Learning About Marketing Through Physics

A recent talk by Dan Cobley draws parallels between the two disciplines.

Dan Cobley is a Marketing Director at Google, who found his first love in physics. He recently spoke at TED about how some of the key principles of physics also offer insights and lessons to the less scientific discipline of marketing:

  • Newton’s Law states that force = mass x acceleration. In layman’s terms, a large item requires a larger force in order to change direction. Similarly, in the realm of brands, it’s generally safe to say that the larger a brand, the more difficult it is to reposition it. This is why a company like Arthur Andersen needed to spin off Accenture, or why L’Oreal might need both L’Oreal and Lancome, or why Coca-Cola may need Nestea and Gold Peak. A larger company may need smaller brands within its portfolio in order to allow them to act ‘smaller’ – even if they’re owned by a corporate behemoth.
  • Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle says that it’s impossible, by definition, to measure exactly the state (i.e., the position and the momentum) of a particle because the act of measuring it changes it. In the marketing realm, the same can be said of consumers – the act of observing them changes their behavior. Anyone that has been involved with marketing research – and the ubiquitous focus group – will recognize that there is oftentimes a wide gap between stated intent and actual behavior. For example, participants in an ethnography or focus group may overstate their healthy dining choices. Yet the continually high sales of fast-food restaurants proves this is not always the case.
  • The scientific method states that you cannot prove a hypothesis through observation; you can only disprove it. You may be able to gather more data that will strengthen your hypothesis, but you cannot unequivocally prove it. However, it can only take one observation to disprove a theory. The parallel to marketing is that one incident – like an oil spill, a recall, or public relations snafu – can undermine your brand indefinitely, even after years or decades of investment in building and maintaining that brand image. The lesson? Avoid these ‘accidents’ and take actions that are true to the image you’ve fostered.
  • The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy – a measure of disorder of a system – will always increase. The same is true of marketing. In the not-s0-distant past, one message controlled by one marketing manager could define a brand. Today, the increasingly fragmented media landscape – and particularly digital media – has facilitated a brand becoming dispersed, and sometimes even chaotic. Consumers can actually take a stake in your brand message, make it their own and change or build upon it (sometimes for better – others, for worse). This distribution of energy from a single source to many ultimately democratizes your brand, putting it closer to consumers. The lesson? Your brand cannot be controlled – it can be built, shared and supported – but it cannot be fully controlled if you want to involve consumers in the exchange, and become part of their culture.

Looking outside of one’s own discipline can provide fresh perspective to a challenge, or inspiration for a more creative approach and solution. The combination of physics and marketing certainly sounds more relevant than we’d initially think.

Dan Cobley

TED Blog: “What physics taught me about marketing: Dan Cobley on TED.com”

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