Last week, the family went to see a Broadway musical.
As occasionally happens, the star didn't show up. An understudy took his place, and there was a slip of paper in the Playbill informing the audience that the second string star would be appearing.
The lights went down, the orchestra started, the curtain went up. A few extras wandered onto the stage. Then the main character appeared.
The audience applauded.
Why was the audience applauding for the understudy? Virtually everyone in the audience knew that the big star wasn't there.
I'm sure that in the old days, when Gene Kelly or Audrey Hepburn appeared on stage, there was the gasp of recognition and the gratitude the audience felt that a big star had chosen to spend his or her valuable time with us, the audience. So the applause is a natural byproduct of that emotion.
Here, though, was an actor we hadn't paid to see, an actor who was sure to do his best, but he hadn't done a thing for us.
So why applaud?
There are too many choices in our lives. Too many brands of soft drink, too many kinds of cell phones, too many ways to fly from New York to LA. There are too many social choices as well--when to clap, how to say hello, what sort of message to leave on your cell phone.
As a result, more often than not, we resort to tradition. We do what we've always done because it's safer and easier.
You should care about this.
You should care if you're marketing an idea or a product that requires people to upset an existing tradition. Changing the way we do things (whether it's the design of a bicycle or the structure of the Electoral College) is hard indeed. Realizing that being better is not NEARLY enough helps you understand the magnitude of your marketing challenge. In fact, traditions rarely change quickly just because the alternatives are better. (true story: Walking down Newbury Street in Boston on Friday, less than a block from no less than 20 great and cheap restaurants, I heard one tourist say to another tourist: "Well, we could have lunch at Burger King." Why? Tradition!)
You should also care if you're trying to build something big and important. Because big and important things often come from changing the tradition. And if you can invent a new tradition, a new tradition around your innovation, that's when you win big time.