Marketing in the Matrix

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Do you remember the ending of the second Matrix movie, when Neo learns that he’s an anomaly in the program, and is supposed to go find Zion, or the CPU, or whatever, and mess everything up? I just figured out that this was advice on marketing strategy, courtesy of the Wachowski Brothers.


Variability is the bane of all marketing and branding. We study case histories from business schools and trade media, and no services vendor can close a deal without at least implicitly promising "we did this for that guy, so we can do it for you." Most media and speaking engagement opportunities require real-life examples, for fear that audiences will not otherwise understand how to apply things to their work. 

Square pegs and square holes. It’s how structures operate, processes function, and most thinking is channeled.

Never has there been a more effective method for distributing failure. 

Variability is unavoidable, even in the most explicitly detailed models. No scientific experiment setup is 100% reliable, nor its conduct completely free from data "noise" of one sort of another. Throw in the interpretive license that is inherent in consciousness, and you get the reason why everything in science is considered a theory, and not a fact. Our observations of gravity are certainly not the result of a rounding error, but any self-respecting scientist would acknowledge that there’s always the possibility that even the biggest, most obvious knowledge might be at least somewhat flawed. 

In business, a case history is only as good as its identified variables, which means most of them aren’t terribly good at all. 

There’s no way that the efforts of Company X can be deconstructed, analyzed, and then replicated by Company Y. Too much stuff impacts the stuff that happens. Worse, lots of the impacts aren’t obvious, or even known. Breakthrough successes are a result of the unexpected, not great planning, yet cases get reported as if surprises can be foreordained.

That’s why most marketing and branding plans are also-rans. Novelty is impossible to duplicate, by definition, so we get lots of positioning that’s reminiscent of other positions, only nowhere near as successful; social media campaigns that mimic one another; everything from company logos to product packaging that starts to seem pretty generic, as they’re all based on the same processes (and often delivered by the same small cabal of branding firms).

Our "studies in excellence" are these case histories that make the rounds of trade media and conferences. There’s some job protection in this duplication process, but not much; we all get a little worse at copying copies of a copy that wasn’t too clear in the first place. It’s not a good approach for keeping clients, or for staying employed. 

Enter the Wachowskis to suggest a two-pronged alternative; if your brand were, say, an alien computer program called the Matrix, you would want to:

  1. Make sure you identified and assigned values to every possible variable. This would mean going far beyond the studies most often presented as proof of a case; imagine coming up with, say, the 25 influences on a project’s success or failure, and making each one a tangible number (absolute or percentage likelihood, or whatever)? You might discover new, more meaningful reasons for various outcomes, and get a better idea of what you could hope to copy…and what might have been a result of unique circumstances that no longer apply
  2. Actively embrace a variable, and do something in each activity, whether a strategy or tactic, that was purposefully something out of Left Field. Make it counter-intuitive and somewhat open-ended, specifically because you want to see how it affects your presumably deterministic variables. Make it the round peg, or the zigzag one. Or no peg at all. In doing so, there’s a chance that you’ll spark some really effective, successful connection, outcome, or other event that never appeared in the case history you’re emulating, but rather will define the accomplishment that the next guy will miss when they copy you. 

Doesn’t your next marketing plan need a Neo?

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