The Surprising Power Of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense
If you haven’t come across Rory Sutherland before then you’re in for a big treat.
He’s your favourite kind of intellectual. Smart but witty. Brilliant but humble. And a wonderful storyteller.
He also writes a guest column for The Spectator as well as finding the time outside of his role as Vice Chairman of Ogilvy to pen a thought-provoking book about the power of counter intuitive thinking.
It’s called Alchemy: The Surprising Power Of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense and its key argument is that contrary to rational economic theory the human brain is anything but a logical processor of information.
As he so dryly states, ‘The human mind does not run on logic any more than a horse runs on petrol.’
The unlikely popularity of Red Bull is one example he cites of our behaviour running counter to logical reasoning. Just imagine how hard it would have been to convince people it was a brilliant idea at the concept stage.
“So...it’s a new soft drink that tastes considerably worse than Coke and comes in a much smaller can. Oh...yeah...and we’re planning to charge more than twice as much for it.”
And yet Red Bull has been so successful that it’s owner is not only a billionaire but can also afford to fund two Formula One teams (each with an annual operating budget of more than a $150 million dollars!).
Red Bull is successful not because of its size, contents or taste but because of the image it communicates to the person drinking it. As the American political strategist Lee Atwater once said, “Perception is reality”.
Sutherland artfully makes the connection with this ‘perceived reality’ and the power of the placebo effect. Simply being told or imagining something to have medicinal benefits is enough for us to receive an actual benefit despite them having no medicinal properties whatsoever.
Why does this happen? Because, we’re told, it’s evolutionary preferable to do so.
When it comes to decision making, we operate as ‘satisficers’ as opposed to ‘maximisers’ in the sense that we tend to choose the least worst option as opposed to the very best.
This is because our ancestors lived in an environment where deliberating endlessly over the optimum solution would have ended up getting them killed.
As Sutherland writes, “Our brains did not evolve to make perfect decisions using mathematical precision - there wasn’t much call for this kind of thing on the African Savannah.”
The problem is that most large organisations are too fixated on logic and optimisation when some of the most successful products (such as Red Bull) fly in the face of it.
Put simply, they fail to take advantage of the fact that ‘…just because it’s irrational, it doesn’t mean it isn’t right.’
This also extends to the way brands communicate:
“Effective communication will always require some degree of irrationality in its creation because if it’s perfectly rational it becomes like water, entirely lacking in flavour”, writes Rory.
The message of this book is that rather than shy away from trying things that seem irrational we should be encouraged to experiment more. Like the local council in one Dutch town who improved pedestrian traffic safety by removing road markings altogether.
Reading this book really will make you an Alchemist and give you the power to turn lead ideas into golden ones.
Rory is the star of the show in our popular course on Behavioural Economics. Head to the course preview page to find out more.
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