Perception As A Competitive Advantage

July 5, 2011 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Long before our modern era of distraction, Seneca famously observed, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

I was reminded of the great stoic’s statement while listening to Stephen Dubner ofFreakonomics fame share his favorite childhood memory of his father. As the youngest of eight kids, Dubner cherished what little time he spent with his dad. One Saturday morning when Stephen was just eight, his father took him to a local diner for breakfast. It was just the two of them. Dubner’s dad suggested they play what he called “The Perception Game.” It was simple enough. Dubner’s dad told him to take five minutes and scan the diner for all the detail he could find. After little Dubner did so, his father told him to close his eyes and he began peppering the boy with a series of questions. “How many people are sitting at the table next to us? What color is the cash register? What did the people next to us order?” You get the idea.

Young Stephen performed poorly on the first go-round, but as they continued to play, he became better at his father’s game. Whether intentional or otherwise, Dubner’s dad succeeded in pulling off the Grand Slam of parenting. He made a valuable lesson stick (without using a stick, I might add). The lesson was so sticky, in fact, that four decades later Stephen says the lesson he took from that breakfast with his Dad has served him ever since and is largely responsible for his successful career as an award-winning journalist and best-selling author. He makes a practice of setting aside the distractions and slowing his mind to take in detail. As a result, Dubner notices what most of us don’t.

What does this have to do with marketing and advertising? Plenty.

Marketers need authentic insights. Insight-based ideas can change a company’s fortune, shift an entire market, and even make a difference in the world. And insight is gleaned through thoughtful, perceptive observation.

Marketers spend untold millions each year on research designed to surface such insights. Much of this research is worthy and important and achieves the goal, but far too much of it is simply a poor substitute for real observation. Proving it is beyond the bounds of this short post, but I’d wager one of my dogs (the mutt for those who are truly interested) that most of the game-changing ideas and marketing so often lauded in the business press arose from the personal perception of astute observers. Steve Jobs. John Mackey. Richard Branson. Ian Schrager. Herb Kelleher. Insert your favorite visionary here.

Most of us give ourselves more credit for our powers of perception than is deserved (present company included). Distraction and inattention is the enemy in this respect, which today affords considerable advantage to those with the personal discipline to simply take the time to slow down and notice.

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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