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Marketing inspiration – read like a polymath

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Why read this? : We share marketing inspiration from 3 of our favourite recent reads. First, the “Alchemy” of behavioural science. Then, “Writing Tools” to improve your writing skills. And lastly, we explore the “Legacy” of building a great culture. Read this for marketing inspiration from our recent polymath reading.

A regular challenge when you call your business Three-Brains, is people expect you to be clever ALL the time. But nobody’s clever all the time, us included. And when there’s something we don’t know, we get the odd “Well, your three brains didn’t think of that, did they?”.

Yeah, thanks.

The same goes for job titles. People take the piss if you can’t live up to your job title. For example, knowledge Managers who don’t know things. Strategists who aren’t strategic. Don’t be one of those.

And if your need for status means you need to call yourself “Chief …” something, remember most people think that title sounds pompous and self-important. Is that what you want? Maybe if you feel the need to spend public money on Cartier watches. But otherwise, maybe only Daniel Ricciardo, Chief Optimism Officer at OPTUS can (just about) get away with it.

Read widely

But anyway, back to Three-Brains. One of the ways we try to stay clever is by reading widely. We read books on all types of topics. Because the more you know, the more you grow, right? 

We like the polymath approach. It helps us learn different and divergent ways of thinking. So this week, we share lessons from 3 of our favourite recent reads. We hope you get the same marketing inspiration from them that we did. 

Alchemy - Rory Sutherland

First is Alchemy by Rory Sutherland. (See also our Goodreads review). This mainly deals with the subject of behavioural science.

Where it’s good, it’s VERY good. Those are the key lessons we wanted to share here.

To set the scene, he’s a well-known advertising guru in his role as Vice Chairman of the Ogilvy agency. He set up and leads the behavioural science arm of that business, and presents at many conferences. 

We first came across him in a well-known TED talk, where he tells a great anecdote about customers stealing the salt and pepper pots on Virgin Airlines. And Virgin making this a positive thing.

It’s worth a watch as the book’s full of similar stories and unexpected and unusual bits of knowledge. 

The book’s premise is that the business world is set up to be logical and analytical. In big business, nothing gets approved without lots of complex market research. Businesses rely on data to make decisions. Everything’s decided by committees. And logic sits behind almost all business decisions. 

And as an advertising guy, he thinks this isn’t always the best way to make decisions. Because real people make illogical decisions all the time. 

So, there’s a disconnect between how businesses make decisions, and how people make decisions. 

We’re not always logical

Our brains are complex machines which need energy to function. And the logical part of the brain (the neo-cortex) uses up the most energy. So, to save energy we often make many decisions with other less logical parts of our brains. 

This means we often make decisions which don’t make much sense. 

It gets more complex when you factor in our interactions with other people. Because in the field of human interaction, many things make sense but don’t actually work. And many things don’t make sense but do actually work. 

For example, brands don’t make a lot of logical sense. But they work. Take our TV buying example from last week. We looked at 2 different televisions. One from Samsung, and one from a brand no one had ever heard of. The Samsung TV was $3,500 more expensive. For basically the same specification of TV.

But we bet the Samsung one sells way more units. Because of the Samsung brand name. Logically, that makes no sense. 

Non sense ideas

He calls these non sense ideas (the spacing is deliberate). Ideas which make no logical sense, but actually work. And he calls the thinking behind them psycho logical. (Again, deliberate spacing). Because the logic is applied with a psychology filter around it. 

For example, he cites a case where they tested a sales promotion. They gave customers a choice between a penguin cuddly toy and a more valuable cash reward. People overwhelmingly went for the toy. Psycho logical. 

He talks about how a major hotel decided to replace their doorman with an automatic door. They did it to save money on his salary. But, they didn’t realise having a friendly helpful face as your first impression of the hotel is a big part of the experience. So, they lost sales. They ended up bringing back the doorman and sales went back up. Psycho logical. 

Logic and imagination

Alchemy is packed with all sorts of quirky stories like this from many different fields like science, history and psychology. But the one which stood out for us, was when he talked about how businesses tend to value logic over imagination. 

He shows how if you put a logical plan together and it doesn’t work, people will say you were unlucky. But if you put an imaginative plan together, and it doesn’t work, people will say you’re an idiot. 

And you’ll get fired. 

Woman standing in a poorly lit street at night. She is blowing into her hands which holds a light and some sort of illuminated confetti

So, no one wants to risk creating imaginative plans. They focus instead on logical plans. Because, as he puts it nobody ever got fired for being unimaginative. But, you can get fired for being illogical. 

It’s worth thinking about that in terms of the culture you create for creative thinking and marketing innovation in your business. How do you make it OK to use imagination to find those more breakthrough and “out there” ideas? 

The book’s got loads of tips on how to find and hire people to help you do this. From a marketing inspiration point of view, Alchemy will give you many golden ideas. 

Writing Tools - Roy Peter Clark

Marketing inspiration takes many different forms. 

Alchemy will make you think. But marketing is also about actions. And one of those actions is knowing how to write well.

In Roy Peter Clark’s book Writing Tools, he shares 50 short writing lessons you can use to improve the quality of your writing. 

Given the title, it’s exceptionally well-written. You can learn a lot. We did. For example, we like his straightforward advice on using the active voice as your default when you write. 

Try to structure your sentences as Subject-Verb as much as you can.

It makes your writing easier to read because it tells the reader what the sentence is about and what’s happening. There’s no ambiguity, so it’s clearer and sounds more confident. 

Writing blogs

This is helpful advice when you write longer content like blogs. It makes your writing more readable. You can use tools like Yoast SEO to flag when you use the passive voice too often. 

Often, first drafts use a lot of passive voice. Ours definitely do. 

First drafts are typically when your thoughts on a topic aren’t totally clear. Your mind’s still forming ideas, thoughts and specific points as you write.

The passive voice reflects that lack of certainty. It’s very common, but it can make your writing harder to follow. And harder to believe. 

Screengrab of Three-Brains blog page - category selections and search tag options

So, rewriting to eliminate passive voice (Yoast advises less than 10%) is a great exercise to sharpen your writing. It makes you sound clearer and more confident. You want that, right?


Clark also covers the origins of the Flesch reading score. This was a system developed by Rudolf Flesch in the 1940s which calculates the readability of text. It does this using the numbers of words in sentences, and the number of syllables in words. Shorter sentences and shorter words mean better readability. 

Tools like Yoast SEO give you this score as you publish. It warns you if you use too many long sentences. Or, too many complicated words. 

We learned from Clark’s book that the average sentence length has shortened considerably over time.

In Elizabethan times, the average sentence length was 45 words. By Victorian times, it had dropped to 29 words. And today, the best practice is to aim for 20 words or less. 

Less time to read

From a marketing point of view, this suggests customers have less time to read your writing.

The simpler you make it, the more they’ll read it. The more they read it, the more likely they’ll do something about it. 

Which is clearly the impact you want from your writing, right? 

After your first draft, edit it. Go back and simplify what you wrote. What words can you take out and still say the same thing? 

Person wring at a table - close up of their arm with a coffee mug in front of them

If you have a choice between a technical word and a simple word, pick the simple one. Simpler words are easier to understand. They’re easier to remember. 

And they make a bigger impact. (Check out our writing lessons and editing blogs articles for more on this).

Legacy - James Kerr

And so talking of bigger impacts, let’s make a bit of a leap to our final piece of marketing inspiration. And, that’s the New Zealand All Blacks.

They spend most of their professional time making a big impact. Arguably, the world’s most successful sports team, Legacy by James Kerr covers how the All Blacks work off the field. And how that work drives their success on the field. 

Including the humbling destruction of the Australian rugby team in the Bledisloe Cup last weekend.

And where this book works best, is when it uses simple words to talk about powerful concepts. There’s a big focus on culture

So, for example, the book takes its title from the amazing sense of pride players take in being an All-Black. They realise there’s a significant history behind the jersey.

Every player who becomes an All Black takes it upon themselves to leave the jersey in a better place

That’s a brilliant visual image written in simple language anyone can understand. And it’s one any team, business or organisation could look at and take into what they do with their marketing.

What’s the equivalent of the “jersey” in your business? And how do you leave it in a better place?

The value of humility

We also love how this book talks about the value of humility. They have a “no dickheads” rule (borrowed from the Sydney Swans) and make sure no player becomes bigger than the team.

Even the biggest star players take their turn to “sweep the sheds” as they call it. To clean up after practices and games. That’s another amazingly powerful way of describing the culture of not getting above yourself. Of understanding your role, and giving your all for the team. 

Both those principles – legacy and humility – can run through the culture of any business. But, we’ll close with another topic they cover which is the adaptability of the team.

In the book, he talks about how it’s not the strongest that survive, but the most intelligent. And the most intelligent are the ones who are most responsive to change. They keep looking for feedback

Budding marketers can take a lot of marketing inspiration from this thought when they apply it to what they do. Even the All Blacks lose sometimes (just less than everyone else), but they’re always looking for new ways to win. 

That’s a legacy you’d want in any business. 

Nez Zealand rugby team in black strips doing the aka on a rugby field in from of a watching crowd

Conclusion - Marketing inspiration

Marketing is a diverse subject. To get better at it, you can look at related topics and see how you can use them as marketing inspiration. 

This article has looked at the “Alchemy” of behavioural science. And “Writing Tools” so you can write better. And how having the right culture helps you leave a strong “Legacy”. Lots of marketing inspiration in these 3 great books. 

Check out our reading business books article for more marketing inspiration. Or email us for more on any of the topics we covered in this article. 

Blue Neon sign saying "Do Something Great" on a black background

Photo Credits 

Do Something Great : Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

Woman blowing sprinkles : Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Writing – Person writing near mug : Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

All Blacks : All Blacks doing Haka : Photo by Stefan Lehner on Unsplash

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