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Marketing is like a horse race, in that people are overly-obsessed with winning & dissecting champions to discover fail-proof-strategies, which unfortunately reinforces biases, and creates ethical & strategic blind spots for business development.
1 – Winner Takes All
In horse racing, winning is everything, And so if what it takes to win may be dirty, sneaky, edgy, or otherwise, most racers that want to be “winners” entertain these thoughts, not because they are amoral, but because if the racer next to us is “enhancing” their performance, to win at all costs, then why shouldn’t we?
In George Brenkert’s excellent “Marketing Ethics,” he outlines why game and racing metaphors are incompatible with marketing ethics, exactly because they warp our sense of morality around business development decisions.
Instead of obsessing over how to “win the race” for your brand, set internal goalposts & benchmarks for “marathon” marketing performance, that are aligned with driving business results, over the long run.
2 – More Data, Doesn’t Mean Better Prediction
Part of horse racing is dissecting champions to discover proven-strategies, and race fans will use everything, from superstition to big data, to get insights from every which seemingly all lead to big rewards.
A note on this –
In 1973, Paul Slovic, Univ. of Oregon, studied horse betting and data interpretation and found, the more data points a trained handicap setter had to predict a winning horse, the less accurate the prediction became.
Out of a total of 88 data points, test groups were given 5, 10, 20, 30, and 40, the most accurate predictions for winning horses occurred in the group with just 5 variables.
With more data, comes overconfidence, which in the horse racing study dramatically increased inaccurate predictions.
So – when it comes to data-driven marketing decisions, don’t be fooled, be focused. Reduce data points, and divine direction via interpretation, not intuition.
3 – Survivorship Bias
And finally, the horse racing world, like marketing, is so biased towards understanding every nuance of winners, that strategic, possibly winning insights, gleaned from the whole competitive field, tend to be ignored because, losers don’t write the rule books.
Survivorship bias or survival bias is the logical error of concentrating on subjects that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility.
The famous example is Abraham Wald’s study on returning WW2 bombers – where he discovered that the places on the aircraft that needed reinforced armor were not the places that bullets had punctured the surviving aircraft, but where the bullets had missed, and hit the aircraft that had been shot down.
Taken in the horse race marketing context – we’re obsessed with what it takes to win a race, we fail to study and research the bounty of knowledge in what it takes to lose one.
So – to create a marketing strategy that’s robust and not reliant on the winning horse to come in – dedicate some research to the thousands of unlucky, anonymous brands that never made it, rather than studying and copying the ins-and-outs of the few, lucky, anomalous winning brands at the top of the marketing hill.
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