5 Things I Know About Marketing – Gerald Zaltman, Harvard Business School

December 8, 2016

The Joy of Workable Wondering

Gerald Zaltman is Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School and a founding partner of Olson Zaltman Associates. His research concerns the representation of thought, including how managers and customers represent their thinking to others and how they represent ideas and knowledge given to them.

In his interview with Executive Director Kay Lemon, his boundary-spanning approach to marketing problems was apparent. He shared his current thinking on having an imaginative mind, triggering deep insights on tough problems, questioning our mental models—and why these actions are critical to marketing success.


Data are “big” if they trigger a powerful idea such as a crucial question or relevant story. They are “small” if they don’t.

By themselves data say very little. Just as sound waves created by a falling tree require an independent receiving mechanism to create the experience of sound, it is the manager’s mind that selects and formulates the problems and questions to be addressed with sophisticated analytics. And it is the same mind that grasps the patterns and develops the stories that data make possible. (This is why the traditional distinction between qualitative and quantitative data is a false dichotomy; all data are ultimately mental stimuli regardless of format and origin.)

The technical sophistication and volumes involved in manufacturing and representing data do not make them big or small. It is the manager’s mind that confers “size” upon questions and answers. All data are potentially “big” if they trigger deep insights about tough problems, important questions, and needed answers.


An imaginative mind is the most essential computational device in a manager’s tool kit.

Important marketing issues frequently arrive without clarity. Some things are unknowable and information that is available is often incomplete and messy. Managers who are comfortable with these untidy states have the curiosity, capacity, and courage to fill in the blank spaces of the unknown. They are able to clarify ill-defined problems, form relevant, previously unseen questions, and create sound, useful answers.

This imaginative ability, part art and part science, is what keeps managers from being replaced by smart machines.

Marketing is a world populated by major blank spaces. The willingness and skill to imagine what is missing is what generates big insights. This is how visionaries lead. They see data not as goal lines but as springboards for thinking and planning.

I see an opportunity for our discipline to enter an era of imagination. Developments in the behavioral and information sciences are providing better theories and methods for understanding thought and behavior. This, in turn, provides rich fodder for imaginative minds. The danger is that this rich fodder will baffle and discourage less imaginative minds, resulting in confirmatory and other low risk research and practices that don’t challenge or enrich our thinking.


Data are unlikely to produce big insights if thinking lives in a rut of unexamined frames and mental models.

What drives imagination? What accounts for those clicks of comprehension when deep insights fill knowledge voids? Frames and mental models.

A mental model is the foundation from which frames emerge. It is the dynamic system of thoughts and feelings that determine what questions are raised, what information receives attention, how it is processed, and with what result. A frame is a deep metaphor, a gestalt, for instance, a tendency to see competition in terms of warfare or to view channel partners as roadblocks.

Managers’ frames are unearthed by examining the surface metaphors managers use. Those frames and mental models can be so automatic that managers are unaware or only vaguely aware of them and how they influence their own and others’ actions. Existing frames and mental models are the proverbial “boxes” people say they want to escape, yet when I ask: “What proportion of your budget for understanding markets is allocated to understanding management’s own frames and mental models?” The answer is “not much” or, worse, “Well, it’s not really necessary. We’ve got a good handle on that.”

This reminds me of a cartoon showing researchers observing customers through a one-way mirror suddenly discovering that the mirror was installed backwards. They were observing themselves without realizing it. Their observations reinforced their own frames and mental models.


New meanings arise from the “mind of the market”—the confluence of manager, customer, and other stakeholder thinking and actions.

The mind of the market doesn’t sit still. Blank spaces in need of imaginative filling-in constantly pop up, especially when disruptive innovations appear. As managers’ and customers’ frames and mental models converge and blend, new and sometimes unconstructive meanings arise.

This is why developmental advertising research is so important. Not every message is interpreted as intended. Foreseeing how the execution of marketing strategies may impact this collective “mind” requires imagination; it requires forecasting what will emerge when manager, customer, and other stakeholder frames and mental models interact as a new product or advertising campaign is launched. The term “co-creation” applies here.

Fortunately, the frames and mental models of only a few key stakeholders need to be monitored as they in turn monitor other stakeholders. An analogy involves the movement of a large flock of birds that seem to act with one mind as they suddenly change direction. Each bird seems to be coordinated simultaneously with every other bird in the flock. In fact, each bird is coordinated with only six other birds. These coordinated actions ripple across the entire flock so quickly they appear to have the automaticity of one mind.


A new science of marketing is emerging.

We are seeing the emergence of a new marketing science. This is the systematic application of behavioral and information science knowledge to marketing problems to generate market insights, strategy, and tactics. It stresses the use of imagination and a playful approach to leveraging frames and mental models to create rather than guess the future. It creates an environment that fosters powerful, deep insights that make data “big”.

Four features of the new science of marketing distinguish it from the old (and still dominant) science of marketing.

First, the old science emphasizes efficiency and reliability, with the unimaginative result of “doing the wrong thing righter.” The new science stresses effectiveness or doing the right thing correctly. Emphasis is placed on validity.

Second, the old science repeats unexamined past practices and relies on competitors for inspiration about new practices. Bold, original thinking is discouraged. The emerging science stresses deep thinking or what I call “workable wondering” to craft marketing actions. Thought and action are viewed as two sides of the same coin

The old science often uses a single disciplinary perspective to focus on a single experience, limiting the ability to grasp the complexity and richness of the consumption experience. It allows only one instrument in the orchestra to play at one time. The new science views customer experiences holistically; customers’ lives are seen as more closely resembling a symphony orchestra.

And finally, while the old marketing science views the customer as a passive audience awaiting direction, the new science of marketing focuses on the mind of the market. It is about the dynamic interaction or co-creative force of customer and managerial thought and behavior. It is the lubricant than enables workable wondering with workable knowledge to work together seamlessly.

For further reading

Zaltman, Gerald (2016), “Marketing’s Forthcoming Age of Imagination.” AMS Review (December)

Zaltman, Gerald Jerry Olson, and James Forr  (2015), “Toward a New Marketing Science for Hospitality Managers.” Cornell Hospitality Quarterly (November)

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