We’re Marketers, Not Soldiers: How Combative Competition Is Killing Creativity

Douglas Van Praet argues marketers should focus less on conquest and more on unleashing the imagination of creators and customers.

We’re Marketers, Not Soldiers: How Combative Competition Is Killing Creativity

Why do marketers revel in military jargon? Must we really rally troops to deploy conquest ads or fire quick hits of bleeding-edge apps? Is it not ironic that we call customers “targets” and seek to engineer their empathy in “war rooms?”


The hostilities are endless. And it’s not enough to win. Someone must lose. Beating the competitor takes precedence over helping the customer.

These metaphors shouldn’t surprise us. Since the dawn of cultural evolution and the age of hunter-gatherers, group against group armed conflict has shaped human evolution. Some estimates indicate that the proportion of the population that died in the wars of typical tribal societies were twenty times greater than the wars of the twentieth century.

For 84,000 generations since the inception of the genus Homo we have lived as “aim and throw” hunters and warriors compared to only two generations as “point and click” shoppers and sharers. Unlike today’s free markets, hunter-gatherer economics were zero-sum. The supply of goods was fixed by nature. One tribe’s gain in food or territory was another’s loss.

The problem is evolution is very slow. Our brains remain designed for conflict, scarcity, immediate gain, and a win-loss mentality because we lived in these harsh environments for millions of years. Among our deepest of drives is fight or flight: to seek domination and safety.

Today these bellicose impulses are sublimated by fighting for market share and quarterly sales goals. The goal is to win the battle and live to fight another day, not to plan and build a brighter future. So we conduct huge segmentation studies trying to carve out brand territory and vigilantly monitor competitors in costly tracking studies. And we seek safety in numbers and data-driven solutions–the new weapons of digital economics. The data serves less to inspire new ideas and more to protect us and cover our backside.


These efforts kill time and short-change creative development, resulting in even more pressure. So we live and die by daily fire drills, bathing our brains in hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and testosterone, chemicals whose effects include preparing us for physical threats, impairing judgment, and finding pleasure in punishing others.

The poet Robert Frost once said, “The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.”

Today’s offices are fraught with panic and overload, mental states that shut down the prefrontal cortex, our most evolved brain region and seat of conscious imaginative thinking. This phenomenon called perceptual narrowing occurs because the prefrontal cortex is metabolically expensive. It’s easily taxed because it requires costly amounts of energy but has very limited capacity. As a result, we rehash old ideas without evolving forward.

Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Cognitive scientist Mark Turner explains why: “Narrative imagining is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining.”

I have invented a 7-step process unearthing evolutionary light on how to inspire change.


These are the seven steps:
1) Interrupt the Pattern
2) Create Comfort
3) Lead the Imagination
4) Shift the Feeling
5) Satisfy the Critical Mind
6) Change the Associations
7) Take Action

Step 3 is: Lead the Imagination. The most powerful tool lies not in the hands of competitors but rather within the minds of people.

That’s because our imaginative abilities evolved not only to invent solutions to life’s challenges but also to make better decisions by envisioning possible outcomes, which explains why stories are so critical to marketers. When you inspire someone to look inward, it becomes their vision, not yours–and the difference between intrinsic motivation and external manipulation. It’s why the book is often better than the movie.

It was a shared vision of unity and non-violence that changed the course of an entire nation when Martin Luther King, Jr. famously declared: “I have a dream.” It was the challenge to find our own meaning and reason to improve our lives that compelled us to buy their shoes when Nike artfully and vaguely suggested, “Just do it.”

And in 1956 when Shirley Polykoff, the lone woman writer at ad giant Foote, Cone and Belding, penned the titillating ad slogan for Clairol hair coloring, “Does she . . . or doesn’t she?” she forever shifted the fashion sensibilities of American women.


Armed with nothing more than her feminine intuitions, she was tasked to grow a nascent category. There was no share to steal or segmentation studies, just an informal survey that Polykoff herself suggested. Life magazine executives feared running the ad, concerned over what could be perceived as its smutty connotations. She challenged them, suggesting they ask the women around their office to see if they found any offense in the statement.

She knew what most advertisers failed to see, and still fail to consider: the inner workings of the human mind. She knew that no decent lady in the conservative 1950s would ever admit to the off-color overtones of the risqué line. She was right. The women polled reported no such offense, keeping the unstated implications to the confines of their own imaginations. So they decided to run the ad and, according to Polykoff, “Everybody got rich.”

Almost overnight the slogan became a national catch phrase. The incidence of hair coloring skyrocketed from 7 percent to about half of all American women within a decade. And sales of Clairol soared, going from $25 million to $200 million. Today the brand’s market dominance endures with sales in excess of $1 billion.

We need to shift from a competitive stance to a creative mindset. We need to live in the conscious presence of the prefrontal cortex–the part of the mind that doesn’t fear that the other guy will steal our slice of the market share pie, but imagines ways to bake a bigger pie. By quieting the selfish aggressive instincts of the body, you’ll begin to evolve and engage the mind, which is “no body” and “beyond self.” You will create bigger and better outcomes.

So if you really want to beat your competitors, focus on your customers with wonder and curiosity; and as people, not targets. Lead their imagination. And stop trying to hurt everyone.


Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also Executive Vice President at agency Deutsch L.A., where his responsibilities include Group Planning Director for the Volkswagen account. Van Praet’s approach to advertising and marketing draws from unconscious behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral economics to business problems. Read his two previous pieces:
Research–You’re Doing It Wrong: How Uncovering The Unconscious Is Key To Creativity;
I’m Not Your Consumer: How Research Misses The Human Behind The Demographic

[Image: Flickr user Cecilia Espinoza, Woman via Shutterstock, Flickr user Drakegoodman, and Flickr user Fiddle Oak]