Skip to content

Marketing, Numbers, Math and Science

2011 May 4
by Greg Satell

Marketing has changed a lot over the years.  What used to be a field of dreams has become a battlefield in which massive armories of technology and data are brought to bear in a neverending quest for domination.

In other words it has become, supposedly, a serious enterprise.

However, confusion reigns.  One of the main sources of disarray is a misunderstanding of marketing’s relation to numbers, math and science.  Marketing, of course, is none of these, but a business function, and to be practiced seriously, it needs to be treated as one.

Marketing as Numbers

Good hard-nosed business people are fond of saying, “show me the numbers!”  It’s a badge of honor among those who want to appear practical and well grounded.  However, those kinds of heuristic  proclamations beg the question:  Which numbers?

We have no shortage of metrics, such as awareness, sales and advocacy, but each have their drawbacks.  The relationship between awareness and sales is notoriously murky.  Sales can be goosed up through discounting and flooding the channel.  Advocacy, of course, tells you nothing about profitability.

Another problem is that numbers are essentially backward looking.  Projections are based on historical data, which are used to make standardized assumptions and then extrapolated using standard methods.  The future, of course, might be very different from the past and we don’t have future numbers.  It hasn’t happened yet!

Simply looking at numbers tells you very little.  Reasonable people can look at the same numbers and draw vastly different conclusions.

Marketing as Math

Often confused, there’s a fundamental difference between numbers and math.  Numbers are strictly for counting things, math involves creative thought.  We use math to create models and numbers to calculate them.

Math, in other words, requires imagination.  The great mathematician G. H. Hardy once wrote that “a mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns.”  Moreover, like artists, mathematicians seek beauty and elegance in the patterns they make, which means they seek to describe lots of variables with minimal statements.

Obviously, math can be very useful to marketing (explaining a lot while saying a little would be much welcome in an industry notorious for blowhards).

We can organize data in some very clever ways, using techniques like regression analysis and multivariate econometrics.  There are lots of very smart people who are able to construct models that can predict results within a few percentage points (for a couple months, anyway).

However, it’s helpful to explain that all of these sophisticated models are, like the late, great Mr. Hardy said,  “merely patterns, no different than those of Wordsworth or Van Gogh.”  In other words, they are true to a certain perspective, not truth in themselves.

Marketing as Science

Science is, of course, an improvement on math because it incorporates empirical data.  As the renowned physicist Richard Feynman said, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

Science is uncertain, as this Guardian article points out.  It seeks to answer questions and makes some progress in the form of working models.  Then, as Thomas Kuhn described, anomalies start to build up and it becomes clear that the model is incomplete.  A revolution takes place, a new paradigm forms and we start over.

As I wrote in a previous post, marketing could benefit from more scientific thinking.  Not because it would give us more certainty, but because it would give us less.  Anyone who purported to have all the answers would be instantly branded as a charlatan.

However, we don’t do controlled experiments in marketing, nor do we seek universal laws.  We take the data as we find it, glean what we can and hope for the best.  It is not science and anybody who says so is either a fool or a liar.

Marketing as a Business Function

Once you get beyond all the silly talk, it becomes clear that marketing is a business function, nothing more or less.  It is practiced with incomplete knowledge, under strict time constraints and in the context of fierce competition.  It is not partaken out of intellectual curiosity, but practiced for profit.

It is not truth we seek, but competitive advantage.  Marketing requires numbers, can be tamed through mathematical reasoning, informed by scientific inquiry and made wiser though the humility and uncertainty that accompanies good science.  However, it is a commercial activity and not a line of inquiry.

Therefore, it requires a different kind of elegance and vigor.  Not the sort that comes from the search for eternal truths, but from the guts it takes to act in the face of uncertain information in rapidly changing contexts.  Most of all, it is a form of competition and the primary goal is to win.

To paraphrase an old Russian proverb, our aim is not to outrun the bear, but the guy next to us; and we race every day.

– Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. May 13, 2011

    Hi Greg-
    I was reading through your blog and thought you might be interested in a new study BzzAgent just came out with. We worked with the University of Rhode Island to conduct a study of brand advocates to help marketers understand the actions, behaviors and motivations of these valuable consumers.

    Some of the findings include: Advocates are 83% more likely to share information about a product and 50% more likely to influence a purchase. Advocates do this because they enjoy solving problems and helping others make better purchase decisions. They are 75% more likely to share a great product experience and three times more likely to share product opinions with someone they don’t know. There are many more stats like these in the ebook.

    To summarize the story, we created this infographic. The full ebook can also be downloaded on our site.

    I’m happy to answer any questions you may have on the study.


  2. May 13, 2011

    Thanks for the tip. I’ll check it out.

    – Greg

  3. March 6, 2013

    Hi Greg,

    What a great post. Can I buy the line “beyond the silly talk” from you? Never a truer word written.

    Nice work,


  4. March 6, 2013

    Feel free!

    – Greg

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS