Monday, September 12, 2016

Ecolalia: Stating the Obvious by Echoing the Words of Others


                   If we mimic someone else, they will feel closer and more similar to us; we can fake the
                 natural liking process quite well .... all a good con artist needs.

                                                                                          --Maria Konnikova, The Confidence Game:
                                                                                             Why We Fall for It, Every Time (2016), p. 64
Those of us who provide business intelligence services get paid significant money to produce two key outcomes:   The first is to understand the core nature of the client’s business in order to frame their problems in useful and actionable ways.  The second is to bring new intelligence and solutions to resolve and turn those problems around, leading to profits and growth.

But over the past few years we’ve seen a disturbing trend in market research, particularly in Branding.

I call it Echolalia.

In medicine, Echolalia is a mental disorder; it compels the patient to repeat the last words other people speak.  The name comes from the ancient Greek myth of Echo, the nymph who was condemned by Hera to do just that for frolicking with her husband, the great god Zeus.

In market “research” (or pseudo-research), Echolalia is the practice of asking the client what they think their brand is, then handing in a report echoing what they told you.  As research goes, this isn’t. 

This practice appears to have begun with the financial crash of 2008, and the malaise of uncertainty in the ensuing recession.  Human beings normally don’t have a problem taking calculated risks, but that changes when high levels of uncertainty are involved. Our brain is hard-wired to avoid uncertainty. The science on this is clear. We would rather do nothing than to make a decision in shaky or murky circumstances.

We saw this with our own clients. Critical decisions were suddenly delayed for months, in some instances years. Projects were abandoned. Negotiations dried up. Venture capital stopped flowing.  We started hearing the phrase; “We’re not ready to make a decision on that at this time.” We heard that a lot.

And these were not small, struggling businesses. These were Fortune 500 companies. They retrenched, maintained, but were reluctant to move forward. My in-box started filling up with résumés from colleagues whose bigger, cooler, consulting firms had cut them loose – or closed their doors entirely.

My theory is that the business environment was so gloomy, and the future so shuttered, that everyone began to second-guess their ideas and decisions. They started to rely more and more on consensus and groupthink to validate their decisions, to feel safer about anything they were doing or might do. 

And that’s when we began to see a new sort of consultancy emerge. They called themselves Branding Agencies but what many of them delivered was carbon-copy “Echolalia.”

There has always been a certain amount of pandering to the client in the market research that we are asked to review, but this went beyond keeping the client in a good mood. I saw this for the first time in an exercise – a mock branding competition during which one of the teams simply copied, word for word, what the client said he wanted and pasted it up into a PowerPoint presentation, preceded by the words “We Will Provide….” 

Our teams were working in an auditorium with maybe 200 seasoned marketing professionals. Our first thought was “They’ll never fall for that.”  We were so wrong.  

This was amusing at first – it surely had to be a parody – a one-off. However, after encountering it again and again across industries, it had become a new blunt instrument in the consultant’s toolbox.

Boards of Directors tend to be conformist groups.  Creative problem-solving researchers and consultants should not be.

This “re-verb” trend is built around posing the input from clients as processed findings or insight. Delivering ideas that simply confirm your client’s opinions of--or hopes for--their brand’s position and equity now manages to pass for research, apparently.  This means it’s now on the client to be sure they are getting their money’s worth, which they are not.

There is no analysis, no insight, no building on ideas, or folding in real knowledge toward a goal. Repeating the client’s words does not equal research, and certainly can’t be considered analysis.

For over two decades I’ve reviewed plenty of poor consumer research at our client’s request. I’ve seen the obvious touted as deep insight. I’ve seen research laced with superlatives in an attempt to cover up nothing of value to report. I’ve seen the wrong methodologies applied to the wrong problems, senseless questions in surveys and focus groups for null-value results. I’ve seen the right questions asked but to the wrong subjects. I’ve even seen reports that make it obvious the highly-paid consultant had no real idea of whet his client actually does.

That’s nothing new. We have all seen poorly executed research. But this is something added--an outright con.

It’s literally based on an old con-man tactic: the simplest way to convince someone that you are smart is to tell them something they already believe.  Even better if it’s flattering.

And this is downright dangerous. It’s the equivalent of your doctor asking if you have cancer. When you reply in the negative his diagnosis is, “Well, the good news is, you don’t have cancer!” Which, while unprofessional, seems harmless enough – unless you have cancer.

Reconfigured but not transformed. This is a form of idea flattery that consultants know very well how to execute; they’ve been doing it forever under the cover of “research.” But I have started to advise my clients, who regularly ask us about the value of their consultant reports, to be very careful and circumspect about this particular form of flattery. It’s an expensive luxury that won’t help solve your problems, move you forward, or otherwise improve your bottom line.  At best, It validates that you have a problem you recognize, as defined (correctly or not) by you.

Here’s a simple test for the client.  Looking at the report, how much of this information is actually news to you? How much challenges your beliefs and opinions? And how much is just your own ideas cut and pasted, without an ounce of value added? Do some simple math.

The consultant’s art needs to do much more:  analyze that “felt need,” the client problem statement, to see if that is really the core problem.  In our experience, it seldom is, rather, it’s a symptom (in sales, money, reputation, branding outcomes) of a much deeper underlying misdirection in purpose and resources.   Unless companies understand the deeper cultural value of what they do, they will never know how to plan, communicate, or allocate their money and time.

How does Echolalia operate on the ground?  Here are a few examples. 

If you tell your rehab architect that your kitchen is too dark, he needs to do more than tell you “Your kitchen is too dark, isn’t it?” You might hear Rogerian psychotherapy in this response.  He actually needs to do some work on your statement, for example, apply creative intelligence, a status study, strategy, and tactics to the problem.

This involves at least framing the problem as presented into a solvable proposition. This involves asking the question “OK, WHY is your kitchen too dark? What does “too dark” mean to you? And what can be done about it, from various thought bases?” 

Perhaps the solution is opening up the walls or even the ceiling to the sun. Artificial lighting is an answer, but what kinds are feasible, available, and affordable? Perhaps the entire room can be broken out and extended by new building or adapting adjacent spaces.  Maybe you need a fresh concept of what a kitchen is—this can include dining, conference, living room, and den spaces What is the desired overall effect in terms of design, use, and aesthetics? A whole range of questions can be provoked by the concept of “too dark” or solving for more light. And creative design firms know that their client’s version of the problem rarely points directly to one obvious solution, otherwise clients would readily solve the problem themselves at Home Depot.


Alan Turing developed an artificial intelligence technique to make a computer almost human by programming the computer response to human dictation.  In his 1951 paper “The Imitation Game,” he devised tests to make computers indistinguishable from human subjects as a test of intelligence.  You may remember the Turing Test from the days of early personal computers. There were programs that would initiate a conversation. The program would ask “How do you feel?”  You would respond “I feel fine.” Or “I feel sad.” And the program would respond “I’m happy to hear that.” Or “I’m sorry to hear that,” whichever was more appropriate. When in doubt, the computer would fall back on generalities; “Why do you say that?” Or “I sometimes feel that way, too.” The whole point of the Turing Test was to see how far the user could go into the program before realizing they were talking to a machine.

I’d extend Turing’s concept to propose the Echo Test. 

The test works like this:  Are you getting your money’s worth by picking professional brains? How much of this do I agree with wholeheartedly? Are you sure? How do you know it’s valid, other than the feedback sounds just as bright as you are (and remember, you are the one who can’t solve the problem)? 

When my company went looking for a public relations firm, we interviewed several national outfits. They were great listeners, enthusiastic and attentive (and nice dressers), and seemed to have what it took to talk about us to the press. However, we soon discovered their secret weapon; they were skilled at feedback but not at moving ideas around or handling new concepts to produce new knowledge. We read their proposals with some amusement as we realized everything we had talked about with them was indeed in evidence--just not in any digested form.

There was nothing there we hadn’t told them; nothing new; no actual work had been done on our ideas to carry them forward--no assimilation or transformation of information (i.e., learning).  Just a clever reposting job posing as news.

In the past year we’ve been called in to rescue two clients who thought they had commissioned a branding study and ended up with very expensive case of Echolalia.

One was a university. The branding company interviewed the faculty and administrators and gave them a “Creative Brief and Research Summary” defining their brand, which would have been great, if their brand was Harvard instead of a fourth-tier liberal arts college. It was unadulterated magical thinking. What it did was describe the school the faculty wanted to teach at in their dreams, replete with buzzwords like “rigor” and “excellence.”

We addressed that little problem by parking ourselves in the school cafeteria with a couple of the more engaged faculty members to whom we gave one simple instruction: “Snag us your best students – the ones who are thriving here.”

From these students we put together a new brand profile or value proposition: a student-centered environment, freedom to explore, easy access to faculty, caring faculty, helpful staff, etc. These were not just the best students, they were precisely the type they wanted and needed more of. It was that brand profile – how the students – the school’s “customers”-- recognized value -- that was then used to recruit the largest freshman class in the school’s history.

And, even better: the school didn’t have to change much – they were already delivering that value – they just weren’t marketing it correctly.  Because they didn’t know what it was. You can’t solve a problem at the level at which it was created. That’s why companies have hierarchies – problems you can’t solve get passed up to people who can. But fundamental cultural issues – such as what your brand means to the customer - can’t be handled from the inside. Your own corporate culture and assumptions get in the way of your analysis. This is when you go to the outside - that’s the core value of consultancy.

Your brand is who your customers think you are, not who you think you are.

Our other major involvement with Echolalia was an established company in an evolving competitive market. The “Brand Statement” came back reading like their brochure. Again, it was the inside view of who they were and what they stood for.  No one interviewed their customers. No one interviewed their competitor’s customers. Many in the company are happy with that because the report validates what they already believe. Of course it does – the report is simply feeding back what the consultant heard and read.

In the meantime, the marketplace is evolving rapidly. New players and products are being introduced on a regular basis. It’s only a matter of time until one of them comes up with The Big Idea. That’s how the marketplace works.   

Fortunately, not all the executives drank the Kool-Aid, so there we were, searching out their value – their Brand - where it actually lives: in the minds of their customers. We were not just looking for what they asked for, we were searching out what they needed to know in order to position themselves effectively.

Enormous sums are expended on echoing client ideas back. This brings nothing to the table. In fact it sets everyone back and makes us all cynical. The advice to “Keep doing what you’re doing, only better/faster/more” is the same as saying keep doing what you’re doing and hope for different results.

We all know how well that works; it’s one of the clinical definitions of insanity.

Next time you commission work or just a blue-sky session for a wickedly persistent problem, ask yourself this question:  what’s new here that I didn’t already know or say to the brain I’m paying to pick? If the answer is very little, then you are either dealing with an amateur or a favorite consultant you didn’t choose and whose work you can’t use. You have our sympathies. I never wanted to be a firefighter, but when the phone rings, it’s often because someone’s carefully crafted marketing plan just went up in flames - because it was built on echoes.