You should be a sponge. Not like, a bath sponge that you can buy at an Ulta, but a sponge in the sense that you soak everything up around you. This is true for most things in life, whether you want to be successful in romance, life, or business. It doesn’t matter. The lesson is still the same. But we’re going to focus specifically on branding because that’s the thing I know best of the three. And some of this might seem like branding 101 to a few of you, but I encourage you to follow along anyhow because if there’s one thing that’s certain from my time working with agencies and large brands, we could all use a refresher.

There are a lot of problems in the advertising business lately. It would take an entire book to document why an industry that was reported to contribute $3.4 trillion to our country’s GDP continues to struggle, and often fail miserably, when it comes to online and offline marketing initiatives, branding included. But the one problem I want to highlight here is the industry’s obsession with data, and how that’s completely damaged the overall concept of branding. This problem is also why I stress, today in 2017, that you should be a sponge that consumes information from all sources and people. Not just what you see provided to you through Facebook or Google Analytics. You see, a lot of the problem is that we just can’t look past the damn analytics and treat only what we can measure as the be all and end all of our decision making process. If you want a great example, you don’t have to look too far back. Back in April, Kendall Jenner starred in an ill-fated, and tone deaf, Pepsi commercial. A lot of people were shocked that such an ad would ever be approved by functioning adult humans, and there was an immediate outcry for more diversity in the decision making process at brands and ad agencies in their marketing and advertising departments.

Those claims certainly have a lot of merit, the advertising and marketing industries are nearly as bad as some of the tech companies when it comes to the blatant lack of diversity in the decision making process. My niece is bi-racial. I’m virtually certain Mrs. Mendelson #2, and my own kids, are going to be bi-racial. This wonderfully diverse world of ours needs to be represented both on camera and behind the scenes. However, there was another issue that flew under the radar when it came to that Pepsi commercial, and other tone-deaf advertisements like it, and that’s the failure to question the data that’s being generated and instead focus on key brand values. In other words, things you can’t readily quantify.

I’m not saying this was the case with Pepsi, but having been around enough agencies over the years, what likely happened was someone got a spreadsheet, and on that spreadsheet it showed the age and demographics of Jenner’s fans. The client (Pepsi) charged the agency with reaching potential people in that age and demographic, so on paper, it made total sense to match Kendall Jenner and Pepsi together. Just last year, Fortune reported that soda consumption had hit a thirty-year low, and those brands continue to struggle today with acquiring new customers, particularly those young enough to not worry about the consequences of what drinking soda will do to your body for another fifteen years or so. So the agency then went and looked at its data, and saw that people who like Kendall Jenner are also into social issues, including the Black Lives Matters movement. So yes, while a diverse marketing and advertising department would have stopped the marriage of these three things from happening dead in its tracks, the fact that nobody stopped to question or interpret the data is equally troubling. Because had someone done so, I’d like to think (and maybe this is the optimist in me) that someone would have also said the commercial as currently conceived was a terrible idea and needed to be reconsidered.

The thing is, nobody questions the data. Nobody wants to be wrong or look wrong, or question the status quo, and these days the status quo at most agencies and brands is to obsess over the data and be afraid to make decisions that go against it, or take a blended approach in coming to a conclusion where the data is only part of the equation and not the entire solution. Had there been more people who acted like sponges, and soaked up all the information that they could, quantifiable and not quantifiable, then a mishap like this Pepsi commercial, or any of the numerous other tone deaf ads we’ve seen before and since, wouldn’t be a concern. Those commercials and other marketing messages that seem insensitive, like the recent Dove advertisement that was perceived to be racist because someone had the bright idea to save some money and cut up a longer video and stick it in a shorter one where the nuance and message are completely lost, just wouldn’t happen.

Branding 101, or the first thing you’ll learn about branding, is that a brand itself isn’t a thing on its own. It’s an idea or concept that you’re attaching to something else. That’s not something that can be readily quantified. At least, on paper anyway, and definitely not at first. Because you can’t predict the future and if you asked people to help you do so, you’ll wind up with a “faster horse”, which is what Henry Ford had said would happen if he had asked his customers what they wanted instead of just proceeding along with his vision. Henry Ford was a lot of awful things, but he was right on this front. People are terrible at predicting the future, but they can tell you what they like and don’t like if you listen to them, and the data collected from them can be of value. But in the quest to quantify everything, we somehow lost sight of the fact that an idea itself can’t be quantified. Neither can the future. And for that reason, we need to fight for our ideas and protect them as much as we can. The data can certainly help, but it’s not on its own the answer to the problem. If anything, used poorly it can cause more problems than it can solve. So as we go down this road, I’m going to challenge you to do something that is not too common these days in our world, and that’s to question the data you have and not treat it like a King.

B.J. Mendelson is a brand strategist and keynote speaker. He is also the author of the books “Social Media is Bullshit” and “The End of Privacy.” You can follow him online at @BJMendelson

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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