What Dr Seuss Can Teach us About MarTech and Ethics

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Those of you with small children – or who are at least in close contact with your own inner child – are likely to be well aware of the many hidden and delightful messages to be found within Dr Seuss’ intricately crafted stories. In the current COVID-19 environment, I have found myself spending more time dissecting Dr Seuss’ coded messages whilst reading his classic collection to my two-year-old.

“The Lorax” is considered Dr Seuss’ own personal favourite. It was written in 1971 and is a cautionary tale told, in hindsight, by the culprit of a devastating act of bad business ethics to a boy who seeks him out. In a nutshell, the antagonist, named the Once-ler, stumbles across a land full of beautiful Trufella trees with its own thriving ecosystem. He soon finds out that these trees are perfect for making his Thneeds – a useless garment that nobody would actually be able to wear without some discomfort – which he is able to successfully market as “a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need”.

Ignited by his successful sales tactics, the Once-ler begins enlisting his entire extended family to raid the Trufella forest, leading to the extinction of not only the trees but all the wildlife that relied on their existence. The Lorax (a strange, moustached, dwarf-like creature) appears from time to time, speaking on behalf of the trees and acting as the conscience within the story. Each time he appears, he is ignored by the Once-ler, until one day, when the very last tree is cut down, he leaves, never to return again.

A little bit grim for a two-year-old, I concede. While I try not haunt her too much with a world devoid of beauty destroyed by capitalism, I can sympathise somewhat with the Once-ler. In my day job, I see firsthand how quickly business decisions can be made every day, especially with the technology we now have at our disposal. It doesn’t take much for data-driven decision making to abstract the people in the equation into data points that can fuel your Growth loop. In the present COVID-19 era, we at Avira are seeing many growth opportunities present themselves suddenly, only to evaporate before we have had a chance to react. With data trends changing rapidly and in such a fluid way, Marketers around the world are under pressure to act fast and to be opportunistic, for fear of failing to meet the commercial opportunities of the brands that they serve.

I know that as I write this, many businesses find their backs to the wall due to the strains on our local and global economies. However, I have always thought that in life, as in business, we are judged not just by how we act in the good times, but also how we act when times are tough. And for some businesses right now, times couldn’t be tougher. The point of this article isn’t to get on a high horse, but rather to refer to the story of the Lorax, and offer some practical advice of what we can do.

Here are 5 learnings I got from the book:

1. Listen to the little voice.
If something sounds wrong or makes you feel guilty for no apparent reason, there’s probably something there. Dig into the data a little deeper. Don’t take a quick win at face value. Is there something else behind it? What are the potential consequences of a decision? You can also always ask someone you trust for their opinion. Or if all else fails, run a user survey on usertesting.com. But always double (or triple) check before you act. When thinking about the brands we work so hard to grow and protect, we should always be mindful in avoiding the seduction of sacrificing long term gain for instant gratification.

2. Put people back into the picture
As Marketers, we were all trained once to remember our Target Audience. I have always found that it helps to make it personal. Try putting someone you know into the audience group. E.g. if the target audience is 50+ females, imagine your mum, and how she would react to your next decision. Or, if the audience is 30-year-old professional males, think about your brother or boyfriend, and try to imagine how they would feel about your next action.

3. Don’t waste valuable resources
Every business consumes resource to produce something new to the world. This is the magic of commerce. Even if you are in a service-based industry or develop software for example, the energy required to run your business, the human output produced by your employees and the time consumed in producing your wares are valuable. In a world of finite resources, it is crucial that what you produce is meaningful and worthwhile. As we see in the tale of the Once-ler, once a precious resource is exhausted, it may take a while to replenish. So, make it count. For all our sakes.

4. It’s never too late to correct the course.
Throughout the book, the Once-ler is presented with several opportunities to reverse his bad business decisions. At each point, he would have had the chance to un-do some of the damage he had caused. None of us are perfect. In the digital world we operate in today, it is so easy to unknowingly make a bad call, and for it to take off like wildfire on Social. A case in point is how CEO, Eric Yuan acknowledged the privacy and security issues in his product, Zoom. The number of daily users of his product ballooned to 200 million people overnight at the start of the pandemic. Despite his product not being built for the number of people using it the way that they were now using it, Yuan took it on the chin and said sorry to the world and promised to fix the bugs. Owning a mistake and rectifying it can help you and your brand appear genuine and most importantly, human.

5. Don’t take today for granted
The current Pandemic situation has taken away many liberties we had once taken for granted. Simple things like being able to go to the office and collaborating in person with your colleagues, or heading down to the pub after work seem like a distant memory. Like the Once-ler, we may have been guilty in assuming that things would always be okay tomorrow. And while they may be, but we shouldn’t take what we have for granted.

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