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? 

Marketing Mistakes: Measuring Customer ‘So What’













Does your marketing team measure what the customer values most about your product or service?

A post on the HBR blog today Call length is the worst way to measure customer service reveals that firms can obsess about the wrong metrics. Whilst they might give managers a sense of control they often have nothing to do with creating and delivering customer value.

The HBR post explains that many call centers focus on increasing the number of calls their operatives can handle by decreasing the time they talk with individual customers whereas the customer, spookily enough, wants helpfulness which might take the call operative to provide.

So what we have here is the commercial conundrum of providing customer value versus value appropriation for the firm. An optimum needs to be found. Get it wrong and either way your business suffers. Too much customer care and it costs you revenue too little customer care and it still costs you revenue because customers stop using the service.

Is there a formula for success? Probably not. There will be data that allows the firm to try out different approaches (much like a business game – if I increase my ad spend whats the impact on sales and profit). This will refine the overall approach for sure.

The point of the article however is use a metric to measure what you want to measure and don’t use a metric as a proxy for something else. Call length is call length and helpful for profitability measurement use an attitudinal measure to track the quality of your service experience.

Content Marketing: Solving your problems or making you think? 

Abraham Maslow said that if you only have a hammer you see every problem as a nail. He was getting at the instrumental way some folks can get locked into a single way of problem solving. 

Something I’ve noticed about marketing management content on the web in general and marketing blogs and LinkedIn posts in particular is that this content falls into two camps. 

Approach 1 – prescriptions 

Instant problem solving information typically expressed like 3 ways to do this or that, or a the best method to win more business, keep customers happy etc. The aim being to share best practice.

Approach 2 – provocations 

Thought provoking discussions that raise critical issues and perspectives such as the complexity of value or the challenge of making sense of a changing world. The aim being to challenge taken for granted assumptions. 

Approach 2 content doesn’t actually provide a specific solution to a specific marketing management problem rather it invites the reader to think more deeply about the complexities of marketing practice and how sales and marketing practioners make sense of their world and their work. 

One criticism of approach 2 is that it can seem like ‘intellectual claptrap’. Often the content looks at what we actually mean by commonly used marketing terms such as value or relationship marketing. In academia we call this ‘deconstruction’ of meaning. This where commonly used terms are shown to be difficult to define and much more ambiguous than you might think at first glance.

Take for example terms like marketing, strategy or leadership. It’s easy to assume there is common agreement on what these terms refer to but just scratch the surface and you can see they can mean very different things to different people. It’s hardly surprising then why miscommunication and friction can be caused in companies when people have very different views about core management ideas.

Sometimes approach 2 content offers a critical take on everyday marketing practice by challenging the assumptions on which it is based such as the hot topic of ‘account based marketing’. This marketing buzzword is high profile at the moment and touted as a new way of doing B2B marketing. The question becomes what is the basis for claiming ABM is new and different. 

So is approach 2 content really intellectual claptrap? a waste of time? a waste of effort? 

Marketing content approach 2 is targetted at what is called the ‘thoughtful practioner’ rather than the action only practioner. This is someone that Donald Schon describes as the Reflective Practioner, somebody who thinks on and in their practice. These are very different people to those who just act to a formulaic script without ever asking if the formula or the script needs to change, or who get stuck in sorting out symptoms rather than causes. 

Audiences who favour approach 1 are people who react best to an immediate answer and not, as they see it, wasting time examining these underlying causes. They rationalise their approach as ‘getting things done’.

For content marketing approach 1 audiences problems are ‘tame’ – a clear problem needing a straightforward solution. On the other hand thoughtful practioners see problems as ‘wicked’ – where problems complex and multi-faceted that need subtle and systemic solutions. See the writing of Rittel and Webber.

What is in play here is the relationship between theory and practice. Often the cry goes up that something is too ‘theoretical’. Now this is interesting because it reveals an underlying assumption that theory are separate things when in reality they are deeply connected. As Kurt Lewin observed ‘there is nothing so practical as a good theory’ 

Part of this practice or theory problem is down to what we mean by theory. Content marketing approach 2 alert!

Marketing management theories are fundamentally an informed explanation of a management phenomenon that occurs in the real world. They are a more robust explanation of something than a mere opinion. 

These theories can become prescriptions for action (normative theory) and it is this type of theory that surfaces in management writing because it is directed at problem solving. 3 ways to write compelling blog copy is actually a theory even though it comes across as practical! 

Content marketing approach 2 is typically what is called ‘explanatory theory’. A framework or model that helps us reflect and make sense of something rather than a recommendation of a solution. 

Think of any elite sportsperson. Would anyone suggest that they don’t reflect on their performance? They don’t just train to improveme technique they also think about how to improve their frame of mind and their overall approach to training and their discipline. It’s a meta approach. 

There is ample evidence on the executive management courses I run with my colleague and co-author Simon Kelly that experienced business people want to know more about how to problem solve by simply learning a few management problem analysis tools. They really want to challenge assumptions and beliefs.

Often our tutorials on achieving competitive advantage and creating customer value resolve out into discussions on lack of internal alignment, poor communication and lack of company agility and all of the ambiguous invisible stuff that goes on between people and how they communicate.

These issues are not the stuff of the ‘3 ways to improve’ variety of approach 1 they are to do with how people make sense of their worlds, what they actually mean and how to change what they do. 

People who think the approach 2 way don’t have fixed egos. They are open minded and have a deep sense of curiosity. They realise that management problems can’t easily be resolved with set template or process map or a 2*2 management matrix. That’s because their design and interpretation require assumptions or a theory of what matters.

Of course a balance needs to be struck. As commercial people we want applied knowledge and effective results and this means we can rarely if ever indulge in introspective consideration of business issues in the same way that medieval scholars debated How many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Doing the managerial equivalent of this metaphysical navel gazing might justly be criticised as an example of intellectual claptrap. 

If you only have a hammer however you run the risk of being fixed in your thinking. If you are fixed you will probably feel you are on an even keel or and not acknowledge you might be complacent. If you avoid complex and challenging ideas that don’t dump an obvious solution in your lap then you risk inhibiting the agility and competitiveness of your business. Being anti-intellectual in management might save you time by cutting to the chase and it might also lock you inside a simplistic psychic prison to which your competitors have the key. 

Train ticket fear destroys customer value

Tell me, what sort of organisation would advertise the fact that using their service creates fear in their customers, except perhaps roller coaster owners!

This is what British rail franchise company East Midlands Trains is doing at the moment. The intent of the advert is to address the serious problem of customers (that’s passengers to you and me) buying the wrong ticket. Up to One fifth of rail customers buy the wrong ticket as this BBC news report reveals.

One of the most worrying consequences for passengers is that if you ‘under-buy’, in other words make a purchase mistake you get a fine or as its euphemistically called a penalty fare. This means you are treated as if you are a fare dodger who has the wilful intent of avoiding payment. In other words the company regards you as a criminal. As harsh as this seems considerable effort is made by rail companies to make passengers aware that they need to buy the correct ticket in advance of travel.

All the same because of the complexity of their own ticketing arrangements passenger ticket fear is explicitly recognised by East Midlands Trains as fear of financial punishment and fear of being cast as a law breaker! Whilst the issue of rail fare evasion is serious I don’t think making fun of passenger fear in this way is appropriate.

I’d like to discuss two things in relation to rail passengers buying the wrong tickets from machines. Firstly the use of ‘fear’ in marketing communications and secondly the issue of value destruction. The latter is something we cover in our book Value-ology

Fear in marketing 

There’s an old adage in sales and marketing that ‘fear sells’. Disturb the customer about an inadequacy or a lack such as lack of beauty or bring up an anxiety such as fear of leaving loved one’s with huge funeral bills when you pass on.  Fear is marketing 101. BUT it seems to me that the  East Midlands Trains marketing team that came up with idea of, and authorised the use of ‘fear’ in the advert above have a mistaken understanding of the use of fear in marketing communications. Either that or they think it’s funny that their passengers are fearful. Why would you brag about the fact that your ticketing system creates customer fear rather than addresses a customer fear?! It looks like chopped logic to me. The marketing team are sort of in the right ball park but misses the point of how to use the idea of fear in advertising.

I do realise that the advert refers to an explanatory brochure that seeks to demystify ticket types but there is a difference in recognising customer feedback about their fears of buying a wrong ticket and then playing straight back at them in this way. I would have thought something more like:

Take the stress out of buying your ticket.

Buying the wrong ticket can result in penalty fare

You might worry if you have bought the right ticket for your journey

Our simple ticket guide will help you choose the right ticket for you

Value destruction

The potential for value destruction by dysfunctional organisational or individual activities has ben researched by marketing academics in recent times. See:

Ple,L. Caceres, R.C. (2010) Not always co-creation: Introducing interactional co-destruction of value in service-dominant logic. Journal of Services Marketing, 24/6 430-437.and

Echeverri P., & Skalen P. (2011). Co-creation and co-destruction: A practice–theory based study of interactive value formation. Marketing Theory, 11(3), 351–373.

Value can be destroyed by the supplier or the customer through a variety of means such as  impoliteness, aggression, lack of attention, humiliation and so on. .I realise that fare dodging needs a deterrent and the official identity of revenue protection officers serves a powerful purpose in that regard. The RPO’s are invariably  very polite and only assertive when they have to be. That said, the sense of potential public humiliation and edginess I have witnessed as a commuter as the Revenue Inspectors board a train (dressed in somewhat paramilitary body vests) is palpable. Even when the inspectors ‘let the wrong ticketed passenger off’ with a warning or just payment of a full fare rather than imposing a fine it seems to me that customer value is being destroyed. Fellow passengers have witnessed the interaction and so being ‘shamed’ in public is not ideal.One thing that seems to be overlooked is that the inspector-passenger interaction takes place in a public service-scape (see Servicescapes: The Impact of Physical Surroundings on Customers and Employees. Mary Jo Bitner 1992 Journal of Marketing). This means that all passengers within sight and earshot are also having their customer value (pleasant and relaxing journey) destroyed.

Of course in the world of behavioural economics you get people to change their behaviour with rewards and punishments. Yes dear customer we are cast as simply ‘dogs to be trained.Of course the whole purpose of revenue protection is to ensure cheaper prices (economic value) for us all. Seems sensible, but as academics Brock and Colgate point out firms rarely deliver just one sort of value. See Customer Value Creation: A Practical Framework J. Brock Smith and Mark Colgate Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice Vol. 15, No. 1 (Winter, 2007), pp. 7-23.

We use a  customer value model called the Value Onion in our new book Value-ology to show the interrelated types of value created by firms:

Surely the best solution to the revenue and fear problem is to have and indisputably simple and clear ticketing system rather than a Byzantine system that creates fear in customers and has the persistent latent potent to destroy experiential customer value?

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