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By the light of a dumpster fire

We delve into the significance of confronting biases, bringing to light the obscured influences that shape our research and marketing practices, and shedding light on the power of embracing change.

Picture this: an experienced marketing team is planning a new campaign. Their brand is the market leader but shifting demographics and sales data present a compelling story – reinvent the brand or watch it slowly die.

So the team hatches a plan to do something. Something bold, cool and transgressive. Something that will once again see them own the conversation.

The plan revoles around sending trays of product to a group of powerful influencers. But with the packaging customised to incorporate each influencer’s image. The influencers will flood their socials with clips of the product and the world will see that the company is wrapping its arms around a younger, more dynamic, more inclusive, and frankly cooler, market. What could go possibly wrong? 

If you’re Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Bud Light, the anwer is ‘just about everything’. The marketers at Anheuser-Busch knew the classic macho beer drinker was a dying breed. Moreover, for several years Anheuser-Busch had been supporting or sponsoring a number of special interest groups  including the LGBTQ community. The new tactic was also a great fit with Bud Light’s brand positoning as the beer that brings people together. 

Carl Davidson.

What the marketers overlooked, however, is that while the traditional customer was a dying breed, they weren’t quite dead. And was nobody thinking of the Zeitgeist? To launch this campaign while America is in the middle of a culture war was either remarkably brave or entirely foolhardy. 

When one one of those influencers, Dylan Mulvaney, who is openly trans-gender, posted her positve spin on the promo story to her 1.2 million followers, the beer hit the fan.

The backlash from traditionalists came swiftly and hard. Sales of the beer flattened by double digits and the share price tanked – losing billions of dollars within days. Surprised at the intensity of the reaction, Anheuser-Busch gave a new meaning to the term volte-face. They laid-off the marketing team and used a cash-back scheme to give away beer in an effort to assuage their traditional customers. They also hastily together a commercial showing the Budweiser Clydesdales cantering in slow-mo against a sacred soundtrack and a background of US flags and the Lincoln Memorial. The kind of ad that wouldn’t be out of place at the DeSantis campaign launch.

And if that wasn’t callow enough, they also quickly distanced themselves from the influencers, undoing all the previous goodwill they had painstakingly built within the LGBTQ communities. Those communities then called for their own boycott of Bud products. 

The Bud Light story is the kind of epic fail that MBA students will be unpicking for years to come. And it’s easy from the distance of ignorance to revel in the warm glow of schadenfreude. But brands here in New Zealand face the same dilemma that Bud Light did – how do you make your brand relevant in a rapidly changing world?  The dilemma is part and parcel of what 70s societal guru Alvin Toffler once called ‘future shock’, a sense of disorientation in the face of rapid social or technological change.

The challenge of change goes to the heart of our research and marketing professions. This is because the nature of our professions bake-in certain assumptions into how we see the world.  We don’t spend much time thinking about these assumptions because (by definition) they are things we take for granted. In other words, it’s hard to see our biases because we see with our biases. 

Duncan Stuart.

How deep those biases run might surprise you. For instance, 90 percent of all academic published research in psychology, the bedrock of marketing, comes from countries representing less than 15 percent of the world’s population. Those populations are overwhelmingly WEIRD (white, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic). If you want to know why conventional research methods and marketing tools don’t work well in an increasingly diverse world, this goes some way to explaining it. 

This is the argument that Māori have been making about Te Ao Māori since 1840. The problem is not about inclusion – which implies absorption – so much as about complementarity. In other words, the co-existence of perspectives that potentially enhance one another. After all, mātauranga Māori is not just about knowing but about much broader notions of the values and systems of thought that are wrapped up in that knowing. 

Beyond Te Ao Māori, the point holds for other cultures and ethnicities, each with their own ways of knowing and their own systems of values. Rather than being unsettled by this, we believe it presents a tremendous opportunity for the marketing and insights worlds: the opportunity to learn new lessons and develop new practices.

One of those lessons is to practise more humility about the reach of our expertise and knowledge of the markets we serve. We need to question what we think we know, and query what we can even know. We need to distrust those who bill themselves as gurus or thought leaders. The real problem here is what psychologists call ‘naïve realism’ which describes our tendency to believe that we are seeing the world around us objectively (and, hence, correctly). It also means we tend to think of those who see it differently as being either wrong or deranged.  As Daniel Kahneman warned all of us “we can be blind to the obvious, but also blind to our blindness”. Our professions need to spend more time thinking about that blindness. 

We’ll drink to that. But probably not with a Bud Light. 

Want to know more?

If you want to know more regarding how culture influences the way people think about, and even see, the world, a great place to start is with Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought. 

Nisbett’s work in general deserves to be much better known among marketers. After all this is the man Malcolm Gladwell described as “ the most influential thinker in my life”. 

In The Geography of Thought Nisbett compares how Asians and Westerners think about the world to demonstrate how cognition changes with culture. As we said above, the implication being that we need more complementarity in our profession and less emphasis on inclusion.

This article was originally published in the June/July 2023 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

About Carl Davidson and Duncan Stuart

Duncan Stuart and Carl Davidson are stalwarts of the insights world. Proponents of Research Noir, they explore the murky dark side of doubts and decisions. Together they have more than 60 years’ experience

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