What’s On

What marketers can learn from the lemming

ABN AMRO hired a biologist a couple of crises ago. A nice enough guy in his early thirties who had one sole responsibility: to ask the question why. They were particularly scared to death of him in the marketing department.

Not a single statement, argument or decision could slip by without the biologist asking the dreaded question: Why? The ensuing answer was always something along the lines of ‘that’s just how it works at The bank’ or ‘that’s the way we’ve been doing it for a hundred years’. But our biologist wouldn’t be put off that easily. So he’d immediately fire another question: ‘Why does it work that way at The bank?’ The answer he’d get to this question never satisfied him, so he’d ask another why question and another and so on. The biologist was a thorn in the side of apathetic bankers. His colleagues thought he was an overpaid pushpin, but he was probably worth his weight in gold.

During a marketing training weekend, the same biologist surprised everybody with a story about the lemming – an ugly, mouse-like rodent. He told how scientists had always been mystified by the mass lemming migration. The entire population of these creatures march in a line across huge distances, regardless of the obstacles and barriers. Rivers, steep cliffs – it doesn’t matter – these animals will go through hell and high water. Hundreds of thousands lose their lives. But the biologist told them scientists had only just discovered that lemmings aren’t as crazy as they seem. You see, species usually move in a circular manner. So when the grass is finished in one place, they move to the next patch and consequently expand their territory in circular movements making it bigger and bigger.

The point is that if you were to roll out this circle, it would cover a much greater distance than the straight line of the lemmings. A bit of quick statistical math reveals that the lemming population has a spectacularly better chance of survival. After all, there is a considerable risk that a population that moves via the long circular motion will run out of fertile fields and die. So while the lemming population might be thinned, with maybe three-quarters of it drowning, these fatalities literally form a bridge for a small group of strong survivors – even if it’s just a male and a female – who can get back to munching away and reproducing in a brand new green world.

The story left us slightly emotional and it was now our turn to ask the biologist a why question. Why did he tell us this story? He saw it as a metaphor for the marketing world in which everything always moves ‘circularly’. One step left, one step right. If we make tomato soup, we let ourselves go and concoct a Chinese version while we’re at it. And besides regular spaghetti, we’ve now got wholegrain spaghetti too. We get all exotic by adding aloe vera to shampoo. We innovate in mouse steps.

So the moral of the biologist’s story is don’t keep muddling along. Don’t stack SKUs, but seek out new deltas. Hire a biologist that will pry open the rusted processes and arguments using a can of WD40. A guy who will massage the marketers’ tensed-up shoulders and let them get back to daring to make a real difference. En route to greenfields with fresh potential. Growing towards the light and moving like a stripe towards the Effie Awards podium. The lemming, it’s ugly but it gets you there!

Dick van der Lecq

Dick van der Lecq is the Managing Director at DDB Unlimited. He was previously the Managing Partner at Etcetera.