Look Forward, Angel

Ad people are known for their ability to create, but professors too are perpetually asking new questions and seeking new answers. For instance, a set of studies conducted by Stanford’s Zakary Tormala and Jayson Jia, and Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton “paint a very clear picture of our unconscious preference for potential over actual success,” according to Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational psychologist, professor at Columbia University Business School and author of the Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, she contends, “We have a bias — one that operates below our conscious awareness — leading us to prefer the potential for greatness over someone who has already achieved it.”

To my mind, this is the central point of Halvorson’s analysis:

All this suggests that you need a very different approach to selling yourself than the one you intuitively take, because your intuitions are probably wrong. People are much more impressed, whether they realize it or not, by your potential than by your track record. It would be wise to start focusing your pitch on your future, as an individual or as a company, rather than on your past — even if that past is very impressive indeed.

Assuming the findings are true and hold up over time, this is a pretty significant discovery. As marketers, we are conditioned by much practice to shout out branded boasts like “Best Selling Truck In America,” “Billions and Billions Served” or “Preferred By Moms Since 1939.” In other words, we’re too often looking back. If we were looking forward, our messages would focus on the company’s potential to achieve greatness, not on measures of greatness already achieved.

Perhaps this explains the power of Dan Wieden’s line for Nike, “Just Do It.” It’s a line 100% focused on the future, and what the athlete in training will soon achieve.

I also think that we routinely tune out self-promoting people and brands, who toot toot toot their horns all day. Because we don’t care what they did last year, or one minute ago for that matter. We care about what people or companies can do for us right now, and how their contributions will help make our lives better tomorrow.

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