Why Marketing Rules Are Useless
We like to have rules.
Rules make it easy for us, they absolve us of responsibility. With a little bit of work, we can learn the rules and apply them. If we can show that we’re following them, we can prove that we’re doing our jobs. Unfortunately, we won’t be doing them very well.
For a system of rules to be effective, it would have to be verifiable, internally consistent and complete. Unfortunately, that is a logical impossibility. Effective management isn’t about following rules, it’s about showing good judgment in the face of uncertainty.
The Verification Principle
I think everybody would agree that rules need to be logical in order to be followed. We must be able to see that a situation fits a certain set of facts to do what the rule says we should do. Logicians call this the Verification Principle.
To see how it works, let’s look at a set of basic statements:
- The President of the United States is the head of the US government.
- The President of the United States is Barack Obama.
- The President of the United States is black.
- The President of the United States is in Seattle.
- The President of the United States is a bad man.
The first statement is a tautology. We are merely stating an identity. The two entities are inseparable and can be used interchangeably.
The next three statements extend the definition, but are logical in that they can be verified. We can check election results, travel schedules, go to the Oval office, etc. In effect, we can determine whether they are true or false.
The last statement, however, is logically nonsensical. It is certainly not a definition and doesn’t correspond to a specific “state of affairs.” It is an opinion, not a fact.
Logical Marketing Statements
The above example isn’t very practical. So let’s look at some statements that we would more commonly see in business and see how they would apply to the simple rule: “increase the ad budget when awareness is low.”
- Our brand awareness is low.
- Our spontaneous brand awareness consistently trails our competitors by 5 percentage points
- Our aided brand awareness consistently trails our competitors by 10 percentage points
- The awareness that our products are “good quality” has fallen by 8 percentage points over the last three surveys.
- Our brand awareness is low because sales are low.
The first statement would allow us to follow the rule, but it’s logically nonsensical, it is an opinion rather than a fact.
The middle three statements are verifiable, but the rule doesn’t actually apply. If we verify them, then we would still have to determine that they meet the definition of “low” and that would require making a judgment.
The last statement is especially problematic. It is not a statement, but rather an argument based on two nonsensical statements. You are not only stating two opinions, but also the opinion that there is a causal relationship between them.
Many would look at the above and just conclude that we need better rules. However, Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued that we will always have the problem.
He gave an example of a number series:
1, 5, 11, 19, 29…
One might conclude that we have a rule to follow: n² + n – 1. However, another might conclude that the rule is a series of even numbers, 4, 6, 8, 10. So who’s following the right rule?
In reality, we have no way of knowing whether a rule is being followed because any rule will eventually lend itself to different actions. That’s Wittgenstein’s Paradox.
The Paradox in Action
Many would argue that it doesn’t really matter as long as they are getting the same answer, but if people are following different rules, we’ll run into trouble eventually..
Let’s take an example of a rule where when a manager gives an order and asks whether it is being understood, the subordinate nods and says “yes”. Later, when the manager finds out that his instructions were ignored he’s furious. He feels that the rule was broken.
However, the nod was meant to acknowledge authority, not understanding. The rule of “nod if you understand” gave the same answer as “nod to acknowledge greater authority.” (This example is actually maddeningly realistic, especially when managing across cultures.)
The Unbearable Reality of Judgment
As professionals, our value is not in our ability to follow rules, but to show good judgment. Computers can follow rules, but only people can make interpret value. Unfortunately, sometimes people are right and sometimes people are wrong.
That’s the meaning of responsibility.