Dumb Numbers

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Nate Silver knows a smart number from a dumb one.

In the months leading up to Tuesday’s presidential election, the major news networks regularly presented the results of polls of the popular vote.

Funny thing, though – here in America, we don’t elect candidates based on the popular vote.  We have an Electoral College.

A poll of the national popular vote is kind of a dumb number.

Dumb Numbers and the Holidays

Then there’s this gem from the December 2012 issue of Real Simple magazine:

0.8.  (That’s) how many pounds the average American gains in the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, according to the National Institutes of Health. That’s right: All those heaping helpings of sugar-glazed ham and mashed potatoes aren’t setting you back as much as you think. Celebrate the jolly news with another sugar cookie.”

I’ll ignore the boneheaded conclusion and disastrous advice – “Gorge yourself, America, because we at Real Simple have just proven your decisions have no consequences!” – and focus instead on the inanity of the data point. What the “average American” gains during that time is of no utility to you or me whatsoever. If I go on a six-week pecan pie binge (which could happen), the average American won’t somehow make me skinnier on January 2.

Real Simple, this is a really dumb number.

Dumb Numbers in Brand Management

A friend was once stepping into a new brand management role. The results of the annual consumer surveys had just arrived; the “overall quality” rating for his brand had slipped from 7.2 to 6.8 in a single year, and his boss had made it his top priority to restore it.

I asked him how he planned to fix the rating, given that no other meaningful data on quality was available. He grinned and said, “Right now, I have no effing idea.”

An “overall quality” rating, in isolation, is a dumb number.

Dumb Dashboards – and Smart Ones

As a marketer and business leader, you are almost certainly exposed to dumb numbers on a regular basis. You may even be paying for them. And some numbers are dumber than others – it’s nice to measure distribution, for instance, but wouldn’t you rather know the quality of that distribution?

As we head toward 2013, take the opportunity to review your dashboard. Ask questions like:

  • What measures are most indicative of the current and future health of my brand and business?
  • How can I obtain an accurate, trustworthy read on these measures?
  • How will we use the information we gather to make a decision or change a practice?
  • If we’re measuring things that we don’t act on, why are we doing that?  Why don’t we stop?

A dumb number quite often means a dumb decision. So be ruthlessly selective about the information you allow onto your dashboard – and don’t invest an ounce of time or money in data that won’t move the business ahead.

What other advice would you give That Branding Thing readers as they strive to purge dumb numbers and focus on smart ones?  Please add your thoughts in a comment below.

Looking for a smarter, more focused brand in 2013 and beyond?  Three Deuce Branding can help.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2012 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

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