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Measuring success; the Vietnam war, McNamara’s fallacy and you.

For a long time we have struggled with the best way to measure success when developing new or revitalised brands. In the real world, there is often little budget or appetite to invest in meaningful qualitative research. So, we rely on interpretations of other data. We look to changes in business performance or other metrics that are on hand (clicks, likes etc). But external forces also influence these numbers, undermining any claim for attribution. 

This all came to mind when I was watching the brilliant Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War.  The documentary was focused on how Nixon was challenged to maintain public support for the war. I came across this great quote, which I’d like to share.

“If you are unable to measure the things that are important, make what you can measure important”

Let me set the scene from my layman’s perspective. The US Army had bogged down in Vietnam. The war was rolling on and the military was struggling to measure progress in a manner that could be reported to the public in a positive light. This spin was critical to justifying continued involvement in the war and to force additional military spending. But this was a messy war without clear battle lines. Progress in the traditional manner was impossible to report. The leadership needed an accessible metric they could use to measure success. They settled on a simple metric, “net body count”. This is a count of the total number of enemy casualties less US casualties. The joy of this number was that it appears to be a reasonable measure of success, and importantly it could be tracked and understood.

Whilst they got a metric they could use, this choice resulted in two, possibly unforeseen, negative outcomes. Firstly, it encouraged false reporting of kill numbers. It is important to note there was little in the way of auditing on the ground, with the result that US troops under-reported US deaths and overstated enemy deaths. Secondly, it encouraged tactics and activities that moved the metric but actually had no bearing on their overall strategic intent. This became what is known as the “McNamara fallacy” or the quantifiable fallacy; where all metrics or observations except for quantifiable ones are ignored.

So, what’s this got to do with those of us who work in branding and communications?

I wonder is there a danger that as marketeers we fall into this metrics trap? We get distracted by an obsessive pursuit of likes, clicks and Net Promoter Scores scores because they can be measured. Please don’t get me wrong, these metrics have both merit and value. But in a complex business environment do they deserve the deity-like elevation they have?

We all know they can be counted, but are they really what counts?

At Threesixty we love that branding is human and empathetic, it’s literally a battle for the hearts and minds. We shouldn’t lose sight of this, and continue to advocate for its measuring and reporting.