Learning from Trump’s win

Lessons that marketers can take home after the unanticipated election result

So Trump won. Many are still in shock and disbelief. How could this have happened? How could the media and so many pundits have been so wrong? What about all those polls? 

Interestingly, our numerous “crystal balls” from which we attempt to predict the future don’t always work. Modern statistical sampling and analysis have their limitations.

The toughest part is selecting what’s called a representative sample. This is the most critical part of the whole operation. Get this wrong and it doesn’t really matter what you do after that. The errors are already built in.

It’s too expensive to try to talk to everyone, so the pollsters try to get a small sample group, a scaled-down representation of the entire population. For an election, it has to include Democrats, Republicans, independents and everybody else in the right proportions.

Even if you get this right, there are all kinds of other variables that can skew your answers. For instance, are the questions constructed in such a way as to encourage one answer over another? Breaking news in the middle of the survey could affect the answers collected after the news breaks, but no one goes back to see if earlier respondents might have changed their minds.

Building a truly representative sample is also the most difficult part. We all have biases whether we realize it or not. Are the researchers trying to get a sample that will give them the real answers or just the ones they want to hear? We may be aware of our conscious biases, but our subconscious biases are far less obvious to us. We may think we’re trying to get the real answers but might be inadvertently skewing the results.

There are sampling techniques designed to minimize this, but they’re not foolproof and may not even be used.

What organization is performing the survey? Who’s paying for it? The liberals want liberal answers and the conservatives want conservative answers. The list of factors can go on and on. It’s a complicated business. It’s amusing to see conflicting poll numbers released by different organizations on the same day. Who’s right?

On top of all this, there’s a great unknown. Many people won’t speak to pollsters or answer questions. Whether they distrust the process and don’t want to encourage it or they just don’t like phone solicitation of any kind is immaterial. What is material is how do we find out how they think and factor it in? The simple answer is we can’t.

These are not just problems for political surveys, a fair number of marketing and business surveys come back with the wrong answers. Remember when Coca-Cola tried to come out with New Coke some years ago?

Coca-Cola is often considered to be the most marketing savvy company in the world. When they decided to change the product they had successfully marketed for decades, they researched it thoroughly. They had focus groups, surveys and the like. No expense was spared because the right answers were all important.

Well, they released the new product and stopped producing the one so many had grown to know and love; sales fell precipitously. It was so bad it made the front pages and became the leading feature on many news programs. How could this highly professional, many would call state-of-the-art, marketing research have been so wrong?

This happens quite often, but most companies try to keep their mistakes secret, so we seldom hear about them.

Even so, many of the products that don’t make it are the result of such errors. No one wants to design and build a product that customers don’t want. The Ford Edsel is a legendary example. It was ahead of its time, but too few customers wanted one.

It seems the Apple Watch and other such watches are not selling as their producers hoped. Could they be misreading the market, either in what people want or how many people want it?

My father used to say, “Nothing is as uncertain as a sure thing.” We need the crystal balls, but we need contingency plans just in case.

Happy holidays! 

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or RonBourque3@gmail.com.