Monday, October 22, 2012

Marketing Lessons from Chernobyl

I’ll be speaking about optimization this Wednesday at the Online Marketing Summit conference in Santa Clara, CA. Since I’m very comfortable with the actual topic, most of my prep time has been spent looking for pictures for my slides.

One discovery was the image above, which shows is how I think most people imagine optimization: a team of dead-serious revenue engineers carefully tweaking dials and watching gauges until they find the perfect balance among alternative marketing investments. That the real world isn’t quite so rigorous is a sad truth I’ll cover during the conference.

But this picture isn’t just any power plant. It’s the control room at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor which disastrously exploded in 1986. Look closely, and what do you notice?

Yes, those hats. Apparently the Chernobyl plant was being run by pastry chefs. That explains so much.

My theory is this: the Soviets had a little-known tradition that translates roughly as “switch jobs with your friends day”. The year of the accident, a team of bakers decided to change places with their buddies in the Chernobyl control room. The nuclear engineers spent the day calculating the volume of pie tins and optimizing heat convection in the baking ovens. Meanwhile, the pastry chefs were decorating fuel rods with icing and asking, “What if we replace the reactor coolant with meringue?”

This did not end well.

Well, maybe that didn’t happen. But my imaginary pastry chefs sound a lot like stereotypical marketers: experts in a subjective field where decisions are based on taste, feel, and appearance, and progress comes through intuitive experimentation. Those methods work well in the kitchen, but can’t be safely transferred to a nuclear reactor. Nor do they work for marketing optimization.

Like reactor management, marketing optimization programs need to be based on deep knowledge of the underlying process. They rely on precise tracking mechanisms that support long-term monitoring of detailed results. They need to be run by marketing equivalent of nuclear engineers, not pastry chefs.

This doesn’t mean that data geeks should take over marketing. Chances are, things weren’t going very well in the Chernobyl bakery that day, either. The city needed both bakers and scientists. But having them wasn’t enough: they needed each in the right place. Marketing departments are the same.

1 comment:

James Aach said...

While those hats look a little odd in the pictures, I suspect they are similar to the skull caps worn at US plants in contaminated areas to prevent radioactive dust from settling into one's hair. Fashion sense isn't a big nuclear priority.

If you would like a recap of the Chernobyl accident written with the non-engineer in mind, see my novel Rad Decision, which is available free online with the Chernobyl section marked. It also includes a look at daily life in a US nuclear plant and what a bad day might be like. Just Google the title or see my website. As a bonus, the plant design and bad day resemble Fukushima. Readers seem to like it, judging from their comments.