Marketers: rounded or sharpened?

Numbers When Eric was 5, he taught himself the periodic table.  He already knew the alphabet.  Then he started to wonder whether the alphabet and the periodic table might somehow spring from the same thing. 

I heard about Eric at the Association for Consumer Research meetings over the weekend in San Antonio.  His Dad and I went to dinner, thanks to John Deighton’s introduction.  His Dad has looked at the difference between round and sharp numbers in the area of pricing. 

Round prices ($10.00) are the work of, um, rounding.  We don’t suppose that a new product comes out at $10.00.  Someone rounded to make things simpler.  Consumers read and react to round prices in a variety of ways, some predictable, some not. 

Sharp prices ($18.37) are "real(er)" numbers.  We suppose they represent a more faithful reckoning of the accidents of production or profit calculation. 

Forget pricing, all marketing used to round.  Products, brands, communications, were all simplified to make things easier.  This was an important part of marketing’s "value add."  This meant that entire decades were rounded.  I give you the 1950s.  This meant that there could be only one, unique selling proposition.  This meant keeping it simple (stupid) and repeating ourselves endlessly.

Now we’re all, as consumers, a little more like Eric.  We have better pattern detection skills and we find brands and communications that are rounded a little tedious.  We want commercial creations that resist interpretation…at least at first.  When it comes to new products, innovations, and ads, we want manageable difficulty.  We want to find the patterns, not have them imposed upon us.

The early Disneyland was a rounded experience.  Other cultures were survived up in a simplified, easy-to-think, format.  Now we prefer to go some place that is still sharp, unmediated by the tourist industry, not served up for touristic consumption.  Which is to say, we want pattern detection, some of it, to be left to us.  We want a little noise in the system, a little grist for the mill.

Rounded marketing versus sharpened marketing, this is the difference between

Sony versus Apple
McDonald’s versus Burger King
Microsoft versus Google
Kroger versus Whole Foods,
Whole Foods versus Central Market, 
Wal-Mart versus Target,
Chrysler versus General Motors,
Wayne Newton versus Circe du Soleil
a one-hour TV program versus an hour of "surfed TV"

Naturally, we consumers are never going to be entirely like Eric.  (When I was 5, my parents were getting my hearing checked in the hopes that this might the reason I was so out of it.)  We are never going to be so fiercely pattern seeking that we can manage utter and constant noise.  But clearly we’ve got better, and, just as clearly, this means that rounded marketing is dead. 

And this means that we must all be, as marketers, a little more like Eric.  We need to be looking for pattern matchs in new places.  We must be a little more ambitious in the problem solving.  We must be prepared to reinvent the terms of reference.  We can do this like the English, one problem at a time.  Or, we can do like the French, with grand new declarations of the new face of marketing.  (I must tell you that I heard distressing little of either approach at the ACR San Antonio meetings.  We seemed to be acting as if the world of marketing were pretty much business as usual.  But academics, they are typically the last to know.)

3 thoughts on “Marketers: rounded or sharpened?

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  2. Sean Moffitt


    I definitely like how your brain works – I would certainly not give up your fight for a bit of flair in marketing- “your marketing in the doldrums” and “rounded vs. sharpened” certainly could be anthems for a new generation of marketers.

    As a former senior marketing client and now word of mouth specialist practitioner in Canada, I agree marketing has been cloaked in “greyness” for about a decade but I really believe it’s getting better. Once the beancounters start to realize that things like building evangelist communities, being first to market on innovation and marketing to very precise and narrow tragets has value in itself, we’ll embrace that cowboy (cowperson) mentality to risk again –my only hope is that role will still fall to marketers , if we don’t start building great leading thinkers here, we may become the “horse & buggy drivers” of the 21st century.

    Thanks for the kernals of wisdom…cheers, The Buzz Canuck.

  3. René Crone

    Thanks for a great article. I salute this thinking. However tuff it is to get companies to understand it…and dare use it as wisdom for how to evolve their marketing…..

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