I started my career at a well-known and well-loved British fashion and foods High Street retailer.  The world has moved on and they are now not only on the High Street but out-of-town, online and around the world.

What is interesting is that, at the time, they did not survey customers.  They said they knew their customers.  They thought.  Also at the time, they did not accept credit cards.  They didn’t because they ‘knew’ their customers didn’t want to use them and that the cards would lead to an increase in their prices to cover fees.  This was their ‘knowledge’.  Their ‘truth’.  As it turns out, it was completely wrong and completely out of step with the rest of the UK.  And the world for that matter.  Consumers actually wanted the convenience, protection and loyalty points that credit cards offered.  This is a classic case of ‘tribal knowledge’.

Tribal knowledge is an insidious form of knowledge because it is typically wrong and, therefore, misleading and dangerous to organisations (to be fair, it’s not even knowledge).  It normally starts when somebody in a meeting says something very clever and very plausible.  Something that causes others to nod their heads silently and gently in respect at what has just been said.  They are so impressed that they too say the same thing (in different meetings) so that they can have the same impact on their peers and be thought clever.  So, it spreads like an, ahem, virus. 

The tribe isn’t dangerous – it’s the knowledge

But it is never checked.  Which is why it is dangerous.  Like the walls of a castle the useful truth lies outside and is ignored.  The castles, like large organisations, are able to happily go about their business for a considerable amount of time.  But not forever.  There comes a time when consumers start going elsewhere.  To the competition who have listened and adapted to be relevant and better meeting needs.  Leaving that tribe isolated and about as out of touch as can be.

To be fair, it’s not easy challenging tribal knowledge.  As a graduate eager to impress, would I have told the older, more experienced sages that what they thought was all wrong?  I doubt it.  I wasn’t that brave then. 

The solution

So, the solution?  The world has moved on and most companies (not all) have an insight team bringing in reliable knowledge.  But it’s not enough.  Tribal knowledge can still exist in these companies.  Knowledge that is too high level or superficial, for example share or brand trackers, can miss warning signs before it’s too late. Similarly, some can be guilty of focusing their insight spend on ‘testing’ ideas. Yes, those ideas may test well but they all too often come from the same tribal thinking.

Our most enlightened clients run a regular programme of consumer connections – their (typically but not always) marketing and insight teams meet with consumers on a regular quarterly or even monthly basis to stay in touch and check that what they believe is actually reflected back by the most important people – their consumers.  It keeps them straight, takes them out of their tribe for a few hours and minimises the negative aspects of tribal knowledge.

It doesn’t cost much, doesn’t take too much of your time and is embraced by up to the highest levels of senior management as one the activity we all should do more of.

Get out and Mingle – be better connected.

Castle image courtesy of Cederic Vandenberghe on Unsplash.

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