Share this content
Art and science

The surprising power of ideas that don't make sense


It seems logical to do what everyone else is doing well when you get into business. So why is it that being different creates such success for some brands?

29th May 2020
Share this content

It seems logical to do what everyone else is doing successfully when you get into business.

It makes no sense at all to do it differently, does it? It won’t be good for your career, your team, or your bottom line.

So why is it that being different creates such success for some brands?

We discussed the surprising way that new ideas that seem crazy can do amazing things for your brand in a recent podcast.

Our guest was an advertising “legend” Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of Ogilvy in the UK. Sutherland has done several TED talks and writes for the Spectator and Wired, among others. His book, Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense, explores the art and science of making your products and ideas irresistible to customers. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend you do.

Within Sutherland’s book are 11 rules of succeeding with nonsensical ideas, and a few of these were the subject of our conversation. 

It doesn’t pay to be logical when everybody else is being logical

Sutherland says that if you play by the same rules as everybody else and become obsessed with comparison, you will use the same metrics as your competitors. Furthermore, when you optimise for the same parameters, you become more like your competitors and edge closer to commoditising your product and service category.

Sutherland refers to the book Blue Ocean Strategy, which says the point of differentiation is to develop better metrics than your competitors. In other words, if you abandon that need for comparison, it's an excellent way to find a comparative advantage. 

So Sutherland says that one of the things that made Apple different was that everybody else in tech was asking what a phone could do, from battery life process to power to available RAM...and so forth. Apple chose to ask a different question, which was, “How does the phone make you feel while you're using it?

The considerations by the other tech firms are objective. They're about ESSI units and things that are numerically measurable. Apple’s was subjective. Sutherland argues that one of the ways of getting closer to customers as a marketer is simply to develop subjective, not objective metrics against which you judge yourself. 

Apple chose to ask a different question, which was, “How does the phone make you feel while you're using it?”

Sutherland explains that by going subjective, you've done two things. One - you've escaped the dangerous trap that assumes that improvements in objective reality correlate to changes in human perception and behaviour and that there's a linear relationship between the two, which is a dangerous assumption. He reasons that you reach a point where trying to optimise the objective can result in negligible improvements that nobody cares about.

Two - you gain the size of your potential solution, meaning that the space for growth increases immensely. Sure, your ability to win arguments goes down because you can’t put numbers on a lot of the subjective measures, but you have no limits to what you can do, either. 

The opposite of a good idea can be another good idea

Sutherland says that in most fields of activity, you have an optimal solution, and then you have suboptimal solutions. A classic example would be that an economist would say, “this product isn't selling because the price is too high.” A marketer would say, “this thing isn't selling. Maybe it's because the price is wrong.”

An economist would assume there was no such thing as a price that was too low; a marketer would not necessarily agree. Therefore, Sutherland reasons, if you extend the broader thinking of the marketer to your problems, you open the opportunity for different reasonable solutions.  

An example from real life can be meeting customers’ needs. Most marketers, when they want to know what customers want, ask them. The customers tell the marketing team what they want, and then the organisations implement these changes. However, sometimes the organisation doesn’t see an increase in sales or whatever metric they are trying to move after they give customers what customers said they wanted.

Most marketers, when they want to know what customers want, ask them.

If you employ the usual ideas, you would ask them again or maybe ask them why they didn’t take advantage of the new offer. But what would happen if you didn’t give the customer what they said they wanted instead? Would it be the end of your career? Maybe, but then again, perhaps not. 

What I have learned over the years is that customers don’t always know how to tell you what they want. Sometimes, they might not even know what they really want at all. Asking them what they want is a good idea. However, not asking them might be, too. 

Of course, I don’t mean to say that you ignore customers or you give up entirely. My opposite of a good idea is to figure out for yourself what customers want. Do research that digs a little deeper and uncovers the hidden, unmet needs of your customers or potential customers. Then, use those discoveries to create a customer experience that surprises and delights customers.

Our Emotional Signature research can help you discover how you can find these 'hidden' things that drive value for your customers—usually, the things that customers don’t even know they want. In other words, it digs deeper to find out what customers really want and not just what they say they want. 

The problem with logic is it kills off magic

Organisations obsessed with the rational don’t see the power of the irrational. Sutherland would say that you pay the price twice because you don’t look for the “magical” (irrational) solutions, and then, when you do encounter a magical solution, you don’t believe in it or think it’s cheating. So not only do you not look for magic, but you discount it when it appears— even when it's handed to you on a plate. Your natural reaction is to disbelieve.

Let’s put this idea to work on a problem like train overcrowding. An engineer defines an overcrowded train as one that has people standing on it. A rational solution would be to use economic incentives to spread the time out where people travel, which Sutherland does not dismiss.

However, there are other solutions, magical ones that require persuasion. You could have rewards associated with frequent travel with bonuses for using less popular routes. You could also use the information on the website. The listings could highlight the least crowded trains between 9 am and 11 am, allowing people to choose a less crowded train. 

So what happens if you solve overcrowding psychologically rather than numerically? Maybe you run two trains in each direction at peak hours, and these are exclusively for people with exclusive memberships. Perhaps you reward frequent travelers at this time with other perks, like streamlined luggage drop off or boarding.

Maybe you make sitting less beneficial and add more benefits to standing, e.g., the chairs are in the middle of the cars, and the standing positions are in front of the windows with a shelf for your workstation. You still have a crowded train, but you have little perks that help make it feel better for the passenger. Our brain does quite a lot of minimising regret where we possibly can. It's the synthesis of economic value by psychological means.

By making the solution less mathematical, you make it fuzzier. Sutherland admits that in some ways, it makes this the problem more difficult because you don't have a specific thing you're trying to optimise. On the other hand, your potential solution space becomes enormous. 

Solving problems using only one rationality is like playing golf with only one club

Business people love a precise numerical target, Sutherland says. What happens in business is the group of people who are first given a problem to solve tend to have a similar mindset, usually a financial-engineering, Newtonian- reductionist mindset. 

However, when you define the problem, you define the solution, and you restrict the potential tools that can be deployed to the solution. For example, as soon as a problem is described in economic terms, economists have a monopoly on the solution. As soon as the issues defined in legal terms, lawyers take it. 

The typical approach to the desired change is we deploy law first, economics second, and persuasion third. Sutherland argues that if you want behaviors to change, you should implement them in parallel. Arguably, he adds, you should try persuasion before you resort to the other two because there's an advantage to persuasion. It’s challenging with legal and economic incentives not to penalise people unjustly.  

Take the example of encouraging people to reduce carbon emissions in the UK. One of the strategies is to get people to put on washing machines, dishwashers, and clothes dryers late in the evening or at night rather than in the middle of the day. If it was illegal to put your tumble dryer on until midnight or you charged people a tremendous amount of money for using electrical appliances during the day, both of those things would probably work.

However, there are situations where running them at night wouldn’t work, like if your dryer is right over your neighbor’s bedroom in an apartment building, or if you work nights and the dryer causes a fire while you are away at work. With laws in place that do not allow for deviation, you are penalising individuals in these situations. They are “collateral damage.” 

The beautiful thing about persuasion is that if you've got a good enough reason, you're free to ignore it. That isn't true about legislation or economics, generally. As a result, there is far less collateral damage with persuasion, and therefore you can afford to be more ambitious when designing programs.

The beautiful thing about persuasion is that if you've got a good enough reason, you're free to ignore it

We did a podcast about the use of plastic bags in the UK. When stores began charging for bags, an amount equal to roughly 10p, usage of plastic bags has decreased by an incredible amount. Sutherland says that the principal thing the bag example shows is that the change was behavioural, not economic. Most people don’t care about the charge at that level. However, the fact that there was a charge indicated a change in the default.

Now, you are asked if you want a bag, and it made it much easier to say “no, thank you.” It fundamentally changed the choice architecture and the choice framing in terms of having a bag. Sutherland describes using persuasion to change behaviour as “a marriage of economics and behavioral science,” which is at least two golf clubs by my count!

Listen to part one of the surprising power of ideas that don't make sense podcast with Rory Sutherland 

Replies (0)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

There are currently no replies, be the first to post a reply.