Blog | Hugh Kennedy 08.20.19

Three Ways Assumptions Can Steer Your Marketing Off a Cliff

There’s a big difference between figuring out the context of a situation and jumping right in as if you know everything that’s going on. The ability to separate blindly confident assumption from informed opinion is no small matter. This is as true for national policymaking as it is for B2B marketing strategy.

Here are three key mistakes to avoid in the marketing sphere.

1. Assuming you know your audience.

As part of a branding agency, I once attended a two-day positioning and messaging workout for a new client, and during one of the first exercises the consultant running the show said, “Okay, I’m a CIO. What am I thinking about my software investments?”

For the next half-hour, everyone just called out answers, right from the top of their head. Although another colleague had just come off a major assignment involving this audience and had some eloquent responses, I couldn’t believe this was going to pass for insight gathering. Who the hell were we to say, without a CIO in the room or a shred of transcript in our hands, what today’s CIOs were really thinking about their software investments?

Similarly, tons of hunches float around about scientists and people who work in life science companies. Scientists must be highly left-brained people: rational, logic-driven knowledge-driven professionals who rarely let emotion get in the way of their decision-making. In reality scientists think of themselves more like artists, except their materials are large molecules, bioprocessing platforms, and algorithms. An old friend who is an enzymologist admits to staring off into space in the car and moving his hands around at the level of his eyes, as if he's moving molecules. His wife will look over from behind the steering wheel and say, "Are you building an experiment?" She knows him well. But it's like he's sketching or planning an installation.

It's also the case that Keeping Up with the Jones behavior goes on in labs, especially in academia. If someone from a prestigious lab gets a great new affinity chromatography system, a lab manager from a lab down the hall might enviously eye it and try to put it in next year's budget or somehow get funding. Hardly the most logical purchase process.

Long story short, emotion and marketing do strike through to left-brained people, as the now-classic Google/CEB study of 2013 showed: when you're making a decision that could shape or wreck your near-term career, it's emotionally fraught, more so than B2C.

2. Assuming you know your market.

Staying in life sciences, there's also an erroneous and easy assumption people make that every biotech company is just out there to get to market, get their treatment to the market and to patients. Yes, there is a lot of idealism and passion about giving people options who don't have them now, especially in the case of rare diseases, but what good old account planning shows is that Chief Scientific Officers and other scientific leaders are really just thinking ahead to the next milestone. Getting to market might be 5 to 6 years away, and they probably only have funding for the next 12 to 18 months. They might not even be around in a year, or they are likely to be acquired if they look interesting before they even get to Phase III. Who can think all the way to market?

One CSO described it to me as sort of a staggering walk up a beach. You execute a step with your funding to produce proof of concept data, then you land the step where you get funding, then you take that funding to produce your next set of data or drug substance materials, then you take another step to get more funding, and so on until you file an IND (investigational new drug) application and (fingers crossed) get into clinical trials.

3. Assuming business users really know a product.

Move now to retail merchandising software. Many companies in this space have a mobile-based solution that allows you to validate your planogram (exactly where things go on shelves), track your KPIs, keep dibs on your third-party logistics partners and prove that those complex displays for the summer blockbuster went up in every 7-Eleven. The market looks packed with competitors, at least a dozen that do the same thing, so the easy assumption to make it is that these solutions have very broad acceptance and it's a feeds-and-speeds and pricing game to get in the door.

Yet an hour with a good retail / category management expert and calls with a few customers reveal that most retailers and brands and third-party logistics companies are still very hazy on what to do with these tools. If you stopped at the websites in this product set you'd think that whole nut was cracked. Far from it. Otherwise, up to a third of reported merchandising work in retail wouldn't still be wrong, late, or flat-out didn't happen.

Don’t Kill Your Assumptions. Just Inform Them.

The antidote to these missed connections is both simple and difficult:

Find your target audience. Use whatever networks and connections you can, pay a recruiter, work your magic on LinkedIn; anything that puts you in direct 1:1 contact with the person or people you’re trying to reach. Talk to them. Get inside their heads. Ask them what jobs they’re trying to do. Mine insight.

Get comfortable with your market. Read annual reports (the 10-k as well as the upfront, because corporations have to give credible analysis of their market and competitors). Subscribe to Seeking Alpha and see what investors with skin in the game are saying. Check out the competitors; a surprising amount have licensed analyst reports for public distribution, which saves you $15,000 right there.

Go to school on product categories. Customer testimonial videos are sometimes gold mines, but in addition LinkedIn offer a safe space for many to dish about what’s working and what’s not in a dizzying array of product spaces in their Groups. Look into the online periodicals in the space and reach out to the editors. You’d be surprised how many will give you 15 minutes of their time. And so on.

Stay curious, as someone once said. You’ll not only be more interesting to your friends; you’ll uncover what you need for your marketing to shine. If all else fails, think of yourself as a detective, trying to get to the bottom of who a mysterious person or collection of companies is. Stay on the case. Turn assumption into certainty. Rinse and repeat.