Numbers Don’t Lie. But Do They Tell the Truth?

In today’s marketing communications world, virtually everything is measurable. We can know exactly how many people saw and felt motivated to act on any online ad, social media posting, direct mailing, etc.

Data is invaluable in showing us what is happening in the midst of our marketing activity. But all too often data is regarded as the sole ingredient in decision-making and strategic planning. This perspective, while understandable, would be a mistake. Because data only tells us what is happening. It doesn’t always tell us why it’s happening.

With today’s marketing budgets continually being squeezed, and expected to work harder than ever, reliance on data is increasingly pushing aside research and experience as foundations for charting future business actions. While numbers are valuable components of gathering intelligence to assist decision making, they can only report—not decide. Numbers don’t take into consideration emotional factors, new priorities, and different cultural contexts—things that smart marketers do.

An amusing but telling look into how raw numbers can easily lead one down a dead-end path can be seen in the popularity of names. It is recognized that the most common first name (male) around the world is Muhammad. However, the most common last name globally is Wang. It’s safe to say that none—or very, very few—of us will ever meet a Muhammad Wang (and maybe only as an awesomely named band) in our lifetime.

Another simple example of how context shapes the truth is evident in how a certain cotton seed company promoted itself. In the ‘90s, this company regularly claimed in its advertising that it was the second-largest cotton seed breeder in the world. While this was impressive sounding and absolutely true, a bit of digging into that claim would reveal that the total number of cotton seed-breeding companies in the world at that time was…two.

Careful research, interpretation, and judgment should accompany any data gazing. Even though positive metrics can reflect a favorable sales environment for a product, determining precisely what factors are actually influencing behavior that leads to those results is critically important. 

Last year, it was widely reported that Hershey’s chocolate was seeing a noticeable rise in sales, particularly in areas hit especially hard by the pandemic. Given the misery and isolation caused by lockdowns, it was reasonable to assume that people were seeking comfort in increased all-around chocolate consumption. However, Hershey discovered that what was specifically driving the sales spike was a tremendous rise in the number of people making s’mores. 

All over the country, families were desperate for some semblance of normalcy and connection. And what’s cozier and more family friendly than making s’mores in front of the fireplace or at a backyard campout? This led to a shift in the imagery Hershey used in their ads, focusing on the simple joy of enjoying s’mores with family and friends. As a result, Hershey enjoyed a $120 million increase in net income during the third quarter of 2020.

Everyone agrees that numbers should shape and direct your marketing decisions to some degree. Many times they point the way to obvious actions. But before you put all trust in your data, it’s always a good idea to have some perceptive and informed minds interpret the numbers to see what they might—or might not—be saying.