Let’s face it: marketing is one of those fields that thrives on buzz. Not just for our clients and the brands we represent, but also on a kind meta-level: it seems like every day I come across a new technique to use, a new innovation to learn about, a new bandwagon to jump on. Usually, this is a good thing. New technologies create new possibilities and new opportunities. They allow us to do things that our grandparents would never have thought possible.

Increasingly though, marketers are on the other end of the spectrum. The FOMO is real. Blockchain, AI, VR, AR, machine learning, quantum computing: the next big tech is on the verge of breaking into the mainstream and we all want to be among the first ones to jump on it. This creates a hype vortex that attracts even more marketers, making it self-sustaining and ever-growing. But it also has another, more unfortunate, side-effect: the sheepdog paradox.

The sheepdog paradox

It’s not a novel idea that humans are very similar to sheep, in terms of mirroring others. When we step into an elevator, we turn and face the door because that’s what everyone does. But if the other passengers all face away from the door, we follow suit.  If enough people gave a specific answer to a question, we’ll repeat that answer, even if we’re sure it’s wrong. Given the task to wander aimlessly, we’ll even subconsciously follow others, creating a literal flock. By calling this herd behaviour or pack mentality, even psychologists liken us to animals.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is good for a marketer. If people are sheep, then we can act as a sheepdog and herd them towards our goal, i.e. conversion.

But it also doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is bad for a marketer. Because, as marketers, we are not exempt of the sheep brain. We act as sheepdogs, and yet we do as much sheep-thinking as our herd. This little phenomenon is what I call the sheepdog paradox.

The issue

Our sheep-thinking is never more obvious than when a new technology or buzzword picks up steam. It doesn’t take long before we get excited about it and we start thinking about how to apply it in our projects. In other words: we start thinking “I have technology X and brand Y. How can I mash them together?”

And that’s where we go wrong: the goal, then, is to find a link between the two, a way to marry the two together. And it’s an interesting exercise, but a terrible goal. Sometimes the technology and the usage align perfectly and when they do, it’s amazing. But more often than not, the relationship is forced, because we just want to use that new big thing. The technology should always be the tool, never the goal.

Some examples

Let’s make it more concrete. Let’s talk about something we work with quite often: AR.

Like Chinese e-commerce Yihaodian, you can open virtual stores that can be visited through an AR app on real physical locations. But then you lose one of the biggest strengths of e-commerce: the ability to order whenever, wherever. Or, like Ellis Hamburger, you could use Snap Lenses for food so that customers can preview burgers before they order them. Or you could create an AR chess game, like Holochess in the Star Wars: Jedi Challenges game.

These applications are cool, but they fall kinda flat when you start thing about added value. Now, don’t get me wrong: the AR in these cases isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it is a lot of time and money that’s invested into something that (besides looking cool) adds little value to the end-user.

Compare this to INKHUNTER. A tattoo is major decision, one that usually lasts for a lifetime: removing or covering up a tattoo is a pricy, convoluted and painful affair. That’s why it’s so important to get it right. Enter INKHUNTER. This app uses AR to preview your next tattoo on the exact spot you want to put it.

Or imagine painting your entire apartment before deciding that maybe this shade of blue is a just little bit too dark after all. AkzoNobel’s Visualiser makes sure this doesn’t happen by allowing you to virtually paint your walls with AR. Combine it with IKEA’s Place app and you can plan your entire room makeover before buying a single thing.

These apps don’t use AR for the sake of using AR. They use AR because that’s the best way to fulfill an invaluable need.

So what now?

These kinds of trends are interesting to work with. They have potential. So here’s how you should use them, so as not to waste that potential.

Study them. Critically and practically. Try to keep up with recent developments. They’re another tool for your toolbox, not much different from copy or video. Next time you’re trying to figure out the best way to fulfill a particular need, maybe one of these will do the trick.

And if you want to have a little fun, just start thinking about your customer’s needs and how you could help them. It’s a good test for your creative muscles and it will help you think more broadly about the brand. Then comes the important part: reflect critically. Ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Does this really provide an added value for the user?
  2. Is this the best way to provide that value to the user?
  3. Does this provide an added value for the brand?
  4. Is this the best way to provide that value to the brand?

If you have answered “No” to any of these, it’s time to kill your darlings and accept that this kind of tech isn’t the answer. That’s not a bad thing though. It just means that you understand the value of being a sheepdog.

Need some help herding your sheep?

Give us a call. Old dog or new, we’ll teach you some new tricks.