creates problems. Complexity comes at a cost – and that puts us off.

Supposed high costs also limit the number of different techniques we use. That’s a problem as no one methodology is perfect. Each has its flaws. It’s better to use a range of approaches. If they agree you can have confidence in your recommendations and if they contradict each other then you need to find out why.

Can you really get decent insights for the price of a pair of goggles?

Luckily, insight generation doesn’t have to cost much. Consider a recent brief we received for a male incontinence pad. As none of the planners was in the target audience we needed to undertake fieldwork but we had no budget to do so. We therefore used a process, which Google often use, called method planning.

We texted the planners at random times across a weekend and each time they received a text they had to stop what they were doing and get to a toilet within two minutes.

This process helped the planners empathise with the target audience but also think of new ways of communicating. For example, for the channel recommendations, we discovered the importance of reaching consumers out of home, when the fear of being caught short was greatest. And for the messaging we realised the value of appealing to the audience’s desire not to feel like a burden to their families.

Why are we infuriated with the complex?

If there are plenty of low-cost opportunities, why do many marketers prefer the complex? It could be a monetary issue with some unscrupulous vendors favouring high-margin options. Or it might be that complex solutions are good for our self-image. We feel sophisticated discussing the abstruse and abstract.

Or perhaps Dave Trott is right. When I spoke to him he attributed the flaw to the industry’s reliance on graduates:

"Most marketers went to university. At university you get better marks for demonstrating an understanding of complex concepts. Even more marks if it's explained in complex-sounding language. So they go through life thinking complicated things must be more intelligent. At art school you learn ‘Less is more’. You get better marks for going beyond complicated to simple. That's considered creative: getting the most from the least"

Whatever the reason for our obsession with complexity, we need to recognise that leaps in performance are as likely to come from a £5 pair of goggles as a £500 shark suit.

Richard Shotton is the head of insight at Zenith