I'll start with an apology. A reader contacted me about an inaccuracy in my Know Your Audience, and Reach It column. The Chevy Nova anecdote I included is a myth. First, many thanks to the reader who pointed my mistake out to me. Making mistakes is so important to me that NextStage references mistake making in our Company Principles 6, 7 and 22.
Myths play a very important role in society. Businesses need to understand how myths apply to marketing and branding. You see, those businesses that can take a myth they didn't start and use it for their own purposes are ahead of the game. A recent example is Target's Parlez vous Paul & Joe TV spots. I've heard people refer to Target negatively as "Targèt" for several years now. Congratulations to Target's marketing department for taking a negative and making hay with it!
The question remains though, how come myths persist in the face of evidence to the contrary? The answer is because myths are truer than the truth...
- Myths are true if everyone believes they're true
The reader's email arrived during a discussion of cultural marketing with several individuals at NextStage's Mississauga, ON, offices. During a break, I asked if anyone knew the Chevy Nova story. Two-thirds thought the story true, one-third hadn't heard the story and most im-portantly no one knew the story was false. That surprised me, as there was about forty years of marketing experience in the room. Those who hadn't heard the story chuckled when they heard it because it so obviously had to be true. It was the type of mistake a big U.S. car company was likely to make. Though it is indeed a false story, what rings true is that, as Progress Software's Laureen Martel once told me, "perception is reality."
- Myths are true if no one wants to know they're not true
I've met executives who openly admitted they wouldn't accept results that didn't fit with their present beliefs. Eric Peterson, Visual Sciences' vice president of strategic services and author of several books on web analytics, and I exchanged notes on this phenomenon for his up-coming Emetrics Summit presentation. We've both witnessed in-stances in which it didn't matter that the data was well documented and externally validated-- all that mattered was that it didn't fit with what management chose to believe, therefore the data was not true and their myths were.
3. Myths are true if there's no consistent alternative truth
The reader wrote: "Nova is the same word in English and Spanish, meaning an exploding star. Also, it is similar to the Spanish word for new, nuevo. The car did badly, yes, but you have to know it was because it was a pitifully poor match to the market. Hmmm. Let's see. Nifty cheap little efficient easy to fix Beetle vs. ungainly unreli-able hard to fix expensive gas hog Nova. ¿How shall I decide?"
Compare this to information found at Spanish.About.com:
"Chevrolet's woes are often cited as an example of how good intentions can go wrong when it comes to translation. There are literally thousands of references to the incident on the internet, and the Nova example has been mentioned in text-books and often comes up during presentations on cultural differences and ad-vertising.
Chevrolet did reasonably well with the Nova in Latin America, even exceeding its sales projections in Venezuela. The story of the Chevy Nova is a classic example of an urban legend-- a story that is told and retold so often that it is believed to be true even though it isn't. Like most other urban legends, there is some element of truth in the story (no va indeed means "it doesn't go")-- enough truth to keep the story alive. And, like many urban legends, the story has the appeal of showing how the high and mighty can by humiliated by stupid mistakes."
Okay, I'm not feeling so bad at this point. Also, look at Wikipedia's entry and this GM sponsored blog entry. I feel like Nature contributor Tracey Brown, who writes about conflicting myths in the sciences in "I don't know what to believe." The reader, GM, Wikipedia and the Spanish.About.com site all agree that the story is a myth. But the devil is in the details, and there agreement fails. It's like quantum mechanics-- the cause you know for a fact, so choose the outcome you want and go with it. Here, the cause of the conflicting myths is that Chevy sold the Nova in Hispanic countries. The outcome is still a mystery.
4. Myths are true if the truth is difficult to understand
Robbin Steif, Lunametrics' CEO, and I were conversing about miscommunications that exist between ITers and marketers for her Emetrics Summit presentation. The question came down to, "what myths does each group have about the other?" We came up with sev-eral, but more important was the reason the myths existed in the first place.
Marketing deals with high concepts and IT deals with the question, "what did or didn't happen?" Psycho-linguistically, marketers deal with the future; ITers deal with the past. The groups don't work in the same conceptual space, there-fore neither group has a basis for understanding the other. I've been fortunate to observe Angie Brown, strategic services consultant for Coremetrics and the Web Analytics Association Standards Committee (which she co-chairs) work very hard to create language IT can use and market-ers can understand. The great hope is that marketing's high concepts will lend themselves to accountability and that IT will begin to understand marketing's needs and address them.
It's like the quantum mechanics example above; marketing's and IT's separate but undeniable truths resulted from the same cause. Both groups need to talk to each other from this common ground in order for their common truth to rise above their separate myths. A challenge to those adhering to any myth is accepting beliefs not of their myth. Historically, unbelievers who couldn't be converted were usually killed. I know some marketers and ITers who think that might be a good practice, but ...
Why myths persist
The persistence of myths in a sensory culture, and how that culture chooses which myths to perpetuate, fascinates me. Cultures mythologize events because it's fun and easy to do so. Myths are easy to remember because their morals are simple and black or white, hence mythic. Sensory reality, where most people live, isn't black or white and instead is populated with shades of gray. Given the choice of myths or sensory reality, cultures will remember myths every time. Spin doctors exploit this with each soundbyte they release; clear, quick, clean, sim-ple... and usually black or white.
Marketing works in high concepts, a mythic reality, because it must. "Use this and be beautiful" is simple. Something either works or it doesn't. Black or white, no shades of gray. Sensory reality deals with the consultant's lament: "It depends..." Nobody want's to hear "Use this and you might be beautiful, it depends..." Netconcepts' founder and president Stephan Spencer said it best: "If we want people to use it, it's going to have to be stu-pid simple." What marketers need to appreciate is that exactitude can help make things simple.
Using myths to bridge marketing and IT
The public's increasing skepticism and savviness is bending the rules but not changing them. Marketers need to utilize the myths that have persisted from Olympus, Asgard, the Eight Chinese Immortals, et cetera. ITers, on the other hand, need to appreciate that the effectiveness of simple, mythic messages is easier to analyze than they might think.
The print statement "Do A and get B" has a simple message and metric. How many people did A? How many got B? I know that marketing material is more complex than a simple print statement. I also know that different colors produce different emotional-cognitive responses in different cultural groups. For example, in western cultures, a visual statement is "red is success" and is also a simple message.
So here's the moral, and it is a simple one: "Do A and get B" is a simple combined statement of two mythic messages for a western audience. You need know nothing other than that message is being delivered to a western cultural audience to know the psycho-cognitive, emotional and psycho-physical responses the audience will have to it, and you won't have to strap them into an MRI.
It is also simple to metricize, hence validate and verify. Think of multivariate testing without the need for time, test platforms and final copy. Understanding simple myths and using them to de-velop marketing material prior to testing and publication gives marketers and ITers a common ground; ITers get to metricize what's happening now and marketers get to see the successfulness of their high concepts as it happens. A side bonus is that it saves companies both time and money. Now, let the dialogues begin!
Many thanks to NextStage's Dr. Cindy LaChapelle for her help researching this column.
Listen to MarketingMonger Eric Mattson's podcast with NextStage's Dan Sobotincic, Joseph Carrabis, Susan Carrabis and Dr. Cindy LaChapelle.