with Gerald Zaltman
The Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School,
and Partner, Olson Zaltman Associates
and Partner, Olson Zaltman Associates
On his latest book:
Unlocked: Keys to Improve Your Thinking
Akan Abdula: Why did you call your book UNLOCKED?
Gerald Zaltman: Most attention is focused on visible thoughts and actions. Little attention is given to the processes that actually produce them. That is, we don’t reflect on how we think. Instead we focus on what we are aware of thinking which is the tip of the iceberg. It is as if our actual thinking processes are locked up. The book’s goal is to help readers unlock them with the help of “Think Keys.”
Akan Abdula: In this world of algorithms, people are losing their freewill. Algorithms are trying to lock us up. It’s a game of predictability. As long as the consumer is predictable, the Big Data marketing works. How do you unlock in this era of BIG DATA?
Gerald Zaltman: Uncovering consumers predictable thoughts and actions are not marketers’ biggest challenge. They are important, but not where creative, successful managers excel. These managers excel in how they exercise their imaginations about what consumers could think but haven’t thought of yet. Creative, imaginative managers envision new ways for consumers to act that could not be predicted. Just think of all the changes in the past 15 years that were not predicted and were the result of imaginative marketing managers.
Let me express this another way. Algorithms are helpful when inductive or deductive thinking is required with large volumes of data. However, the important challenges marketers face involve “abductive” thinking. This refers to the exercise of imagination to envision new stories for consumers to experience. No algorithms exist for this kind of thinking. Algorithms can’t compete with managers when it comes to creating new causal thinking patterns.
Akan Abdula: How do you explain this UNLOCK concept compared to Harari’s Homo Deus arsenal on rise of human who don’t have any meaning at all? How can we unlock the meaningless generations to come in the World of AI?
Gerald Zaltman: I do not see AI as a threat. It is a liberator. So long as we have “big data” we will always need “big ideas” to harness them. How we think is a major influence on what we think and our ability to have big ideas. Therefore, it is essential to focus on how our minds work. How we think is our competitive advantage in a world of AI and other technologies.
Akan Abdula: I loved and totally agree with you on context provides knowledge. Once acquired, knowledge has adhesive power. It is hard to “unknow” something. But I would love if we can talk a bit on today’s context of unlearning what we know. As Alvin Toffler would put it: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. How do we unknow when it’s so hard to unknow something?
Gerald Zaltman: Once we learn something it becomes part of our thinking ecology or knowledge context. We never really unknow it. We may discover a new thought which causes us to realize we were wrong which is another new thought. I may realize after seeing a demonstration or talking with a friend that product A is better than product B which I just bought. My new knowledge of A doesn’t change what I know about B. It does change what I think about B. In fact, understanding that buying B is an error or mistake becomes an additional feature of my knowledge base. So, it doesn’t go away. Unfortunately, the term “unknow” (which I am guilty of using) implies that it does. It really doesn’t. It changes how we think about our needs the next time we get to choose between product A and B. So, someone advertising product A might well add a reminder to consumers about how B is inadequate.
Akan Abdula: As we gain and retain knowledge, we also acquire assumptions. Is it important for modern day marketing to understand how the consumer reaches those assumptions? And why? Is there a theory on how to reach the formula of creating assumptions in certain culture?
Gerald Zaltman: Assumptions are accepted and unexamined beliefs. They are typically established unconsciously and operate below awareness. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, we can’t consciously take into account everything that is relevant for a decision or we’d never get around to making a decision. They help us simplify what are often complex choices.
Assumptions are where new product opportunities and ideas for new advertising messages can be found. When these silent beliefs are “awakened” or made conscious with new goods and services and advertising they bring great success. As important as assumptions are – and they are very, very important, most consumer research methods fail to identify them. Reliance of literal statements by consumers is insufficient. It is necessary to probe underlying assumptions by being attentive to figurative or metaphoric consumer thinking.
Akan Abdula: The drive to be right or, perhaps, their need not to be wrong, influences what information gains customer attention. What can brands do not to make them wrong but yet change their current purchase behavior?
Gerald Zaltman: Generally, people don’t like to be wrong. However, they do like to be good learners. So a brand might position itself as the choice of thoughtful people seeking to improve their product or service experience. Improving an experience implies mistakes were made in the past. The promoted brand can be positioned as helping consumers avoid (e.g. learn from) past mistakes.
Akan Abdula: You have said: the body’s role in our minds can be subtle, surprising, and highly influential. How should brands deal with embodied cognition?
Gerald Zaltman: Bodily activity originating outside the brain can influence how and what we think. This is most typically expressed as gut reactions. Yet it is so much more. In addition, we use the body as the yardstick for measuring and representing abstract thought. This is seen most vividly in our use of metaphors. Try carrying on a conversation without such metaphors. It is very hard and quickly becomes a burden. The natural use of bodily metaphors is a treasure chest of insight about consumers. Properly identified and interpreted they are a source of new product ideas, brand positioning insights, and communication strategies.
Akan Abdula: The human mind is a prediction- making machine. Today we know which part works how in this prediction game. But marketing does not invest much on effecting those predictions? Rather it deals with the outputs. Should marketing do that?
Gerald Zaltman: A prediction can be viewed as an interpretation, a story based on available information including past experiences and desired future experiences (sometimes in the form of wishful thinking). In many ways marketing is about having consumers create or imagine consumption experiences – desired future states – arising from their purchase and use of a product or service. Thus, marketers need to be concerned with what information consumers use and how they use it to form positive, imagined experiences. Marketers are generally much better at understanding what information is used by consumers. Marketers are generally less knowledgeable about how consumers use this information. Marketers need to do a much better job at unlocking how consumers think. Expertise regarding this is key to making sure consumers make very positive predictions about their likely experiences with your brand.
Akan Abdula: And my last question; I personally do not believe in Harari’s meaningless world. I believe that the new era is coming where we will be ready to use our mind much more extensively. Could you please elaborate on you concept of UNLOCKED in this term as well?
Gerald Zaltman: Our mind is our most valuable possession. It is what distinguishes from other living creatures. Moreover, despite all the features our individual mind has in common with the minds of other people, it is also what gives each of us uniqueness. How we use our mind – how we think – makes us who we are as individuals and as a society. So, what could be more important than to understand how our mind operates, i.e. how it is we think? How we think, i.e. how we use our mind’s capabilities, is central to having a positive, meaningful life.
A life full of satisfying meaning, the kind of life we consider worthwhile, requires us to nurture our minds the way a gardener nurtures what is being grown or a painter nurtures what is created on a canvas. These things require care, patience, vision, technical knowledge, and daring. My goal with Unlocked: Keys to Improve Your Thinking is to assist readers in the business of nurturing how they think. This involves helping them unlock or reveal how they think. I hope in doing so I can contribute to making their lives more full of meaning as individuals and as members of society.