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Alter my reality

June 23, 2009
The best line I’ve heard coming out from a reality programme goes to the guest maître d’ in Episode 3 of the Chopping Block. Hands down.

In fact, it’s probably the best line I’ve heard from any show since:

“If there’s one thing that we should have learned, it’s that, you know, our brains have always outraced our hearts. Our science charges ahead. Our souls lag behind.” (Guess what show that’s from?)

Because nothing makes sense without context, here’s the background of events leading up to the quote that’s the focus of this particular post:

The Chopping Block is a reality series centred on 10 (I think) two-person teams comprising of, a chef and a front-of-the-house person, hoping to win their own restaurant. The teams are split into two larger groups, Red and Black, and are given their own rundown spaces somewhere in New York to run as restaurants for the duration of the competition. Weekly challenges and eliminations ensue as with all reality competition programmes.

In this particular episode, the Black team was serving squab for the night and, as a result of winning an earlier challenge, they had the luxury of an experienced maître d’ at their disposal (in the first two episodes, both teams suffered from disorganised front-of-house efforts that in turn, led to poor customer service and experience).

Anyway, the Black kitchen was serving out their squab medium rare (yes, medium rare pigeons…). So, throughout the night, scenes of rather surprised customers are shown to us. All of them are a little jittery about eating pink poultry.

The feedback is brought back to the kitchen, causing the chef who was in charge of cooking the poultry to remark, “But that’s how the squab should be served. I don’t understand why their complaining. If someone served me a well done squab I’d send it right back.”

Upon hearing the chef’s remarks, the maître d’, with an almost instinctual reaction, responded by simply stating out loud, “But their perception is their reality, though.”

No truer words have ever been spoken.

Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration… but still… If you’re in a line of work which involves some form of customer service (which directly or indirectly means all of us), then repeat after me:

“Their perception is their reality”.

Say this once every day right before you start work.

Now, the beauty of this statement isn’t just the fact that it embodies the age old adage of “the customer is always right”. The beauty of the statement extends to the fact that it is open to interpretation.

And here’s a somewhat opportunistic interpretation of it; that sometimes, perception is easier to change than reality.

Think about what that means for you, or your business or your marketing. No doubt, different people will perceive its meaning differently.

One meaning perhaps, could be reflected in the continuous reinvention of some long standing products and brands in the market. Think of how Coke’s branding and message have changed over the years. Think about how tobacco companies used to make smoking cigarettes a ‘cool thing’ (ie Marlboro Man) even in light of the apparent health risks. Think about how Harley Davidsons used to be a product of a rebellious youth culture, but is now a product of middle aged men reminiscing that bygone era.

The products have largely stayed the same. The perceptions, however, were reinvented, changed or simply shifted, perhaps far enough from reality that it didn’t matter.

Think about how two leather wallets, that are exactly the same in design, material and colour, and made in exactly the same factory. A simple difference of on one wallet and not the other is enough to create a disparity in perception that justifies a few extra zeros to the price tag.

Perception is a powerful thing. Sometimes, it is more powerful than reality itself. In fact, you could argue, that it is perception that precedes any reality.

About a month ago I had the pleasure of listening to a presentation by Rob Norman, Global CEO of GroupM Interaction, at a digital forum (fantastic speaker!). He spoke broadly about how technological advancement has changed many facets of the media landscape today and how it’s affected advertisers, publishers and audiences alike.

In these times of exponential progress, he reminded the audience (mostly agencies) that the one thing that hasn’t changed for marketers is their job to make their brands relevant to their customers. It is all about relevance.

The more relevant your brand is to the society around you, the stronger it is. Relevance creates meaning that’s framed by context. And when you’re relevant and meaningful, you have a better chance of long term success. Even if the product becomes obselete, the brand need not necessarily cease to exist.

There is a difference between creating a great product that people need, versus a great brand that people attach to. And here’s the thing, you can sell a poor product if it’s being carried by a great brand, but you’d find it difficult to sell a great product to consumers who have trouble perceiving any relevance the product has to them.

Most of you, when reading this, will surely think of Apple as a business that’s great at creating great products, having a strong brand and in return, using that brand to drive the introduction of new products into the market. 3M is another great example of an organisation that does this well even with a product portfolio that’s less glamorous.

What’s important, from my perspective, is that regardless of whether you’re marketing something, selling something, or servicing a customer – always remember that the power to create perception is in your hands. Never leave it to your customer or your audience to develop their own perceptions voluntarily (at least not without some control by you). It may not be the perceptions that you want and in some cases, perceptions can be more difficult to change than they are to create.

As long as you believe that this is the case, then you must always ask yourself – when pitching, proposing, selling, reporting, recommending, servicing etc – have you left your audience/customer with the perception that you set out to create.

And if you haven’t figured out exactly what that ‘perception’ is before you embarked upon any of these things, then you’ve probably got it wrong already.


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