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Aaagh! I Just Saw a Tiger!

Everybody’s talking the talk. We’re all “embracing change,” “thinking different,” “flipping the script.” But it turns out there is a biological reason why, in our heart of hearts, we don’t like unconventional ideas.

According to biologists, uncertainty produces a hard-wired primal response in humans. Namely, fear.

Faced with something we cannot identify, our overpowering instinct is to RUN. When our predecessors looked into the forest and saw something that MIGHT be a tiger, they didn’t stick around to find out. Because if it was a tiger, they were dead.

But since we now operate in an economy where uncertainty is the only certainty, and never-been-done-before ideas are the only ones that can save us, what’s the answer?

Perhaps, we all need to spend more time on the fringe, looking at, touching, smelling new and different ideas. The Dangerous Carnivore Petting Zoo, of sorts. When we do, maybe ideas that contain a high uncertainty quotient won’t freak us out as much. Then, we can employ our rational senses to determine if a “far out” idea can actually help our business.

Curated content is our best bet. If you’re very choosy about who you follow, Twitter is great for it. Our very own Tim Galles likes PSFK. Barkley partners aggregate their finds on an internal community called Thought Capsule.

Which brings me to my next topic:

Those Sneaky Grocery Stores

It’s no accident they put the fresh cut flowers at the front of Whole Foods. They’re not trying to sell you flowers. You are, in fact, being “primed.” This is the precise term used by the Whole Foods corporation. The sight and the smell of the flowers make you more prone to buy everything else in the store.

And this customer seduction is not a frill. It’s critical to the business model. It sells more groceries, wins repeat visits, and creates higher value. (As you reflect on that, consider the master of priming, Disney World.)

The best brands have always understood advertising is the most powerful priming mechanism ever created. You can hit people with an intoxicating aroma before they enter your store. Nike, Apple, Target, Volkswagen, IBM, have done it successfully for decades. Even in times of trouble, when other brands dump their “brand advertising,” those companies always keep their equivalent of fresh cut flowers at the front of the store.

The burgeoning arena of branded content is ripe for this purpose. As clients begin to invest in the notion of in-bound marketing, we’ve all got to start thinking more like Whole Foods. Are we “asking for the order” with SEO and social and our web pages? Or are we being sneakier and laying out some tulips?

And Now, Back to The Topic of Fear

All this discussion begs another question: how are we, as agencies, “priming” our clients? Are we bringing curated content to our clients week in and week out? Constantly exposing them to new and different ideas? Or do we just show up at the big presentation with a “safe” option and a “risky” option and let the chips fall where they may?

The dots on the left look very different from the dots on the right. Yet they are exactly the same. Context is everything.


Two things we can do:

  1. Think like Whole Foods.
  2. Show our clients innovative thinking as a matter of course. Show a video or read a blog post before every presentation. If our clients don’t have time, perhaps we’ve got bigger issues.


Key topics in this post:

Tom Demetriou

May 21, 2012

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