Understanding How the Confusion Between Perception and Reality Can Hurt Your Business

People tend to believe what they can perceive - a thought captured by the common expression "seeing is believing." Good physicists and marketers know that what is real is often hard to perceive and therefore hard for many to believe.
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In my previous post, I talked about physics being a good metaphor for marketing. One of the striking similarities between the two disciplines is they are both difficult to understand because most people have a hard time comprehending the difference between perception and reality. Why? People tend to believe what they can perceive - a thought captured by the common expression "seeing is believing." Good physicists and marketers know that what is real is often hard to perceive and therefore hard for many to believe. Some examples will help to illustrate this point.

The Earth is flat

When humans looked at the horizon they saw a straight line. In fact, the word horizontal connotes a straight line, and it is derived from horizon. That is the perception. The reality is that humans see only a small segment of a very large curve, which looks like a straight line. Sorry Flat Earth Society.


Everything in your office - your desk, walls, and furniture are made of materials that do not appear to be moving. That is the perception. In reality, the atoms and sub-atomic particles in those materials are moving quite a lot. Since you cannot see the motion, you presume nothing is moving. In fact, if you saw the movement of everything around you, it would drive you crazy. The same is true of the Earth. As we go about our daily business, we do not sense that the Earth is moving. Where I am in Los Angeles, it is rotating at roughly 750 miles an hour. It is revolving around the Sun at about 67,000 miles per hour, and our Sun is revolving around our galaxy, the Milky Way, at about 486,000 miles per hour. Now, that's a lot of motion. Since the Earth acts like a very large ship moving through space, we do not perceive the movement. If we did, we would probably be a lot less secure, as we are when there is an earthquake or a massive storm.


Our own voices sound very differently inside our heads than they do to others. In fact, when people hear a sound recording of their voices for the first time, most don't like what they hear. It sounds strange and unfamiliar. Even so, that is how we sound to the outside world. Again, humans perceive one thing. Reality is another.


When you look in a mirror, you see a mirror image of yourself. That is not the way you look to the rest of the world. Also, since you typically see yourself in the mirror everyday, your brain edits what it sees. It presumes you look the same as before and only senses noticeable differences. As with sound, we need to turn to the "outside" word to discover how we appear to others.

The marketplace is your mirror

The same is true of marketing companies and products. Customers and prospects in the marketplace are the only ones that can objectively tell us how our company and products appear to them. To find out what members of the target audience really think, marketers have to develop a good marketing information system. When marketers collect, analyze, report, and take action on marketplace information, they typically get a healthy dose of reality. They often find that their marketing does not work as they thought it did. Study after study points to companies talking past their customers, ads missing the mark, and the public tiring of "bad" advertising.

People are limited by their senses

What most think is real is only a perception because humans are limited by their senses. Why is this important? To be successful, marketers need to understand that (1) marketplace perceptions become business realities and (2) if those perceptions are different from what we want them to be, we need to execute the proper marketing strategies to change them.

What is most important is often counter-intuitive

Just as physicists find it difficult to explain relativity, gravity, black holes, and quantum theory to the public, marketers experience similar difficulty convincing constituents what marketing strategy will be the most effective. The reason for this is that, as discussed above, reality is often counter-intuitive. To be successful, marketers need to...

  1. Understand marketing fundamentals at a deeper level.
  2. Know more about how the human brain works.
  3. Know how to sell decision makers, clients, and students on the correct strategy.
  4. Use independent, 3rd-party, credible proof to support selling efforts.
  5. Patiently educate decision makers that still remain skeptical because they can nix the right strategy.

Common misconceptions

To better illustrate the counter-intuitive problem, it is useful to look at some common marketing misconceptions. Too many believe that...
  • Short communications routinely sell better than long ones.
  • Sex helps to sell most everything.
  • Celebrities, while expensive, help to sell the products they endorse.

The reality

The reality is that ...
  • Long communications usually sell better than short.
  • Sex is not as effective at selling products if the products are unrelated to sex.
  • Celebrities are only effective selling products if they are considered expert users of those products.

Being customer driven and thinking outside-in

Why do so many believe these misconceptions? As when they hear their own voice, they are listening inside their own heads, and people tend to trust their own perceptions. To sell others, they need to listen to actual data from the marketplace and think "outside-in" rather than "inside-out." In a limited number of cases, you can safely "trust your gut" if you have knowledge, experience, or inherent genius. Even so, it is important to find the real marketplace data to support your "gut feel." That is what science is about, and good marketing needs to support the "art" with science. Moreover, marketplace data helps to convince skeptical decision makers to approve your strategies. Unsupported counter-intuitive opinions will be "shot down" in meetings by bosses and clients. Marketers need to understand that (1) perception is reality in business and (2) if the perception is different from the desired reality, they need to change perceptions to put them in synch with what is positively (and beneficially) real and important to their constituents. Since this is not a trivial process, I wish you the best of luck.

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