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Shark Attack!

JawsAn innocent 14 year old girl lost her life just off the Florida panhandle the other day. That’s tragic news—it always is when something like this happens.

But why the panic?

Why the front page headlines in New York (no sharks here)? Why the emergency orders and the closed beaches?

Last year there were 30 shark attacks in Florida. This is fewer than the number of people killed by deer accidents (not deer attacks) in the United States. Fewer than the number of people killed in just a few hours of Labor Day traffic. Yet you don't see people paying money to see movies about killer deer, or fretting about driving to see Aunt Sue.

Shark attack is like cancer. The phrase alone gets you to sit up and take notice, to have a sharp intake of breath, to hope that everything is okay.

Cancer kills about as many Americans as heart disease, but we react completely differently to news about a friend or a colleague with one disease or the other. We ostracize smokers but few people are serious enough about heart disease to become vegetarians… very different reactions to similar disease-causing lifestyle choices.

The new thing to be irrationally frightened of is terrorism. But of course, this isn’t a discussion about rational thought—it’s about worldview. For whatever reason, human beings are hyper-alert to certain things. We’re afraid of snakes and pit bulls, but not three wheeled go kart ATVs.

Awareness of worldview is critical in world affairs and in marketing as well (same thing, if you ask me). Books about dieting sell, but books about avoiding heart disease don’t. Not because one book is inherently more valuable than the other, but because deep down, consumers believe that a book can help with losing weight (turns out it probably won’t) but a book on heart disease is probably not worth seeking out (big mistake).

One thing you can do as a marketer is rail against worldview. You can whine and complain that your service or product is better, pays for itself, saves lives, improves democracies, whatever. Whining, as we see over and over, has little impact.

For a while, an important corporate worldview revolved around quality. You could sell most anything under the cover of a story about improving ISO 9000/six sigma/Deming quality. Then we had the deep-seated desire (and big budgets) associated with the Y2K problem. Like most worldviews, this was a worldview that got there before most marketers arrived at the scene. Smart marketers used the opportunity to start a conversation and then tell a story and sell a product that companies actually needed in the long run—and turned that window into a long-term business. Others just manipulated the system and took the money and ran. Those guys are no longer around.

Same thing happened with web mania. The need to avoid the shark attack of missing the boat pushed change-resistant consumers and corporations to invest in all manner of web stuff. Some companies (like Yahoo!) turned that into a foundation for a real company. Others are long gone.

I don't think I'm being harsh... I’ve seen far too many great ideas fail to believe that I’m being cynical in this post. You may have the greatest thing ever, but if it doesn’t match a prevailing worldview in the market where you hope to tell your story, you’re invisible.

All Marketers are Liars was probably a dumb title for my latest book (if my goal was to sell a lot, fast). It doesn’t do a good job of matching the worldview of the people most likely to buy it or talk about it. Perhaps I should have called it, “The Orange Kangaroo: How Smart Marketers Tell Stories People Want to Believe.” Same book, different worldview. To be fair, my goal wasn't to write a sequel, though, it was to change minds--which is a very time-consuming and difficult thing to do.

If you don't have the energy or the time to change minds, though, what should you do? You need to realize that changing a worldview requires you to get your prospects to admit that they were wrong. This is awfully hard to do.

I think that tapping into a worldview almost always requires more than a new title or a new wrapper or a new ad. I think it requires rethinking the product itself, starting from scratch with the worldview in mind.

If you could start over, what story would you tell?

Various footnotes: On my way through security at LGA today, I saw a display that indicated it was against the law to carry on or pack mouse poison. Not sure why you’d want to do that, but I’m also not sure why it’s a bad idea to have it in your luggage. Could it be the “national security” worldview at work? Also worth noting that in just eight hours, the death toll in Rwanda was equal to the tragic enormity of the losses of 9/11. And this went on for 24 hours a day, for 100 days and almost no one noticed. Because of worldview. Also worth noting that according to Tom Peters, 100,000 Americans check into a hospital every year… and don’t check out. Because of infections or other illnesses caused by the system, not by their condition. There is no outcry, no big budgets. Because of worldview.

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