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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Rifle Shot

At the time of this writing, the national unemployment rate in the United States is well over 10%. In my home state of California, the rate is hovering around 12%, with no short term improvement on the horizon. It's not, in Dickensian terms, the best of times.

But I'm a branding guy. To me, life revolves around the ability of perception to influence reality. As opposed to most branding hacks and posers, I'm careful to make sure those perceptions are grounded in reality, rather than fantasy. To me, a brand isn't some made-up notion of fancy; it's a real, four-on-the-floor, kick-the-tires argument using real facts to explain why the brand is "the only solution to its prospects' problems."

So when I see a dumbing down of important social issues, either by over-simplification or sheer ineptitude, my alarms go off. And that's what I think we've got going here.

Before I get too far into it, let me disclaim any suspicions you may have regarding my sensitivity to the unemployed. Believe me, I've suffered through tough times just like everyone else. I know what it's like to rob Peter to pay Paul only to find out that Peter went broke long ago borrowing from someone else. I'm hunting a completely different animal here. I'm going after the popular acceptance of inaccurate and misleading statistics that drive people like you and me into making decisions that can literally derail people's lives. It's important to businesses and individuals alike, because decisions are what determine our eventual successes and failures. And if you base those decisions on faulty data, there's a whole lot more of the the latter than the former.

Increasingly, I'm seeing an increasing number of bad decisions being made in public and private lives based on broad, sweeping -- and more often than not, misleading -- data than ever before. Take those statistics at the top of this article. Those are hefty numbers, to be sure. But more often than not, they're applied in the wrong context. While macro statistics might be of interest to some, they have no place among the micro world, where each individual has to play to the context of his own situation.

Simply put, the fact that the country or the state as a whole has a high unemployment rate actually has nothing to do with each individual's chances of employment. In other words, while the greater masses may produce a statistic that titillates politicians and media pundits, in your own world, where you live, breathe and raise your kids, statistics mean nothing. They rarely even reflect the true nature of your own environment, but can actively distort your view, steering you into some pretty bad, fateful decisions. I call it the Rifle Shot Strategy and this is how it works:

Back in the Jurassic Period, when I was starting out in the advertising world, there was no way to get hired into an agency, especially for a writer. Art directors had schools and programs; writers didn't. After a year of searching, the only chance I had to get hired was a long shot: A national ad agency offered a training program in which new kids could get hired off the street. In Los Angeles, the agency had one slot for over 80 applicants, all of whom were formally educated in various aspects of the advertising business. To make a long story short, I beat the odds and nabbed the slot. A nearly 1% chance of success. However, had I listened to the pundits, I never would have even submitted my application. After all, who bets on an 80 to 1 shot?

I'll tell you who bets on it: Individuals who recognize they don't need to beat the odds, they only need to win one place for themselves. It's like my pal once told me when we considered buying lottery tickets. "How many are you going to buy?" I asked. "One," he answered. "You only need one to win!"

More recently, I'm pummeled with the haranguing of helicopter parents, too lazy and inept to guide their kids by anything other than the questionable advice offered by expensive college advisory services. Every one of these parents seems ready to pony up big fees to preparatory services whose main achievable goal seems to be exacting big fees from lazy and inept parents. Yes, it helps for kids to have good grades and test scores. Yes, it's true that top achievers often get into top schools. But no, it isn't true that attending any particular school is going to guarantee your child's success in life. Nor is it necessarily true that any of these services will actually improve your child's test scores. In fact, the only thing that is true is that most of these lazy parents buy into the sweeping, generalized, misapplied statistics because it's easier for them to write a check than it is to educate their children as to the realities of life; teaching their kids to determine their own specific fates based on their own abilities and talents.

Analyzing each individual's particular opportunities and challenges is what determines that person's success or failure. Despite what the national statistics say, throughout his own personal adult life, the college Johnny attends has far less to do with his success than the kind of person Johnny is. It's the decisions Johnny makes on what's best for Johnny that determines his ultimate success or failure, not national trends.

So what does all this have to do with branding? Simple: Businesses are no different when it comes to the Rifle Shot. Just because some airheaded academic points to a PowerPoint slide may not -- and more likely does not -- have any effect on your businesses. Largely generic numbers, charts and graphs are far less the results of usable data than they are the basis for analysts' paychecks. There's good money in marketing fear.

Don't get me wrong, good data is great. Good data applied incorrectly is disastrous. Make sure you know what's applicable to your specific situation before going off half-cocked. Choose the rifle shot over the shotgun blast and you'll hit your target every time.