More reactive than flourine. Funnier than boron.
On the China Syndrome, Hasty Generalizations and Statistical Hope
Categories: marketing

The China SyndromeI wrote the following post after a particularly frustrating conversation with a fellow co-worker who had recently moved into the marketing department from an HR/training role. She was pretty certain that she knew more about marketing than anyone in the marketing department and wasn’t shy about telling us. When asked to provide some justification for her wisdom she made some mention of metrics that smelled a little fishy. It got me thinking about how often the topic of metrics comes up when I speak with other marketing people, especially the hardened ones who have been through it all.

There are a lot of people in “marketing.” There are also a lot of those people who have never once been held accountable for the failure of their ideas because they are “creatives” of some kind. That usually means they are designers or copywriters by training who have ascended to some leadership or management role. They have kitschy stuff in their offices, framed samples of their “graphic artwork” and a lexicon of “brand” words that sound vaguely important and/or meaningful. Lucky for them, they have usually been far upstream from the actual effort of getting a project off the ground on time and on budget. You know: work. Work requires adherence to certain fundamental rules, like “Don’t spend more than your budget” or “Don’t miss a deadline.” Of course, those rules are more difficult to follow when the people far upstream from the delivery, i.e. creatives, have wasted time and/or money at the beginning of a project. That puts the project managers in the bind of making things work by any means necessary.

The punchline is that project managers must show much more creativity in getting a job done than any creative person did in designing a piece that adheres rigidly to a brand architecture they probably didn’t design in the first place. (“Let’s put the corporate logo IN REVERSE TYPE! Wow!”) Sadly, such creative folk ascend to leadership roles specifically because they never have the stink of failure on them. This isn’t because they and their ideas have never failed, it’s because they are removed from the actual results of their ideas. That lot falls to the operations person trying to figure out how to get the logo made completely out of chocolate and mailed First Class…in August. When promotions are decided, management has a choice between the person who “thought outside the box” and designed the chocolate logo campaign or the operations person who failed to execute. Guess who wins.

Eventually, once those creative types do become senior management, some pesky person from Finance will ask them how they measure the success or failure of a project. That’s where they show their true creativity: They come up with something like the China Syndrome, i.e. they make it up.

I should note that I’m borrowing the phrase “China Syndrome” in this particular usage from a co-worker who told me that was the name for this particular phenomenon at IBM. It was a good name, so I’m lifting it from him. (Thanks, Aaron. There will be no remuneration.) I should also mention this has nothing to do with that terrible movie with Michael Douglas from the late ‘70’s that was instrumental in ending clean, safe nuclear power in the US. But that’s another post.

The China Syndrome is when some bright light in a marketing or sales organization looks at the total universe of potential customers and says “All we have to do is get 1% of that universe and we’ll (fill in the blank),” where the blank can be “make lots of money” or “see huge returns” or “get promoted.” It doesn’t matter what the goal is, what matters is that the universe is very large and the percentage needed is very small. That makes the goal seem so very easy to achieve. For instance, if you can capture just 1% of everyone in China, you’d have 1% of a billion people. That’s 10 million customers! (Thus, the name.) I believe that it in logic this is called a hasty generalization. (I’m no logician, so someone correct me if that is incorrect.)

This is what oftentimes passes for “metrics” or “marketing analysis.” It’s even explained away sometimes as a “back of the envelope” calculation. (I’ve never actually seen that envelope.) Unfortunately, that type of rough calculation is enough to keep a project running long enough for people to become invested in it. At that point, hopes of killing the project, even if it’s a really bad idea, become slim. It can be done, but it takes a strong person to stand tall as the snowball comes rolling inexorably downhill.

I have learned the hard way that I should be suspicious anytime someone uses a phrase like “only” in relation to a number I must achieve. I have also learned that whenever someone does a “back of the envelope” calculation, the math never shows the project is a big waste of time and money. Funny how that works.

Leave a Reply