Imagination: the ultimate source of competitive advantage

I believe that our imagination is the ultimate source of competitive advantage. 

What is the Imagination?

When I talk about the imagination I don’t mean the juvenile-romanticised version of imagination that is associated with idle fantasy, day dreaming, self indulgent creativity and idealism. What I am referring to is the imagination as a world shaping and world revising power. It is our imaginative capacity that shapes what we perceive through our senses and transforms the information we collect on the way in to our minds and shapes the creation of business models, product and service solutions, competitive themes and value propositions on the way out from our minds.

Our imagination is the vital junction box between the material world and the world of ideas. Think of it as a ‘middle-ware’. The ancient Greeks placed a special importance on imagination and Aristotle used the term Phantasia as the imagination’s ability to ‘bring things to light’. Crucially it is the only capacity we have for considering things that are not actually present here and now. This means it is vital for the way we think about things such as past customer experiences and product and service offers that we might buy in the future. Okay so you might be thinking this is a load of philosophical mumbo jumbo? Well hang on a moment, here’s what marketing guru Ted Levitt and strategy experts Hamel and Prahalad have to say.

Ted Levitt in his 1986 book The Marketing Imagination invokes imagination as a necessary aspect of achieving meaningful and differentiation by giving customers compelling reasons to want to do business with the supplier. Significantly Levitt draws attention to the issue of absence when he states “Imagination means to construct mental pictures of what is or is not actually present what has never been actually experienced.” He notes at the onset of his discussion that ideas precede the deed and in that sense his view of imagination resonates with the idea that a value proposal precedes the solution and the creation of value. He claims in this context that The marketing imagination is the starting point of success in marketing.”

Hamel and Prahalad  in their 1991 book Competing For The Future refer to imagination as a characteristic of The Imagination Company that enables it to translate the ‘inconceivable to the conceivable’ by having the imagination to envision markets that do not yet exist”. Implicit in this take on imagination is a capability to use ideas to shape the material world differently. An imaginative company is one that fashions it’s markets rather than merely fits with what presently exists.

Michael Beaney in his 2005 book Imagination and Creativity characterise the imagination as the capacity to create images, to conceive of something non-existent and to come up with something new. So with that in mind this quote by economist and philosopher Kenneth Boulding caught my eye:

“Man’s image [of things] is also characterised by a phenomenal capacity for internal growth and development quite independent of messages received from outside. So great is this capacity, indeed, that it can easily become pathological. In the extreme form we see the schizophrenic who builds up a whole imaginary universe out of the proliferations of his (sic) own images without any regard for contradictory messages from outside. It is this property of ‘imagination’ however which is also responsible for the greatest achievements of man

Eva Brann in her book Imagination Sum and Substance states that the rational world just ‘is’. This means our mind must interpret and manipulate the information and experience it receives so that the cold information means something. Brann also tells us that in order to operate in the world our imagination needs to be ‘gathered by reason’ too otherwise we will attempt the completely unrealistic. Think about that for a moment. What this means is that data capture and data analysis on their own don’t help us, we have to engage in the act of interpretation and synthesis. So the next time you are asked to just ‘tell me the facts’ it might pay useful to take that with a pinch of salt.

So with this in mind, think about anything happening in business and society things such as, big data, artificial intelligence, customer choice factors, customer complaints, service standards – whatever, at the basic level they just ‘are’. It takes the imagination of the sales and marketing minded professional to do something with the information they receive. This is more than perceive and interpret (inbound part of imagination) its is the outbound architectures of new, better and different solutions where the rubber of imagination hits the road.

Some definitions of Imagination:

Imagination is our capacity to think more widely , less literally to let our minds roam amongst possibilities be more ready to suspend belief and disbelief summon things from our minds not given by perception. Roger Scruton in A companion to Aesthetics 2nd edition Davies, Higgins , Hopkins, Stecker

Seeing things as – Wittgenstein

the thought of other past or possible perceptions of the same object  – Peter Strawson

embroidering and trying things out – Michael Beaney

Imagination is competence:

As you can see these are characteristics of an agile professional and therefore an agile organisation. It is a characteristic that is not seen in stultifying bureaucracy and individuals who think that doing good job is making sure systems and processes are unthinkingly policed and non conformists are punished and de-valued. Imagination is the skill of the consultative sales person, the ability of the collaborative co-worker, the habit of an organisation that learns.

Imagination is the antithesis of administrative bureaucracy and the associated massive cost burden and loss of competitive opportunity. Bureaucracy kills the imagination.  Imagination is a fundamental aspect of being able to act on the principles and ideas set out in our book Value-ology

Is your brand bland? 2 ways to avoid it. 

Bland is defined as:

“lacking strong features or characteristics and therefore uninteresting.”

It is fear of being unremarkable that haunts the dreams of marketing professionals around the world. A common problem with average brand management and marcomms however is that this fear translates into solutions that lapse into self idulgent shock tactics, self referencing obsession with wit, and or a narcissistic concern with art and image. All of which result in a disconnected brand purpose. 

Helen Edwards writing in Campaign looks at this issue and the ways marketing people can miss the commercial and customer relevance of their ideas. One of the risks of putting intellectual effort into defining a brand purpose is that it ends up being so thematically general it lacks any relevance to the customer’s matter at hand. This in turn means less chance of driving sales. 

Edwards cites purpose statements like ‘let’s change the world, let’s serve customers better’ as typical of the Brand Bland. 

Stuff like this might produce a high sense of  personal or organisational self esteem but does the customer really give a sh£t? Unless these higher ideals are really what the customer is seeking from the solutions they are after how can they possibly influence purchases? 

Part of this line of thinking is probably down to values based marketing – that deep mystical version of marketing that claims exceptional insight into what makes the customer really tick. Not all customers are so deep, so abstract, that idealistic. The example that works taking this line is cited as Fairtrade. Now that makes sense the values are explicitly linked to what is sought by the purchaser. 

If you’re not careful though focussing on brand purpose is all about you. Your values, your passions, your aspirations and they might have diddly squat to do with the customer’s purchasing as such. In that sense it’s just another version of product rather market orientation. 

So how do you avoid a bland brand?

1. Be relevant to the customers matter at hand. Find out what causes the customer to buy in a very direct and immediate sense 

2. Don’t confuse customer value and values. Make sure your customers get the thing they directly want for the price they give not some bland aspirational idea.

One way to think through these issues then why not read more in: 


Imagine getting your marketing degree in just one day

How long should it take to study for an undergraduate degree? Do you think it should be 3 years, 2 years, 1 year or even faster? Think about it – just like a drive through burger joint, you rock up, place your order and collect your qualification in next to no time. Is this the future of higher education?

Tom Cutterham of The University of Birmingham has just written an article in Times Higher titled – Two-year degrees? On the road to enlightenment, speed kills. In it he outlines what he feels are the negative consequences of such a university experience for all stakeholders. He also points to a supporting argument for his stance put by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber in their book The Slow Professor. The gist being that high speed instrumental knowledge gain diminishes the value of a higher education. 

Pedagogically there has been considerable research into how time matters in higher education because it is a transformative experience not simply the filling of empty minds with information. In particular there is a change in how students view the certainty of knowledge over their studies in which they move from a simplistic ‘right/wrong’ stance to one where the truth of things is ambiguous. Such a change cannot be forced quickly, students have to learn how to change.
So all of this got me wondering. If I had to design a 1 day marketing degree what would it look like? Now one thing to bear in mind is that this is the tutor giving you all you need to know. 1 day doesn’t allow for much self study and reflection. Mind you as a student interested in ‘know what’ rather than ‘know how and or why’ I’m sure that’s fine isn’t it? 

Additionally whilst I’m going to tell you what I think you should know for your one day marketing degree I won’t be advising you on how to research, study or write assignments. There’s no time for that only time for the transmission of knowledge. Also the level of analysis for a 1 day marketing degree is understandably chunked up to some very big but useful big chunks. 

So here we go…all you need to know for a one day marketing degree. 

Understand the market

Understand your customers

Understand your competitors 

Create, deliver and communicate value

Create a Brand

Create great service 

Create great relationships 

Know how to segment, target and position

Know how to manage the marketing mix

Know how to make a marketing plan

Know important marketing metrics

Understand Digital 

Be imaginative 

Develop professional talent 

Integrate and align everything

Make money 

So there you go you are now fully qualified on PJ’s One Day Marketing Degree. It’s free so I’m sure you’ll agree it’s great value for money too! All the knowledge without the hassle.

So in your opinion what is the optimum duration for an under graduate degree?

Can you analyse customer emotions? 

Suzy Bashford in Campaign has posted a thought provoking article about the next ‘new’ trend in marketing metrics which is all about Emotional Analytics.

Certainly an eye catching idea. Although the academic in me is screaming – this isn’t exactly new is it? Haven’t we been talking about sentiment tracking for some years now? 

The appeal of reading ’emotions’ as well as merely tracking ‘behaviours’ offers the possibility of a more rounded understanding of people. The appeal of tracking behaviours is you can ‘see’ behaviours. They are the safe ground of objective scientific management. The philosophical view of management that says the only dependable information is what you can sense and measure. 

Emotions are different. The compelling component of rhetoric, the things that get pulled out of us with vivid appeals, the things that shape our attitudes. Let’s make marketing great again! 

You can’t ‘see an emotion’ (you can see an effect of an emotion in the world – crying, laughing etc). They are invisible and powerful so no wonder organisations are fascinated by them. Understand emotions and you start reading people and their thoughts about brands, products, services AND let’s not forget customer facing staff. 

But hang on! Have you noticed something here? Yes it’s that thing that sits quietly in background called ‘the marketing discourse’. That thing which marketing professionals draw from and use to convey their professional identity and credentials. Professional Discourses are the dominant words that convey the key beliefs and ideas of a profession. They live in a paradigm. 

In this case we have the term ’emotional analytics’. Wow! sounds super sexy doesn’t it! Sort of ‘I have to have me some of that!’. The thing is can you analyse an emotion? And if you can – so what? You only end up describing some attributes that make up the ‘thing’. 

If emotions are subjective and qualitative surely we should emphasising the ‘interpretation‘ of emotions shouldn’t we?  Reading what the emotions mean? Hearing from the consumer the meaning they give to their emotional connections to brands, products, services and people. 

Analytics for me smacks of Technological Determinism. The conviction that technology can provide the answers for everything. Just keep refining the algorithm and eventually you won’t need a CMO anymore! The computer says ‘love’ 

So can you analyse emotions? What do you think? 

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