Build Your Own Bauhaus

Almost all marketing is visual marketing. And much of today’s visual and product design has its origins in the Bauhaus movement. From glass-clad buildings, folding chairs, and modern kitchens to typography, signage, and even your iPhone, all have direct lines back to Bauhaus principles.

On the centenary of the Bauhaus, Getty Research has launched a fun online experience where you can learn more about Bauhaus history, people, and ideas.

B2B Content Marketing: It Works.

Content marketing is effective—particularly the digital kind.

In the first study of B2B content marketing effectiveness, Dr. Bobby Calder and his team at Kellogg School of Management validate the approach and have some surprising results for firms spending money on events, webinars, and other “in-person” content marketing.

Content marketing, says Calder, is any communication that creates value beyond the product or service. That’s a satisfyingly useful definition of a very broad concept that includes John Deere’s The Furrow, REI’s Expert Advice, in-flight magazines, even the Old Spice Guy. If your audience values it for itself, it’s content marketing.

Great content marketing creates an experience that resonates with the audience’s values and aims in life, in a professional context—possibly “more important to them than a business transaction.”

“With content marketing, you’re not so much trying to communicate value as to create value beyond the product.”

Bobby Calder, Professor Emeritus of Marketing, Kellogg School of Management

There is plenty of evidence that B2C content marketing works. But no one had validated the effectiveness of B2B content marketing—the kind that IBM and GE have undertaken. And no one had studied the effectiveness of different content marketing activities.

Calder’s team did both. In fact, they found that digital content marketing result in more leads and completed sales than in-person content marketing.

The in-person events barely registered at all—surprising even Calder. Although no single study is ever definitive, marketers may want to rethink their content marketing mix.

Marketing’s Stock Is Rising (Almost) Everywhere

CMOs are becoming more and more accepted as peers within the C-suite as “drivers of growth.” But according to this new McKinsey study, some industries are behind the curve, including financial services.

It’s interesting—and telling—to compare the soundbites from financial services marketers to those in other industries interviewed by McKinsey.

“They [the rest of the C-suite] never see marketing as a serious topic. They really need to work on trusting us.” — Insurance company CMO

“Marketing isn’t brought to the table as frequently with the C-suite as other parts of organization.” — Financial services CMO

“I speak the language of finance. It gives the CFO comfort that you know what you’re talking about and how you’re thinking about the payback/ROI.” — Online staffing platform CMO

“The beauty of our relationship [CIO/CMO] is that we have both signed up to take accountability for the digital transformation of marketing.” — Enterprise software CMO

For whatever reason, many financial services marketers still haven’t realized that customer ownership, collaboration, and accountability are essential to a high-functioning marketing department.

“Unifier” CMOs Beat “Friends,” “Loners”

Marketing is on the cusp of greatness, says McKinsey in a new study. The availability of data now allows marketers to measure the results of their activities and to understand more about customers than ever before.

And that has caught the eye of the C-suite, which is beginning to see just how critical marketing is to the organization. A full 83% of CEOs believe marketing can be a major driver of growth. But there’s still a large gap between that expectation and today’s reality. Only 50% of CEOs say marketing currently delivers on growth.

To understand how the best CMOs are closing that gap, McKinsey studied C-level attitudes globally and identified three CMO profiles: Unifiers, Loners, and Friends.

Unlike Loners and Friends, Unifiers are strong builders of rapport across the firm, engaging in a set of approaches that make them more effective leaders of their agendas and more successful in driving growth. A Unifer is:

• A skilled collaborator

• Clear and compelling about marketing’s role

• Able to inhabit the mindset of other C-level executives and speak their language

• Accountable to the team, and expects accountability in return

In turn, Unifiers are more likely to be accepted by the C-suite, enjoy longer tenures, and are more protected (budget, headcount) in downturns. For those willing and able to assume the Unifier role, “there has never been a better time to be a CMO.”

Experts to Follow: Armin Vit on Logos

We’re big fans of Armin Vit’s logo reviews at Brand New, one of the best blogs on visual branding. Read his critiques (and the spirited the comments) and you’ll get an informal but very practical education on branding and logo design.

Start on familiar ground—the recent Bank of America and iShares brand refreshes. Armin’s critiques and the comment chain reveal what matters in logo design, at least to practitioners:

Category correctness. Is the logo industry-appropriate? Or is it a financial brand that looks like a pharmaceutical company or a spa? To laypeople, logo designers can seem overly sensitive to category correctness. But visuals hugely impact people’s brand perceptions. So designer discomfort is well placed. Pay heed.

Personality. At least category-incorrect logos have personalities. Far too many logos are generic—a bigger sin, for Armin. Stand for something.

Application. How well does the logo adapt to all the various uses logos are put—digital, print, mobile, signage, merchandise—and to different sizes and visual contexts? This is a big one for designers, who often have to live with the results of poorly-thought-out logo designs.

Concept. As with most trained artists, designers really care about the concept behind their work, including logos. For example, Bank of America’s flag icon, as an interpretation of the U.S. flag. For good designers, concept drives everything. No concept, no drive.

Brand equity. You may think of designers as out-there creative types, but the good ones are very conservative when it comes to messing with longstanding visual design. They know what all marketers should know (and what many de facto managers of brands often don’t): brand equity is precious, takes a long time to build, and can be destroyed very quickly. When logo designers talk about brand equity, listen.

You can filter the reviews by industry, including “finance.”

Armin reviews logos of brands around the globe, created by some of the world’s biggest and best branding and design firms (not always the same). They’re excellent mini case studies of the most important branding work happening today.

A better recipe for thought leadership

“The food at this place is really terrible.”

“Yes. And such small portions.”

That pretty much describes today’s menu of corporate thought leadership. Much of it is bland, some is pretty poor—and yet there’s still huge demand for the good stuff. They’re hungry out there.

Anyway, that’s been our experience as consumers, creators, and consultants on thought leadership.

But has anyone really studied this? We’ve seen thought leadership work, but we were looking for hard numbers and good intelligence on what kind of thought leadership executives really want and respond to.

That led us to an old-ish but rigorous piece of research: “Thought Leadership Disrupted: New Rules for the Content Age,” by The Economist Group in association with Hill + Knowlton Strategies.

The April 2016 study surveyed 1,644 global executives “who either produce or consume thought leadership content;” a third of whom consume it daily. Over half were C-suite executives, and companies ranged in annual revenues. The data was tested at 95% confidence.

The results were even worse—and at the same time more promising—than we’d imagined.

We’ll use the present tense because although the research is over four years old, we believe that the flood of thought leadership has only skyrocketed. And that executives are still starving for the good stuff.

Strong appetites

Executives are committed consumers of thought leadership. At the time of the study,

• One third engaged with thought leadership daily

• 20% had increased their consumption of thought leadership “a lot” in the prior year.

Fuel for action

The effect of compelling thought leadership on executives is nothing short of impressive:

• 70% shared it by email and engaged with more thought leadership from that source. “Consumption… breeds further consumption.”

• More than 75% were influenced in their purchasing decisions

• More than 66% were willing to advocate for the brand

• Over 80% were influenced in choosing a potential business partner

source: The Economist Group in association with Hill + Knowlton Strategies

source: The Economist Group in association with Hill + Knowlton Strategies

High-quality ingredients

What do executives find compelling?

• Credible, innovative, big-picture, transformative content.

• High-quality research—their benchmark for “credibility.” Brand strength adds practically nothing to credibility. Executives particularly value “hard facts.”

Changing tastes

Even back in 2016, executives were becoming much more selective in their consumption habits. “… Nearly two-thirds of marketers… agree that it is far more difficult to get on executives’ thought leadership content shortlists today.”

At the same time, ever-increasing demands on time and new consumption habits encouraged by new technology were destroying the “time-intensive idea of thought leadership.” Longform white papers have given way to briefer, more visual content that is shareable and accessible on all digital devices and platforms.

“Format and impact are as important as the value of the insights.”

Making the donuts

Meanwhile, most firms were still chugging along, creating “thought leadership” they thought was compelling but that was rarely informed by their audience’s interests.

That hasn’t changed. We routinely hear from firms that want to drive brand awareness or accomplish other business objectives. Marketing groups are usually strong advocates for audience needs, but they’re often overruled.

“Corporate initiatives are nearly three times more likely to be selected than audience considerations.”

With the profound skepticism about anything marketed as “thought leadership,” it’s much tougher to get on decision-makers’ reading lists. And with more content vying for attention, even great thought leadership has to fight to be seen. That’s the bad news.

But the appetite for authentic thought leadership is still strong and will probably never go away. It remains a powerful way to engage and influence B2B audiences. And, because the world is the way it is, most of your competitors will continue to make the donuts—cranking out the same self-referential content. All good news.

The recipe

So if you’re serious about thought leadership, aim for:

• Content high in analytical quality, backed by credible data. Strive for “challenging… fact-based perspectives.”

• Formats that are more accessible, shareable, and memorable than traditional longform thought leadership. Instead of a sit-down banquet hall meal, serve a continuous offering of outstanding hors d’oeuvres.

The podcast ecosystem

The venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz just published an early-stage investor’s take on the burgeoning podcast industry.

For anyone interested in podcasts as a medium, it’s a fascinating report that deserves a full read—including the section on China, where the full commercial promise of podcasts is playing out fastest on the globe.

We’ve pulled out data specifically on the marketing promise of podcasts:


• There are ~700K free podcasts available today. Thousands more launch every week.

• One third of all Americans listen to podcasts monthly, one quarter listen weekly:

o Weekly listeners average seven episodes per week, and one hour a day.

o Average podcast listeners consume only slightly less—about six hours per week.

• Podcast listeners are a rarified demographic: affluent, well-educated, currently skewing male (although females are approaching parity).

• Listening happens mostly at home, although this should change with new technologies (e.g., better devices in cars).


• Podcast ads meaningfully increase purchase intent among a hard-to-reach demographic (see above).

• Podcast ads are still hard to target; listener data isn’t available and “listens” (vs. downloads) are impossible to measure.


• The Chinese experience suggests that social interaction and community (“social audio,” including live audio) may be the most fruitful path forward.

(c) andreessen horowitz

(c) andreessen horowitz

Your website is skin-deep

When it comes to your website’s ability to engage with viewers, there’s good evidence that design beats out other considerations we tend to think are important, including usability and content quality.

A new post by Peep Laja at CXL Institute pieces together independent research to make a strong case that marketers should allocation a majority of their resources to web design—or at least not to scrimp on it.

The high points:

• Reactions to your website are entirely visual. Visitors to your website form an opinion in 50 milliseconds (0.05 seconds). Google’s research suggests this may happen even faster—17 milliseconds.

• Those reactions/opinions depend on structure, colors, spacing, and symmetry. Text density and fonts play crucial roles.

• The most appealing sites have low visual complexity and are highly similar to other sites in its category.

source: cxl

source: cxl

• A good first impression equals more time on-site. Visitors scan the following locations of the page they land on, in this order: logo area, main nav, search box, main image, written content, footer.

• Design rules: 94% of impressions are design-related. If the landing page is poor, they’ll rarely stay and explore. Poor design causes mistrust.

• Design is actually more important to appeal than usability. Invest in design.

For more on how and why design affects us mainly on an unconscious level, here’s an intriguing explanation by Bobby Caldwell, legendary professor of marketing at Kellogg School of Management.

The four personas of writing

The writing process is poorly understood. Even veteran writers sitting down in front of the blank screen can feel like they’re doing it for the first time.

But there’s a remarkably helpful way for writers of all kinds and all levels of experience to approach the writing process. It’s called the Flowers paradigm, for the University of Texas professor who created it. It asks writers to inhabit four mindsets at different stages of the writing process: madman, architect, carpenter, and judge.


Writing starts with ideas, and for the madman or madwoman, no idea is too crazy. Because ideas beget more ideas, and because the writing mind continues to work while we’re doing other things, it can be productive to work the madman stage in short sessions with long breaks, over time.

Once your ideas are set down, you switch to a very different mental gear. As the architect, you’re looking for patterns, sense, narratives, flows of logic. You sift your best ideas, shaping the outlines of what will become the written piece.

With the floor plan drawn, you become the carpenter, translating the overall plan into the words, sentences, and paragraphs that bring the architect’s plan to life, while retaining the verve and spark of the madman.

Only when you’ve done the work of these three characters do you become the judge, applying a critical, evaluative eye to the ideas, organization, and execution of your writing.

The Flowers paradigm nicely explains why beginning with outlines often fails (you’ve skipped the madman stage) and why it’s so important not to be critical (judging) in the early stages of writing. It shows up most writing problems as errors in sequence, and provides a simple way of staying on course.

It can also help you evaluate your writing process. Maybe you spend more time than necessary in madman mode. Or the judge in you is showing up too early, making you tense up when you should be open and loose.

Use it as a roadmap in planning specific writing assignments. If you have four days to produce a finished ad, you may budget one day for each stage. A Q&A may require very little of the madman—mainly in coming up with great questions—and much more architect and carpenter.

Of course, no process should be followed slavishly. We are humans, not robots (most of us). In practice, you may find yourself moving back to madman mode or jumping ahead to judge, for very good reasons. Just because we don’t always stay on the path doesn’t mean the map is useless, or that we’ve failed. It means that when we take the inevitable side trail, we can more easily get back on track.

Michael Lewis on podcasts

Podcasts are unmatched for forging strong bonds of trust and likeability—what it takes great salespeople many meetings over time to accomplish. In the right hands, podcasts are literally spellbinding, and a way to broadcast intimacy.

But before you go out and buy a Shure SM7B cardioid microphone with the corporate card, realize what you’re getting into. Michael Lewis—author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short, Flash Boys, and creator of the podcast “Against the Rules”—shared his observations on what it takes to create and produce a winning podcast on (what else?) a recent Longform podcast.

The whole episode is fascinating, but this portion is in the first half hour. Some key points:

Script it, conversationally. Unlike videos, where we advise clients against reading from a script, most podcasts are scripted. But it should be conversational, which isn’t easy—even for Lewis. You may think you can write conversationally, he says, but you probably can’t.

The voice rules. The human voice is surprisingly information-rich. Audiences can pick up on the slightest signal—“integrity, slipperiness, nervousness.” That’s actually great news. Your host and guests won’t need telegenic looks. If they’re passionate, curious-engaging, warm, or genuine, they’ll shine.

Even so, some voices suck the energy out of the room (and you won’t know until you hear it played back). Podcast newbies will need training. “You’re using your voice as an instrument,” and as with any instrument, instruction and practice can help. Malcolm Gladwell and his “Revisionist History” podcast team do readings, just like actors. Lewis listens to demo recordings to get his timing right.

Avoid technical subjects. While he’s not shy about tackling complicating subjects in his writing, Lewis thinks podcasts aren’t a good medium for explaining highly technical subjects—for example, collateralized mortgage obligations.

On the other hand, he thinks podcasts uniquely allow you string disparate ideas together. The power of the voice is “a substitute for narrative—not a perfect substitute, but it can pull them through.”

A new audience. Another advantage to adding podcasts to your marketing mix: you may well reach a different audience from those you’re currently reaching. “There’s an overlap with readers but it’s not the same group,” says Lewis. “It’s a different audience.” It skews younger, more affluent, and we believe more professional.

It ain’t easy. As these observations suggest, a good podcast is a big undertaking, whether it’s a looser interview format (e.g., “How I Built This”) or a scripted, storytelling series (e.g., HBR’s “Ideacast”). “It’s not a trivial amount of work. It sucked up eight months of my life.”

A successful podcast also takes a variety of skillsets. Unless you’re using the podcast as a glorified announcement, doing it yourself is probably a misuse of resources. The only thing you’ll be broadcasting is that you really don’t believe in the law of comparative advantage.

If you want some of the benefits of podcasting without doing or hiring the work, there’s always sponsorship. By negotiating some air time for your own sponsored content, and using their creative and production resources, you could get some of that podcast magic.

Machine learning for marketers pt. 1

“Machine learning is one of the main ways that tech will change things in the broader world in the next decade.”

Those things include marketing and investment management.

So we should all know what machine language is. This brief post by Benedict Evans, a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz, provides one of the best explanations we’ve seen of machine learning, its limitations, and why humans aren’t going away anytime soon.

“Machine learning uses data to generate a model, rather than a human being writing the model. This produces startlingly good results, particularly for recognition or pattern-finding problems, and this is the reason why the whole tech industry is being remade around machine learning.”

This should be required reading for any marketer working with quant managers. Which these days is a growing number of investment managers, active and passive.

Coppola on having a theme

Whether you’re shooting a series of videos, building a microsite, or developing a content marketing calendar, what keeps you pointed in the right direction? How do you know at any given moment that you’re making the right decisions?

Movie directors have to answer a ton of creative questions, big and small, every day. In a recent episode of “Fresh Air,” Francis Ford Coppola explains why he has always relied on a theme—preferably one word.

“Once in a while, you don’t know the answer. And that’s when you say, well, what’s the theme?

His theme for “The Conversation” was “privacy.” For “The Godfather,” “succession.”

“In the case of ‘Godfather,’ I would always know that as long as I was telling the story of succession, I knew what I was doing.”

What’s your theme?

The secret power of podcasts

Since we last wrote about them, podcasts have become a big deal. Asset managers have caught on, using podcasts for quarterly commentaries and updates. A few are trying their hand at more ambitious podcasts.

It’s a good start, but from the podcasts we’ve heard, and even helped create, asset managers aren’t leveraging the unique strength that makes podcasts so powerful.


And that is intimacy. Podcasts are arguably the most intimate communications medium there is, short of meeting face-to-face. So say two best-selling authors who’ve begun podcasting.

Compared to the written word, Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short) finds that podcasts foster “a warmer relationship” with his audience. “There’s something to listening to the voice alone,” without visual or other stimuli, “that makes us listen [and] triggers something in the imagination.”

The bond created by that warmth is, well, incredible. When he was writing best selling books and New Yorker articles, Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink) says strangers would come up to him on the street and thank him. As a podcaster, Gladwell gets hugs. On the street. From total strangers. As Lewis says, podcast listeners “feel they know you.”

So using podcasts as just another way to get content out there is massively underusing the medium.

The question isn’t whether podcasts work. It’s whether there’s a place in your marketing strategy for forging the bonds of trust and likeability, at which podcasts excel. And if so, whether you’re up to the task.

Brainstorming reconsidered

Brainstorming. Such a great idea. And often, such underwhelming results.

isaac asimov. © 2015 Zakeena. Licensed under  CC-BY .

isaac asimov. © 2015 Zakeena. Licensed under CC-BY.

Even the inventor and popularizer of brainstorming—Alex Osborn, a founder of the legendary ad agency BBD&O—got it wrong. He thought that as a group activity, brainstorming was a better way of producing new ideas than working in isolation. Gather the creatives, leave criticism at the door, and watch the ideas flow. That’s how most of us still understand brainstorming.

Problem is, brainstorming isn’t great at producing new ideas. At about the same time researchers at Yale demonstrated this, in the late 1950s, writer Isaac Asimov independently came to the same conclusion—and wrote this excellent rethinking of what brainstorming could be.

The stumbling block for Osborn and the rest of us is that most people don’t understand the creative process (including most creative people). But Asimov understood it. He knew that creative problem-solving was best done by people in isolation. Yet he also knew that creativity—“the making of connections not ordinarily seen or made”—could be jump-started if information or ideas were shared that could inspire connections later on.

Asimov had very strong opinions on how these “cerebration sessions,” as he called them, should be conducted. Definitely check out his brief article, but here’s a synopsis:

  • Choose the right people. Ideally they’ll be experts in the subject, or at least knowledgeable, and a bit unconventional.

  • Create the atmosphere. Relaxed, permissive, informal. Instead of the office conference room or other familiar workspaces, choose an off-site location that feels unbuttoned.

  • Remove the pressure. The session should be structured play, not work. Avoid any suggestion that it’s about producing results.

  • Moderate lightly. Choose a moderator with a light touch—“a gentle shepherd who can stir and guide the discussion” with the least possible interference.

Remember: the goal isn’t to come up with great ideas. It’s to nurture the creation of great ideas later on, by exposing how participants’ are thinking about the problem, their reactions to each other’s ideas, and “new facts and fact combinations.”

How branding really gets done

There’s plenty of information, in books and online, on branding. But there’s very little on how branding experts actually get the job done.

One shining exception is Rob Meyerson’s blog and podcast series, “How Brands Are Built.” In its two seasons so far, “How Brands Are Built” has gone deep into brand positioning and naming, enlightening listeners on how specialists in these fields think about, approach, and execute their work. It’s like a Paris Review interview with brand practitioners—some you may recognize (David Aaker) and many who are working experts known only among insiders.

Meyerson is smart, asks great questions, and is a pleasure to listen to. You can find his podcast on Spotify and transcripts on his website. His next season, on brand experience, is planned for September 2019. It’s one podcast we’re really looking forward to.

Telling better stories with data

Marketing is often storytelling, even (or especially) when you’re marketing sophisticated services with lots of data and probability supporting your claims.

And if your charts, graphics, tables, and other data visualizations aren’t telling the story, you’re wasting time and pixels.

For example, pie charts are notoriously misused by marketers. And although analytical types love to use scatter plots, even some college graduates have a difficult time comprehending them.

Well, it’s the designers’ job to make sure visuals are carrying their storytelling weight, right? Right—in that perfect world that doesn’t exist. Most designers are overworked, concerned about following brand standards, and, to be fair, are very focused on making a given visual look as good as it can.

They’re typically not thinking about the larger question: is this even the right visualization for the job? Are we trying to tell a story with a pie chart that would be better told with bar charts or something else?

So the onus is on you, the marketer.

Does that mean you need to read all of Edward Tufte’s books? Not necessarily (although it wouldn’t kill you). There’s a quicker way to get better at data visualization.

Ferdio’s Data Viz Project

Ferdio’s Data Viz Project

Several online tools can help you learn—or, if you don’t have time to learn, to immediately start giving better direction to your design team.

We like two in particular. Ferdio’s Data Viz Project doubles as a field guide to over 150 visualization types and a practical tool for choosing the most effective visualization for the job at hand. Its interface lets you experiment and explore. For each visual type, there are real-world examples that can get you and your designers thinking more creatively about how to execute.

Juice Analytics’ Chart Chooser provides a quick decision tree, driven by your objective, that narrows your choice down to the most effective graphic and helpfully provides downloadable chart templates in .xlxx and .pptx formats.

If you catch the data viz bug and want to get into the weeds, one place to start is Junk Charts, where information designers go deep into what works and what doesn’t.

Should you ditch your mission statement?

There may be a better alternative to the mission statement—that one-sentence expression of your firm’s purpose, intended to guide and inspire employees.


Veteran business writer Warren Berger describes the problem in an episode of The Knowledge Project podcast. “Employees generally say, ‘I hate the mission statement. I don’t pay any attention to it. It’s boring.’ Half of them don’t even know what the mission statement is.”

Instead, he proposes creating a mission question.

The idea is that most if not all businesses can be explained as people working together on one big question. “That’s what a start-up is,” says Berger.

The mission question “is whatever it is in their field they haven’t gotten to yet—the really big accomplishment.” Mission questions give companies the opportunity to be clear and straightforward about their purpose.

At the startups Berger interviewed for his latest work, The Book of Beautiful Questions, partners know the big question they’re working on but employees deeper in the org chart see their roles as small and purely functional.

Berger thinks companies can better engage all employees, particularly those further from the C-suite, by making them feel they’re helping to the answer that big question.

He’s seen just a few firms develop mission statements. “Senior management is like, ‘maybe.’” But employees say, “‘A mission question? I would love that.’”

Talking to institutions and RIAs

It’s a truism that institutions and RIAs don’t like to be marketed to by asset managers.

But is it really true?

Like any other buyers of investment management, institutions and RIAs want to know how your strategy will benefit them. They want to know what you have to offer, and they want your help in making the connection between your offering and their problem.

And that, friends, is marketing. The question is, how do institutions and RIAs want to be marketed to? How should we talk to them?

We had a chance to hear this directly from RIAs and institutional buyers during a recent engagement with an asset manager seeking to move into the institutional market.

We developed several new positioning statements. Some were more “institutional”—that is, purely literal and devoid of metaphor and similar rhetorical techniques. And some were more “retail”—freely using metaphors, value judgments, and emotional appeals. Then we tested these statements in moderated phone surveys with over 15 institutional gatekeepers and RIAs.

Don’t tell him what to think

Don’t tell him what to think

The results were mildly surprising. Almost all of the institutional buyers preferred the factual positioning statements—no shock there. But a number of RIAs preferred the retail versions. (These were RIAs at the higher end of the sophistication spectrum; our client is a quant manager of liquid alternative strategies).

One institutional buyer’s response went straight to the heart of the matter. “We want to draw our own conclusions. Don’t make them for us.” Institutions simply do not want to feel they’re being told what, or how, to think.

Even metaphors—in the right hands, an elegant and powerful technique for simplifying difficult concepts and highlighting value and benefits—make these professionals feel like they’re being sold to. You can almost see their neck hairs bristle.

Here’s what we think is going on. In his classic, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes two modes of thinking: System 1 (quick, automatic, with little or no effort) and System 2 (slower, deliberate, effortful).

In many professions—medicine, engineering, and institutional money management among others—practitioners must be seen, and must see themselves, as System 2 thinkers who avoid and even spurn System 1 thinking. After all, society doesn’t reward these professionals with money and status for their cognitive ease.

We’re not saying that this is all just signaling on the part of institutional buyers. We want them to be System 2 thinkers, and we all benefit when they do this successfully.

We are saying that for marketers wishing to connect with institutional buyers, it’s incredibly helpful to remember this mindset. You’ll have to abandon many of the techniques we use to foster understanding—textual and visual metaphors, value judgments, benefit-driven language, any hint of emotional appeal, other mental shortcuts that most consumers actually prefer.

Instead, you can help institutional buyers draw their own conclusions by using some of the other tools in your marketing toolkit—clarity, brevity, helpful organization, great data visualization. Apply these tools not just to content but to digital interfaces, presentation methods, and other touchpoints.

What does this mean for RIAs? In our experience, they can be just as prickly as institutions about being marketed to. We’d still operate under that assumption, but this research suggests that some fraction of RIAs are more open to approaches that appeal to System 1 thinking.


  • Institutional buyers need to be seen as System 2 thinkers. Market to them with tact, delivering information in ways that help them come to their own conclusions.

  • Some RIAs may be more open than we think to System I approaches (metaphor, value judgments, etc.) Consider controlled experimenting.

  • Advisors (i.e. asset gatherers) tend to be very comfortable with marketing that relies on System 1 techniques.

  • Whatever you do, always test your messaging first.

Photo “Serious” by Lee Haywood is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0