Knowledge Bank Blog, Finding New Ideas

The Importance of Distance

Are you too close to your categories & brands?

In Zen Buddhism, there is a concept called ‘Shoshin’. To properly understand it you will need to read the rest of this blog sitting cross legged on the floor, breathing deeply and slowly humming.

Only joking.

Shoshin means ‘beginner’s mind’. It refers to letting go of your preconceptions and having an attitude of openness when studying a subject. When you’re a beginner your mind is empty and open. Think about a child discovering things for the first time. However, as you develop knowledge and expertise, your mind becomes more closed. You think ‘I already know this’ and become less open to new information.

Often the more knowledge we have, the closer we become to things, the less able we are to see things differently. As one of the Zen Masters says, ‘in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s few’. The more expertise we have, the more likely we are to think in the same way.

This is a particular challenge for our industry. Think about it. If you work in the detergent business, you already know a lot about…detergent. You will spend most of your time thinking about…detergent. Today…detergent. Tomorrow…detergent. You get the picture.

Most of us are paid to think about particular categories and brands. This makes sense. You can’t do your job well if you know nothing about your subject. However, often the more time you spend thinking about something, the harder it is to see clearly. To see a category or brand in the way that someone who doesn’t think about it much, sees it. In other words, in the way that most shoppers see it.

So, how can you create some distance and give yourself the chance to see things differently?

Stay focused on what is important. There are a lot of things that we take for granted. Things that are obvious to anyone with a bit of category knowledge. For example, is it obvious that fragrance is important to fabric conditioners? Yes. Does that mean that because it’s a given you should focus on something else? No.

In many categories there are 2 or 3 things that drive brand or product choice. These have been important for the last 10 years and will probably be important for the next 10 years.   It is a bit boring for people who think about the category every day. But it is not boring for shoppers who think about the category once every month or two.  We, in the industry, get bored much quicker than shoppers do.

Use objective criteria to judge things. Many companies still make a lot of decisions on what feels like the right thing to do. Or what the most senior people in the room think is the right thing to do.   This is understandable. You often don’t have the time or money to rigorously test everything before you do it.

This means that a lot of subjective discussions – say on a design or an execution – take place. A classic example of this is packaging or Point of Sale material. The discussion ends up being about who likes what. Often determined by the lens they are looking through. However, what if everyone looked through the same lens? Judged things using a set of objective criteria – the same set of pack or POS design principles.   You’d be looking at something in the way a shopper would look at it. Not in the way a category or brand expert looks at it.

Ask other people. This is a variation on the “wisdom of the crowd” theory – the average answer is more accurate than any individual, or expert, answer. For instance, what if you took a future NPD launch, wrote a 1 page summary of the concept and the launch plan, shared that with people around your business, and asked them to give a view on how successful they think it will be? If it were their money would they back it? You might get an interesting response. Perhaps a little different to what you’d get from the team that has been working on it for the last 12 months.

The key to something like this is to do it early before a lot of emotional investment has gone into the project. And when there is still time to influence and change things. Doing it a couple of weeks before launch when you can’t do anything about it, apart from worry, is probably not a good idea!

Experts in decision making often use the contrast between making a decision in which you are personally involved versus giving advice to your best friend. Deciding for yourself is hard. But advising your best friend what to do is easy. Distance gives you clarity.

‘What would you tell your best friend’ is a pretty powerful question. Perhaps try it for the challenges you face.

It might lead you to think about, and do, different things.

Feel free to forward.  Have a great weekend and speak to you next week.