Stop, Look and Listen

As Robert Fulghum once declared, some of our best life lessons we learned in kindergarten. The same can apply to marketing.

Stop. Look. Listen. A simple triplet we all became acquainted with as we learned the simple, yet potentially deadly act of crossing the street. This simple method can also help keep us out of danger in the shopping aisles.

Stop. So difficult to do when you feel your hair is on fire. And so necessary. Real-time focus on putting out the fire du jour can become self-propelled failure. Chasing the seasons rather than chasing “wish we’d done that!” brilliance (plus a heaping helping dose of complacency) is what allowed Netflix to blindside Blockbuster, Toyota to best General Motors, and Walmart to beat Sears.

In the flurry of facing the every-day, stop and remember who is your customer. Sometimes your target consumer can be an amalgam of different—even opposite—social and psychological types.

Stop and remember what you’re selling. Much product innovation can be found already sitting in-house. Fresh insights are smoldering in the stacks of data on someone’s credenza or something else happening real-time in the marketplace. When LEGO finally responded to the thousands of enthusiasts who engineered their own creations from LEGO bricks (often requiring hundreds of thousands of bricks—rather than the boxed LEGO castles), they created LEGO Factory. A consumer-inspired idea that let fans create their own LEGO sets. (Nearly bankrupt a score of years ago, LEGO business now surpasses most toy makers and even Internet games.)

Stop and think about service. While reaching out via hi-tech social media, never forget the everlasting importance of high touch. (A little packing supplies company called Uline is a great example of how to combine both.)

Stop and think about the future. Write the headline you’d want to write for your company or brand ten years from now. Then plan backwards.

Look. Most of us live in a bubble that travels to the office each day, works at the office, and then travels back home again. Too often, we are forced to think our way toward conceptual solutions, rather than hitting the streets and taking a look at our consumer. Some of us deliberately break out and carry our laptops to the malls of America to remind us of the consumers we’re trying to sell to. When a friend visits a foreign country, they go to the grocery store and see what things people there buy every day. Be curious. Explore food, fashion, fads, (new and old) media. Go to the movies, the museum, buy a magazine you typically wouldn’t read. Velcro® was inspired by a walk through an open field.

Target sends trendspotters into markets like New York’s Soho, downtown L.A., Barcelona, Milan, Sao Paulo and elsewhere to see what’s new and different and smart. That’s why they’re Target.

If you’re beached at the office, look into network theory, punctuated equilibrium, or RFID. Look at monocle.com, TED conference videos, good.com, bigthink.com, check out AllSaints SpitalFields and worldwidefred.com. Apps like Flipboard for iPad can even help do the sifting for you. Problem-solving is hard work but it can also be personally good, illuminating and even transformational. It’s a big world. Look around.

Listen. We were made with two ears and one mouth and should use them in proportion. As Pete Blackshaw says, every organization should have listening pipes: feeds from the outside world that are pointed at us to enlighten, nourish and inspire. We live in the greatest dispersion of ideas since the Gutenberg Bible. Our consumer can talk with us, about us, and against us in a dozen formats. But all that chatter and all those ideas need a funnel. And that funnel must be pointed at you.

Many of us can get so wrapped around buzzblogs and scan data that we have forgotten the art of listening. In the swirl of constant change (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln) we must listen, think, and act anew. A friend traveled to their company’s sales offices around the globe, listening to what people in other geographies had to say. While people back at HQ bitched about his expense reports, he encountered out-of-the-ordinary market challenges, smart solutions and new innovations. He came back filled with fresh thinking, brilliant tactics and ideas he never could have imagined, sitting back at HQ reading field reports. Complacency is evil.

Listen to what people want. Remember that the BlackBerry was conceived as a paging device. The iPod was created from off-the-shelf components. The world keeps moving, with or without you. Keep your ears—and your mind—open.

Great ideas, like great leaders, aren’t born, they’re made. They’re molded from wet clay and require a lot of pounding. (Remember that old 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration line from Thomas Edison? He underestimated the perspiration part.) Great notions stem from diagnosing the right problem, using the right tools, and the blessing of time and energy and passion.

Stop. Look. Listen. This simple drill can pay off in big ways even when responding to the fire drill of the moment or the quarterly earnings pressures set from on high.

It’s a new year. Let’s give it a try.