One of the reasons the field of professional communication, or “mass persuasion” is so challenging is the fact that the audience, any audience, knows instinctively that the marketer is selling something. Think of it as the Source Credibility Conundrum. Any new company, any new idea, faces it. At BriefLogic, the evidence that we can make an enormous impact on the entire field of marketing is unimpeachable . . . but only if you had been looking over our shoulders as we reviewed $3B in briefs, or listened to hundreds of hours of agencies’ POV on how bad the problem is at all levels.
Understanding the source credibility issue is more than just a challenge that new brands or companies face. It’s essential to understanding brand development in the first place. In the spirit of making a case for opening our professional minds to be less resistant to breakthroughs, consider this. Lack of source credibility often creates extraordinary resistance to breakthroughs in many fields if the ideas originate outside of the “club” of their profession. A number of examples come to mind; the two most extraordinary are probably the stories of John Harrison, Alfred Wegener.
The story of John Harrison, so brilliantly told in the 1995 book “Longitude” by Dava Sobel chronicles the epic quest to solve the thorniest scientific problem of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Throughout the great age of exploration, sailors attempted to navigate the oceans without any means of measuring their longitude: All too often, voyages ended in total disaster when both crew and cargo were captured or lost upon the rocks of an unexpected landfall. Thousands of lives and the fortunes of seafaring nations hung on a resolution.
To encourage a solution, governments of Europe established major prizes for anyone whose method or device proved successful. The largest reward in history, a reward of £20,000 — truly a king’s ransom — was offered by the British Parliament in 1714. The scientific establishment — from Galileo to Sir Isaac Newton — had been certain that a celestial answer would be found and invested untold effort in this pursuit. In stark contrast, one man, John Harrison, imagined and built the unimaginable: a clock that solved the problem by keeping precise time at sea, called today the chronometer. His trials and tribulations to win the prize throughout a forty-year obsession are the culmination of this remarkable story. His greatest opposition came from the great minds of his day, including Sir Edmund Halley, who comprised the jury upon whom the award of the prize was dependent. Convinced that the answer lay within their own fields of expertise, they shunned Harrison’s assertion that an accurate clock, and not the stars, provided the solution. They shunned it, to a great extent, because he was neither nobleman, not astronomer. It was a source credibility, or ethos problem. He was a carpenter, who turned to making wood clocks for churches and eventually, refined and miniaturized the making of world’s first timepiece, accurate enough to save lives at sea, dominate the shipping lanes and help build an empire.
Shortly before his death in 1955, one of the greatest minds of our age wrote a glowing foreword to a book by the eminent geologist Charles Hapgood, who had written a book renouncing the entire idea of continental drift, or what is now known as plate tectonics. As late as our own years in public schools, long after overwhelming evidence existed in support of continental drift, text books were still being printed and high-school science teachers continued to “teach” that the idea was folly.
What accounted for decades of opposition to the idea? It was likely the fact that the scientist who wrote the first work in support of the idea shortly before WWI, Alfred Wegener, lacked source credibility. In the words of Bill Bryson, from his sensational 2003 book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything:” “Clearly the time was ripe for a new theory. Unfortunately, Alfred Wegener was not the man that geologists wished to provide it. Wegener had no background in geology. He as a meteorologist, for goodness sake. A weatherman-a German weatherman. These were not remediable deficiencies.”
As a result of a lack of source credibility, it took a half-century, a modern scientific dark-age of geology, for serious consideration to be granted to one of the fundamental truths of our scientific age. How long will it take until marketers consider the quality of agency input to be as essential as the agencies they select? Stay tuned . . .