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Perception Is Reality

A friend of mine posted an intriguing question on  her Facebook page:

“What if everything you had ever believed turned out to be a lie?”

That made me stop and think for a moment and it also made me wonder, what if everything you had every thought turned out t be true? To be honest, I’m not sure which would be the more alarming to discover.

It won’t happen, of course, because for virtually all of us, the truth about life is somewhere in the middle.

Before I retired to become a mediocre landscape painter and a blogger, I was in strategic marketing. I was a branding and brand management specialist and was often invited to speak at conferences and to business about branding.

I particularly liked that part of my career because, quite frankly, nobody ever enjoyed hearing me talk more that I did. I know this is true because after speaking at a three-day, international conference in San Francisco, I was presented with an evaluation of how I ranked with my particular audience.

Attendees to the conference were given little white cards and invited to rank speakers on content and presentation skills using a scale from 1 to 10. They were also invited to write comments. I was gratified to discover that I had ranked 9/10 on average and that almost all of the comments were effusive in their evaluation.

But there is always one you remember beyond the others and I never forgot this particular comment.

“Excellent material, thorough, interesting and detailed from someone who obviously knows his stuff. It’s also obvious that nobody enjoys hearing him talk more than he does.”

The Lord giveth. . .and the Lord taketh away.

I see a lot of talk online about branding and the world has suddenly become full of ‘experts’ who know as much about branding as my dog and he doesn’t know all that much about it despite my best efforts to teach him. It’s not that they’re stupid or even that the things they talk about are wrong – it’s that they’re ideas are rooted in practical reality and that misses the entire point of branding.

Branding isn’t about reality – it’s all about perception. Because I’m somewhat visual, this is how I used to demonstrate what I meant when I would make a presentation.

220px-Gasoline_in_mason_jarI would hold up a glass mason jar with an off-colour clear liquid which I would identify this way.

“This product is highly flammable and very dangerous. It is difficult to locate, expensive to extract and requires significant refinement to convert to a usable consumer product. It also requires a sophisticated and integrated channel of delivery to get it into the hands of consumers. Its price is directly affected by those costs and geo-political conditions.”

Then I would hold up a 600 ml bottle of water.

“This product is found all over the word. It is easy to locate and harvest and requires little to prepare it for consumption beyond filtration and can be delivered to consumers through dozens, if not hundreds of existing channels of delivery.”waterbottles

The first product was gasoline and at that time, 1L of gasoline sold for $0.89 (eat your heart out). The other was bottled water and 600 ml, or just a little more than half as much as a liter of gas, sold for $0.99. In other words, the bottle of water was virtually twice as expensive as gasoline.

Inevitably I would get challenged for comparing apples to oranges so I would hold up a 300 ml bottle of Perrier which is nothing more than carbonated water. At that time, that bottle of Perrier sold for $1.19 which made it twice as expensive as a regular bottle of water and four times as expensive as an equivalent amount of gasoline.

I would then summarize with the statement that I had sat in the bar of the Intercontinental Hotel in Montreal listening to executives complain about the high cost of gasoline as they sipped their $4.00 glass of carbonated water, never questioning its price because it was called Perrier.

GINGER-LOVER_PERRIER-600x400Branding created the perception that a bottle of water had more value than an equivalent amount of gasoline and it is branding that created the perception that an average equivalent amount of shampoo is eight times that of gas. It is all perception and has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the thing but in the end, it doesn’t matter.

In branding – like life – perception is reality.

Branding is all about managing perception rather than attempting to manipulate reality. To manage perception, you have to apply a fair degree of objectivity so that your own perceptions don’t cloud what you think or are attempting to achieve.

It isn’t easy because we are all products of our lives; our education, our environment, our experience and the influence of those in our lives. Our understanding of life and the issues we face in life are filtered through those perceptions.

Consequently, two people can come at the same issue – any issue – with entirely different perceptions of it which leads to completely different and often divergent opinions about the issue and what to do about it.

Neither person is necessarily wrong, although sometimes, some are alarming so and I’ve written about them many times. But for most of us who can still think, our perception is simply filtered through different lenses.

The problem these days is not that we all have different perceptions on everything from global warming to gun control; health care to abortion but rather it is that we have become intransigent and cling to our perception of reality like a wood tick clinging to a hiker in the woods.

We have lost our objectivity and become closed to new ideas, differing opinions and are increasingly threatened by anything that might disrupt our perception of things. We have stopped learning from each other because we have stopped listening to each other. It interferes with our ability to effectively communicate and often disengages us from necessary things like common sense.

At some point, perhaps with the advent of social media; we became more intent on trying to influence others to our perception of reality rather than being open to an evolving understanding of what is real and what isn’t.

Reality actually exists. It’s tangible but few of us can define the reality of any issue or situation because we see it only through our perception of it. It takes discipline, real discipline, to step outside of your perceptions to look at something raw and unfiltered.

Most of us lack that discipline because most of us are either so invested in our perceptions that any change; any evolution of our current thinking is threatening to us. Of course, some never look beyond their perceptions simply because they’re stupid but most people aren’t although there is an increasing amount of stupidity around these days.

I don’t define stupidity as being a lack of education or even knowledge. For me, stupidity is the unwillingness to learn and to understand. It is a refusal to accept that our own perception might not be the most accurate and a refusal to consider the perception of others. The truly stupid among us are those who believe that only their perception is right and they refuse to consider anything other than that which supports their perceptions.

I believe it is why the arguments are so strident these days.

Everyone has an opinion based on their perception and rather than taking an objective look at and considering the opinions and perceptions of those on the other side of the issue; we are too focused on forcing our perception of reality on the rest of the world.

It doesn’t work. One of the cardinal rules in branding is that you cannot force a market to believe something that doesn’t make sense to it and it won’t make sense if it isn’t properly explained. You can’t explain it if you don’t understand or unwilling to try and understand the preconceived perceptions of that market.

You won’t ever see a company trying to convince consumers that its products are great by telling consumers who haven’t purchased them that they are stupid, fascists, communists or racist. Instead, marketing will attempt to understand the negative perceptions that might have attached to the product and will attempt to address them in a reasoned way.

I would suggest that we would do well to remember that when we’re talking to each other about religion, politics, race, gay marriage or any of the other issues that we seem so caught up in these days. Rather than trying to force our opinion based on our perception down the throats of others who disagree with us – we might do well to step back, take off our blinders and try to understand the perception of those opposed to our thinking.

Perhaps through that objectivity, we might gain a new understanding not only on how to present our side of the argument but to actually discover better ways to discuss issues and arrive at a consensus.

Reality exists but we see only what we perceive reality to be. We need to start to understand then that perception is reality and we need to start dealing with those perceptions, on all sides, if we’re ever going to move forward together.

My perception of reality may be entirely different than yours but that doesn’t make mine right and yours wrong or yours more accurate than mine. It means that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle – somewhere in between your perception and mine.

We will never arrive at the truth – that reality – if we continue to hold to the idea that only our perception of what constitutes what is real is the only true reality.

We continue to be like blind men touching one part of an elephant and believing that we have a full understanding what an elephant is. We don’t. We have a perception of what an elephant might be and it is only by being open to the perceptions of others that we may come to a full understanding of the reality of elephants – and life.

I’ve read and heard many opinions about the reality of the meaning of life over the years but the only one that ever made sense to me was that expressed by the poet Robert Frost: “I can summarize everything I know about life in three words — it goes on.”

So does reality, my friends, regardless of our individual perceptions of it.


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