Opinion: Getting Seussical to Answer the Questions of Today

Mitch Morrison, Vice President of Retailer Relations

Recently I’ve been drawn to children’s books for answers about the state of our economy, our politics and our pursuit of happiness.

When you combine the works of classic writers Dr. Seuss, Beatrix Potter, Sandra Boynton and Eric Carle with many of today’s finest minds, you find answers and, even more frequently, questions.

Take Dr. Seuss’s 1961 classic short story “The Sneetches”:

“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches

had bellies with Stars.

The Plain-Belly Sneetches had

none upon thars.

Those stars weren’t so big. They were

really so small.

You might think such a thing

wouldn’t matter at all. ...

Then, quickly, Sylvester McMonkey McBean

Put together a very peculiar machine.

And he said, ‘You want stars like

a Star-Belly Sneetch?

My friends, you can have them for $3 each!’ ”

The Sneetches shift from stars to without, from trend to trend, fad to fad, until their pockets are dry of money. By the end of this riveting tale, the Sneetches, though poorer, are wiser. They recognize the frivolousness of their judgments and the absurdity of their definition of superiority.

In his book “Start With Why,” author and marketing consultant Simon Sinek explores the Sneetches’ conduct. “The Sneetches,” he writes, “perfectly capture a very basic human need: the need to belong.

“Our need to belong is not rational, but it is a constant that exists across all people in all cultures. … Our desire to feel like we belong is so powerful that we will go to great lengths, do irrational things and often spend money to get that feeling.”

And here’s the kicker for us as retailers and suppliers: “When companies talk about ‘what’ they do and how advanced their products are … they do not necessarily represent something to which we want to belong,”

Sinek says. “But when a company clearly communicates their ‘why,’ what they believe, and we believe what they believe, then we will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to include those products or brands in our lives.”

Why do thousands of people stand in lines for hours to be the first to buy a new Apple product? Why do coffee consumers wait 10 minutes every morning for their Starbucks fix? Why do certain products give you goosebumps even when they are qualitatively no better than their competitors?

This proposition applies to elections as well. Many candidates focus on the “what.”

Others speak to “why.”

No one will argue that Hillary Clinton boasted a stronger resume for the role of commander in chief—first lady, two-term U.S. senator, secretary of state—than Donald Trump. But Trump crushed it where it counted most: the “why.” Why we needed a new direction. Why we had to drain the swamp. Why Washington was out of touch with folks from Alabama, Kentucky, Montana and much of the United States.

While Hillary mastered the “whats”—the programs, initiatives and laundry list of promises—Trump saw the pain of too many Americans, and his campaign theme of “Make America Great Again” spoke to the “why.”

Sinek’s point is indirectly reinforced by an illuminating piece by former Wall Street Journal writer Bret Stephens, who recently joined The New York Times.

In his April 28 column titled “Climate of Complete Certainty,” Stephens speaks to the dangers of becoming overly reliant on data, of looking to technologists, models and algorithms to draw conclusions.

Stephens concludes, “We live in a world in which data convey[s] authority. But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris.”

Automation, artificial intelligence and new—increasingly faceless and voiceless—modes of interfaces will yield greater analysis of what we do and what we say. But the mistake of Clinton and the caution of Stephens and Sinek speak to us in an increasingly sophisticated retail culture. Our brand proposition must always focus on the “why”: why my store’s solutions and culture are first and foremost about making customers’ lives better, more enjoyable and more convenient.

And while mobile loyalty and Facebook rewards are important, the ultimate experience is the human one, the one in which face-to-face engagement, not a data point, conveys authority.

As Dr. Seuss concludes: “All the Sneetches forgot about stars. And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.”

Mitch Morrison is vice president and director of Winsight’s Retail Executive Platform. Reach him at [email protected].