Alex Steer

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Planning under uncertainty

807 words | ~4 min

Occasionally I end up accidentally reading a lot of books on the same thing, one after the other. A couple of years ago, everything I read seemed to wind its way round to the conduct of the war in Iraq. This year, everything, no matter how superficially diverse, seems to have boiled down to (a) the causes of the credit crunch, (b) behavioural economics, or (c) both.

Without wanting to go on about my boring choice of reading matter, I should mention John Cassidy's How Markets Fail, which I knew would include a bit about the credit crunch, and turned out to include a lot on behavioural economics; and Dan Gardner's Future Babble, which is a readable extended taunt of the worse excesses of futures work when it pretends to predict, and which also turned out to have a long bit about behavioural economics in it. And a little bit about the credit crunch. Thanks, Dan.

So it seems only right, or at least opportunistic, to pinch and adapt the title of this post from the founding fathers of behavioural economics, Kahnemann and Tversky, and their book Judgment under uncertainty, and use it as a way of introducing the notion of uncertainty, to ask about its value for brand and communications planning.

I seem to be talking to people about uncertainty a lot at the moment. That's not all that surprising in one sense, as I do a lot of futures work. This might sound a bit like a mix of economic forecasting and shamanism (especially if you've just read Future Babble), but really it's about helping organizations work out the most important of the things they don't know about the future, and plan for different possible outcomes, or just be better able to roll with the punches the future might throw them because they're prepared to be surprised. In that sense, I talk about uncertainties a lot. (Sorry, everyone who knows me.)

But here I mean uncertainty - the quality of not knowing; or, specifically, of being happy admitting you don't know. 'I've no idea' is not a phrase that trips off the tongue of many marketers. It's not exactly the fast track to promotion, is it? What does our target market want? Couldn't tell you. Does this campaign offer a credible reason to believe? Hard to say. Is our social media work driving engagement? I'm not even sure what you're talking about.

Perhaps for that reason, perhaps not, it's not a way of thinking that you'd associate with many brands or organizations, either. You might think you hear it in insurance advertising - 'None of us knows what tomorrow will bring...', etc. - but there's always a 'but', and it normally involves easy monthly payments. There's still, I think, an expectation that brands encode aspirations, that they rely on a conception of a better state, material or mental or spiritual or otherwise ephemeral; that we are always, somehow, 'laddering up'. (Or maybe I've been watching too much Mad Men.) Uncertainty doesn't sit well with all that.

And that's a shame, because uncertainty can be as liberating as it can be unsettling and harmful. I wrote here recently about what I think is an emerging sense of post-optimism in the US (confirmed by some dismal polling data on the state of the economy today), a pursuit of happiness that isn't pegged to the economy, and a sense of the future that is more a shrugging off than a shouldering of burdens. Nobody likes a boaster and nobody likes a charlatan, so saying when you're not sure can lend you a humanity and a humility than no amount of folksy blue-collar voiceover work or engagement strategizing can provide. That's the kind of uncertainty I seem to have been talking about recently - the kind that makes you feel like a gaggle of human beings rather than a corporate entity trying to ace the Turing Test.

So why not be like the rest ofus? Why not talk about different paths and possible outcomes? Why not help people plan for a future in which people have to throw out the plan? Why not talk about failure? In a world where superinjunctions are busted open on Twitter and crisis PR is hard to keep quiet, why not have a brand for which surprise is not an terrifying aberration? Learning to swim has got to be better than just getting hit by the waves.

Now, onto the causes of the credit crunch...

# Alex Steer (09/06/2011)