By Cathy Rigg Monetti
In 1974, the physicist Richard Feynman gave a commencement address to graduating scientists at Caltech during which he said: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.”
The speech, titled The Cargo Cult Science, is now a rather famous one in which the Nobel Prize winner makes the case for integrity over righteousness and sensationalism. As Maria Popova points out on her wonderful “Brain Pickings” blog, the message is “all the timlier today as the fear of being wrong has swelled into an epidemic and media sensationalism continues to peddle pseudoscience to laymen ill-equipped or unwilling to apply the necessary critical thinking.”
Pseudoscience, certainly, but I would suggest it is equally timely when applied to business or mass communications or brand building. Feynman went on to say, “After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”
Whoa, as my daughter would say.
There is such poignance to the language Feynman chose to use. I love his calling out of our head talk – the internal dialog that takes place between our true selves and that voice in our head that endlessly chatters, the one with which we debate and eliminate and calculate and conclude. This thought process is meant to lead to resolution, much in the way scientific experimentation is meant to lead to conclusion. But we should always be suspect: the voice in our head nearly always offering a limited view, an ulterior motive, a foregone conclusion with which it intends to shape outcome without our true selves ever noticing. And so it is that we come to create our own stories, our own version of the truth, based on our own limited, and admittedly biased, worldview.
You must not fool yourself, he warned students who would have the benefit of science to prove their conclusions. Let’s just imagine how easy it is to fall prey when you are talking about the nebulous business of branding.
We are so quick to move to communications without doing the hard work of “proving” what the thing is all about in the first place. This requires dissection, challenge, and alignment on questions that are not always easy to answer. It also requires brutal honesty, a “true self” assessment that is neither overinflated nor overindulged thanks to our own head story or the one perpetuated in the halls and social media feeds of our businesses.
These questions are a good place to start. (And keep in mind they must be answered time and time again over the life of a company.)
What is the problem we want our business to solve?
Who has this problem? Who cares about it?
How can we make a difference?
Is someone else already doing this?
Can we/are we doing it differently?
How do we prove it?
Do our employees/associates know this? Are they passionate about it?
This is not the kind of exercise a CEO or marketing director can typically sit down and knock out. Instead it takes the varied perspective and insights of people throughout an organization who come together for conversation and discovery, sometimes with a trained facilitator who can probe dark corners and encourage open discussion. Very often primary and/or secondary research is helpful, providing a more scientific, well-rounded and fact-based dimension to the process. This might include market evaluations, competitive analyses, and interviews with current and former customers, as well as conversations with prospects you haven’t successfully converted.
It’s hard work, needless to say, but healthy labor that leads to clear purpose and ultimately an honest, trustworthy brand.
After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. Perhaps this is the more powerful point, or at least the more comforting one. Because once you’ve done the hard work of building an honest brand your communications strategy will come more easily. Remember to develop and share content that reflects and demonstrates your brand’s values – particularly in digital mediums, where the ability to go direct results in a more personal interaction.
Several years ago we were working with a client whose large, established business was going through significant change. New competitors were eating into the established customer base, product lines were shifting to meet changing market demand, and leadership of the company was moving from one generation to the next. We sat through a couple of meetings during which the founder couldn’t seem to offer anything more than a list of random marketing tactics he’d like us to get right on.
We advised that given the significant change taking place, a reshape of the brand was in order. Item One would be the formation of a brand team to do the heavy lifting in answering questions simliar to those above.
“Why would I ever do that?” came the leader’s response. “I mean, what would I do if I didn’t like their answers?”
Yes, we could only say. Yes, exactly.
Published in April 11, 2016, print issue.
Cathy Rigg Monetti is founding partner at Riggs Partners, a brand consultancy firm in Columbia. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 803-799-5972.