8 out of 10 cats don’t get numbers

Gary - 19 th August 2015

Ok, I admit it, I love statistics. Call me a geek if you like but I do enjoy pouring over stats, assessing trends and identifying correlations. Stats were part of my degree and I can’t help but revel in the fact that it is the one part of maths I can help my daughters with as they toil with their A levels (although I am not sure that they actually want the interference).

I also enjoy the fact that stats give you answers and can help shape what you do in real life. Probabilities provide obvious guides on whether you are going to win the lottery, be blown up by a terrorist bomb or survive an operation. Correlations tell you whether what you are doing is having the desired effect. The numbers are there, you can work it out and make informed, rational decisions.

But, of course, people don’t do that. Imagery, psychology and emotions get in the way and the use of numbers as communications tools can be much more limited and problematic than we would like to think.

The probability of disaster striking is perhaps something that even the most coldly logical amongst us find it hard to remain rational about. This has recently become highlighted by events at Alton Towers, a client very special to us for the last 25 years. The recent accident brought people’s understanding of statistics into sharp focus in that even though they freely accept that the chances of an accident re-occurring are infinitesimal and far less than the actual drive to get there, the perception, driven by imagery, is that they are greater.

The impact of imagery of course has never been lost on terrorists who operate on the fact that the general public do not understand probability. The chances of any of us getting blown up are tiny but we don’t think that way and terrorists play on the impact that widely distributed, graphic imagery has on us whether we are statistical geeks or not.

Using numbers is always a temptation for marketers. They can be used to support an argument, differentiate from a competitor or prove a brand’s popularity but in my experience we should all tread carefully when featuring them. I have often conducted research on promotional propositions and sat aghast as people select an offer that is much weaker simply because they don’t understand the difference between fractions and percentages. There are many other examples; people don’t understand their chances of winning the lottery, mortgage rates and, according to our research the seemingly simplistic ‘five a day’ fruit and vegetable guideline. 

Of course we all use them internally as well. We share stats on satisfaction, Net Promoter Scores, Trip Advisor ratings and endless numbers on business performance that we hope will convey consistent meaningful messages to our teams. I think we need to accept that the message the numbers convey may not be the ones we want and simplicity, presentational skill and the accompanying messages are the key to success rather than the numbers themselves.

So, I will continue to pour over stats and, dare I say, get a kick out what they tell me but I have to accept that numbers don’t make the world go around and that imagery, emotions and psychology are far more accountable. Numbers don’t really count as much as I thought, I’m 110% sure. 

Gary is the chairman and one of the original founders of Brand Vista. With over 20 years of brand experience both on the client and agency side he loves finding out what customers and consumers are really thinking and turning this knowledge into compelling brand propositions that succeed in the real world.
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