One year ago, this very month, this newsletter took a look at the Battle of Gettysburg. In it, we drew a comparison between incorrect assumptions made by the South during the battle (and their impact on its outcome) and the incorrect assumptions often made by market researchers in the course of doing their work.
This month, we revisit the Civil War era, adding a slight twist (our specialty): CSR SVP, Operations, Jennifer Lacy, takes a look at Abraham Lincoln and humbly attempts to apply his genius to some of the challenges of our industry.
Julie Brown President
Mark Palmerino Executive Vice President
What Abe Lincoln Can Teach Us About Strategy
I may as well just come right out and admit it: I’m fascinated by Abraham Lincoln. Although president just four years and a month, he guided our country through its most turbulent times, preserving the union and freeing the slaves, all the while serving as an example of leadership, wit and excellence that continues today.
Happily, it did not disappoint. Daniel Day-Lewis and his supporting cast did a wonderful job and, despite the two-and-a-half hour length, I enjoyed every minute.
For those of us at CSR, however, it was more than just entertainment. With all the buzz surrounding the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg this past summer, and having followed the movie with great interest, we got to thinking about Lincoln again; in particular, about the lessons for our industry that can be culled from his approach and example.
And so as we gear up for our upcoming presentation at The Market Research Event next month (“Lessons From History; What Abraham Lincoln and the Battle of Gettysburg Can Teach Market Researchers About Strategy”), we share with you, our dear readers, some of what we’ve learned from our 16th president.
You need to understand the terrain, not just the final destination.
Early on in the movie, there’s a scene in which Lincoln is talking with Thaddeus Stevens about the country’s moral compass regarding slavery. Stevens not only wants to end slavery, he wants immediate social and political equality for all men, something he describes as “True North.”
Lincoln, ever the practical man, counters with this:
“A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?”
In business as well, in order for our strategic goals to be realized, we must also consider “the terrain” – something which market research reveals.
A life insurance company, for example, may have the goal of providing customers with the financial protection they need in the event of a breadwinner’s death. That’s a strategic goal. Knowing it, however, doesn’t tell you anything about the path to get there.
Rather, you need to first understand the rationale, emotions and motivations of your customers, as well as the competitive landscape overall. If people aren’t purchasing appropriate coverage (as reported in recent years, ownership of individual life insurance is at historically low levels), you can’t expect to market your products successfully without some understanding of why this is the case. Is it due to increased unemployment? Uncertainty about the economy? Lack of consumer education regarding the benefits of life insurance? Or something else entirely?
As Lincoln observed, the tactics used to navigate a swamp are different than those used to scale a mountain. Only through research can companies know and address how to navigate between where they are and where they want to be.
You need to understand the players.
One of the most interesting, often comical, aspects of the movie was the way in which Lincoln and his political allies motivated members of congress to vote in favor of the 13th amendment. For some, political favors proved most effective, for some, threats were used, and others responded to a well-reasoned, rational argument regarding the immorality of slavery.
The point is, different people responded to different motivators – business works the same way.
Consumers have a wide variety of needs, fears, hopes, resources and levels of education, to name just a few differentiators. Effective marketing and sales requires a deep understanding of these factors, so that specific tactics may be developed to match products and services with consumer preferences.
Here as well, only quality market research can reliably uncover these underlying factors.
You need to become an effective storyteller.
Lincoln was a master, inveterate storyteller – so much so that many times throughout the movie others are shown rolling their eyes as he launches into yet another anecdote. Nevertheless, his innate ability to communicate complex ideas in simple, memorable chunks played a large part in his success at moving people to action.
In sharing research results, anecdotes play an equally important role.
Several years ago, for example, we conducted a study for a leading manufacturer of adult vitamins. One of the participants – a self-described “grandmother” – talked about how taking the vitamins had allowed her to go rollerblading with her grandson. This particular audio clip was shared and talked about for months following the research, eventually becoming shorthand within the company for the product’s target market and effectiveness.
In short, while data, statistics, purchase patterns and other analytics play an important part in research, the stories and anecdotes in support of these results are often as important as the underlying information itself. Make sure your research methodology (did someone say “open- ended?!”) allows for the capturing and use of stories like these.
Here’s the Twist: Abraham Lincoln was a wonderful example of many things, not the least of which was an ability to move others towards practical, principled solutions. And while few of us will ever face anything as severe as a civil war in the course of our daily work lives (although it may feel that way sometimes!), his lessons are no less valuable.
Mixology (Putting Research into Practice)
Anecdotes go a long way in communicating data and moving people to action. But what makes for a good anecdote? We’ve identified three elements, all of which were present in our vitamin example above:
Simplicity. One of the reasons the “rollerblading grandmother” had such impact was that it was easy to describe and remember. If your anecdote can be boiled down to a memorable phrase – a shorthand – it will travel further and last longer.
Surprise. A grandmother walking her dog with her grandson is nice, but not particularly surprising. Rollerblading, on the other hand, is. The unusual, even humorous, aspect of the story helps us to remember it.
Saliency. Fortunately, our grandmother anecdote was captured on audio, allowing us to play it back to a roomful of executives during the final presentation. Would it have been as memorable if displayed only as written text? Maybe. In general, however, the more senses that are involved, the more likely an anecdote is to remain prominent in audience memories.
The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. The “Twist” to what we offer is this: We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data. As a result our clients gain more actionable and valuable insights from their research efforts.
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