Market View: Learn From Your Mistakes...and Those of Others

Like scientists, marketers should document what went wrong and why.

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

Quite a few years ago I wrote a book titled "Success Leave Clues." It detailed what the most successful marketing programs had in common and established 10 rules from this commonality.

Over the years it has occurred to me that failures also leave clues. (Of course this would not make a very popular book title.) The dilemma is, however, that while it's pretty easy to get information on product successes, it's a nightmare to get information on product failures.

It's very difficult to find out exactly what was done in the past and what was the likely source of the failure. It seems as if management acts like the ancient Egyptians -- when they banished someone they would remove all traces of their existence. Trying to find the history of failures and do a postmortem on failed products is almost impossible.

I'm not sure why we do this, but I guess it's because a product failure represents a stigma on the managers. Keeping an accurate record, however, lets us learn from the past. To quote General Otto von Bismarck, “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

Scientists keep meticulous notes on each experiment they run. When the experiment fails, they can go back and see exactly what they did to determine how to not repeat the same mistake. Marketers however seem to hide the failures.

It occurs to me that in food marketing we do not have the equivalent of the scientists to record how decisions were made. Marketers frequently seem to make the same mistakes over and over again. As I have said many times, we have no “organizational learning.” The experience a company has leaves with the employee when he/she leaves the job, and the only record of the decisions is what the final outcome was but not how it was done or what was considered.

The absence of a decision-making record may be the single biggest point of inefficiency in companies. As one anonymous source said, “I will not live long enough to learn from my own mistakes.” I have asked a couple of executives why logs like those used by scientists are not kept. One said he thought it was too much trouble and that it would require an additional person whose job it was to document the department’s decisions. Another was afraid of the legal implications if the company was ever sued. Finally, another person told me he thought it would slow down the decision process. “Marketing people are always on the run,” he said.

These answers actually make sense to me, but I further asked, “Isn’t the cost of marketing inefficiency greater than the cost of a record keeper in marketing?” Doesn’t our 50-75 percent new product failure rate cause someone to at least consider the option?

I believe it will be essential that marketing departments become more efficient. We can no longer accept high new product failure rates. We cannot continue to ask R&D to keep doing the same thing over and over again. It is no wonder that marketing has so little respect inside so many companies.

However, things have changed significantly given the new high tech world. In the days of “paper,” keeping track of how decisions were made, what things were considered, what was the current state of competition, etc., was not only laborious but it involved a significant volume of paper. Today with various sorts of digital recording, it is much easier to create systems that allow marketers to track the history of decisions. Of course while I focus on product failures, it also would be easier to track product successes.

The new technology is even more fantastic because of voice recognition software. Brand managers could simply sign on to a specific file and dictate the details of what they were currently considering and the decisions that had already been made.

This is not too far-fetched, because even my physician, in an industry way behind in the use of high-tech, uses voice recognition to document virtually every aspect of my visit with him.

I challenge each food marketing executive to put into place some system that's akin to a marketing decision log. It should be in the form of prose and not some formula. It should definitely not be a fill-in-the-blank-type document. It should have as much emphasis on what was considered but not acted on as on what was done. It should be something that will show others what worked as well as what was tried but didn’t work. It also should record how we got to the decisions that were made.

These decision logs could be mandatory reading for new hires to the department or the product. They could be fodder for presentations at meetings scheduled for professional development. They could be part of the secondary research activities starting a new project. But most importantly they could be the sites for organizational learning.

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