Does Our Fear of Marketing Mistakes Keep Us from Creative Risks?

History is littered with marketing mistakes. They marketed the Titanic as unsinkable, after all. And who could forget the most infamous of marketing missteps, New Coke?

Often, these mistakes arise from simple oversights or blind spots. Do you know the story of Pepsi’s expansion to China? Its slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi generation” was translated to mean “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” (The lessons here: always transcreate, never literally translate, and do your cultural research!)

Yet with today’s unprecedented amounts of marketing data and access to predictive algorithms, there’s a growing need for precision even before we jump into the creative. We must show we’ve considered all aspects of our tactics from how it will be measured to how many leads it will generate to how much ROI it will deliver.

With the implementation of more scientific techniques, decisions become more calculated. Data has built a new era, which has business leaders taking the marketing discipline more seriously. But has this shift brought unintended consequences? Are we now too afraid to make marketing mistakes—to risk failure in pursuit of new horizons?

“I don’t believe there will ever be a time in modern marketing that you don’t want to take a risk,” says Buzz Carter, head of outreach at Bulldog Digital Media. “Taking risks is one of the pivotal parts of marketing. It allows marketers to actively test new strategies and learn what works and what doesn’t. This then allows you to take a subjective approach with your marketing campaigns.”

Carter says not every marketing campaign or project you work on will turn out how you expected, so the question you need to ask is whether or not the reward outweighs the risk.

“Risks are sometimes the best way to see if a positive outcome is possible,” he says. “But I have learned that when taking a risk, it is best to do some serious research beforehand. This will allow you to take a calculated risk.”

Risky Behavior Can Pay Off

A calculated risk means investigating the data and digital possibilities. Danielle Poleski, head of digital at Jigtalk, a dating start-up, says digital marketing has opened up the world to more products, companies, and even ideas. Therefore, finding what makes your product stand out is more important than ever. This is where risk-based creative ideas can pay off—if your business has the appetite.

This past summer, for example, the Jigtalk team took a risky approach to a marketing campaign. They positioned two street team members at the entrances of music festivals, handing out baggies with two small heart candies inside. The festivals got wind of the plan and warned the bags would be confiscated, but the target audience loved the approach.

“We sparked some cheeky Twitter conversation from the stunt,” says Poleski. “Despite its risk, it made us a brand this audience will not forget.”

You could argue, though, that Jigtalk took a calculated risk there. They knew their market, they knew their audience, and they knew they’d cause a stir. For marketers hesitant about exploring more unorthodox ways of reaching customers, the key is to make sure your actions still align with your brand’s objectives and overall business goals. In this case, not only did giving out candy hearts play on the idea of finding true love, but the choice to interact with people at these public venues also fit in with the dating site’s promise of helping people make unexpected connections.

“I’d say pairing face-to-face activations and social media is the best way for marketers to move beyond data-driven decisions,” she says. “Being data-driven in digital advertising and content is the only way to continuously know you’re going to get a better and better response every time. But when you put solid effort into face-to-face, you can recreate those audience relationships digitally. It’s a combination definitely worth investing [in], especially while establishing a new brand.”

Fear of Marketing Mistakes Shouldn’t Limit Creativity

Liam Solomon, marketing lead at LoveTheSales, says an appetite for risk is essential for modern marketing, but believes we need more creativity in our risk-taking.

“The pendulum has shifted far too much in the way of statistic- and data-driven marketing; the next wave of successful techniques will come from out-of-the-box thinking,” he says, using the example of his company’s early forays into content marketing and SEO.

“Even though we ran research and tested the content beforehand, there was no guarantees it would be a success,” Solomon says. “We learned the importance of managing expectations, and understanding that taking a risk means it is okay to fail. We went into the next piece of content with a much more rigorous creative process, where we really sought out the user benefit, and took our own bias out as much as possible before planning the content.”

For Solomon, digital risks are worth taking because they allow for more second chances. Real-world activations need precision because there are no take-backs; on social media, though, you have the option of hitting “refresh” when a post doesn’t perform quite the way you thought it would.

But while digital brings more freedom to test and learn, it still has its own risks to consider. Since social tools make it so quick to create and publish large quantities of new content, companies need to be extra diligent above reviewing each posting for errors and brand standards before it’s published to thousands, or potentially millions, of followers.

The Risk/Reward Analysis

“If there was no risk involved, I don’t think marketing would be worth doing,” says Oliver Roddy, business development manager at Catalyst Marketing. Speaking from the agency perspective, he says the risk appetite of his clients varies, but “it’s those who aren’t afraid that tend to get the best results.”

“One of the biggest risks any business has to get used to taking when it comes to marketing is stepping into the unknown and doing something different to everyone else in their industry, something that’s never been done before. World-renowned ad agency BBH London’s slogan is ‘When the world zigs, zag,’ and I think that’s as relevant a statement now as it’s ever been,” Roddy says.

“The risk is that you can put all the data, research, and knowledge you like into building your strategy, but the only way to find out if it floats is to push it out to sea. But that’s also the exciting bit, that’s the reason people’s juices get flowing when they start to talk about marketing and the possibilities it holds.”

He continues, “Data can only go so far. The only way to win hearts and minds is by resonating with the audience and by being empathetic about their dreams and visions. Data is incredibly important in working out what those might be, but it’s the message itself which will determine whether you win them over or not.”

Digital marketer Vlada Djidjeva takes a different tack: “There’s no extra money in the pocket for marketing experiments unless you have data,” she says. “Data is marketing’s religion, technology its prophet, and algorithms its commandments.

“Modern technology shapes every aspect of marketing, from programmatic, paid search, and social through to market research, content marketing, and managing brands. It’s given a completely new shape to the industry in the last 20 years or so.

“Given technological progress and the data era we live in, why would we as marketers want to go back to the old days and take marketing decisions without data? Would there be any point in doing so?”

Djidjeva may focus on the data, Roddy on the leap of faith, but on closer inspection, they have more in common than it appears. Every company these days is data-driven, and analytics play an essential part in truly understanding content performance. Therefore, the key is not ignoring the data in favor of pure human instinct, but leveraging those numbers to help us take those risks.

Djidjeva says it’s not a fear thing; it’s just a transition in the discipline. The way we approach risks as marketers has changed.

Confidence Drives Change

Humans are naturally risk-averse, and that’s what’s kept us alive, says Sarah Creevey, founder of Work Bubbles, a marketing coaching practice grounded in neuroscience. In the professional environment, there’s a lot at stake, from status and credibility to the next paycheck and our ability to support ourselves in the future.

“Our brains conduct a split-second cost/benefit analysis to decide if risks are worth taking or not; if the potential cost is greater than the potential benefit, we won’t take the risk,” Creevey says. In terms of modern marketing, that means the data feeds the risk decision. But are people less inclined to trust their gut the more data they have access to? Creevey says that is a danger.

“When we make decisions, the brain scans for information in the environment and our own experience to make a judgment on what to do. Where there isn’t enough information to be sure of the outcome, we rely on similar experiences we have had—a ‘best match,’ if you like.”

So when we make a decision based on what feels right, that’s our gut instinct. However, when we are faced with reams of data, it can be hard for our brains to know which is the most relevant so we can feel more compelled to go through it all in an attempt to rationalize our decision.

“I think because we are used to having information at the tip of our fingers, we feel like we need to know what every possible outcome is before making any decisions. This takes us away from our well-honed instincts, and we can tie ourselves up in knots,” says Creevey.

“When I coach people who are stuck in this kind of analysis paralysis, I try to help them get back in touch with their instinctive side by asking them questions like, ‘If you knew you couldn’t fail, whatever you did, what would you do?’ It sounds stupidly simple, but it helps people connect with their instincts and remember they can trust them too. There’s also a bit of a confidence boost as they remember they do know what they are doing!”

Creevey says at an organizational level, employers should create environments where their staff feel able to take risks—data-driven or instinct-driven. Debating ideas should be encouraged, along with a belief that mistakes are bound to happen and should be viewed as improvement opportunities.

Complacency is the enemy of creativity. We must feel empowered to take risks so that we can reach new heights and grow as marketers. It doesn’t matter whether those risks are calculated, based on data, or purely a gut instinct. Only by making mistakes and learning from them can we become better marketers.