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Craft, Customers & Critics: Investing in Discovery

What NASA and Proctor & Gamble Can Teach Us About the Power of Discovery

Why Invest in Discovery?

Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert shares that one of our biggest flaws as human beings is that we underestimate the odds of our future pains and overestimate the value of our present pleasures. Lack of discovery in the marketing process is due largely to this flaw.

Whether you’re part of an agency or in-house with a brand, marketers are often pushed to go directly to work, discovery and context be damned. There are many very effective ecosystems in place that command excellence because of their investment in discovery.

NASA spends anywhere from 50-80% of project time in planning phases. When P&G launched their Febreze product, it initially failed because they focused on odor elimination rather than the positive power of great scent. They took a step back, invested research into target segmentation and focus group research to refine, remarket and relaunch what came to be one of their most successful product lines.

How are you investing in discovery? Do you and your teams have enough information gathered in discovery to make good choices about digital marketing strategies to support your business objectives?


Be Clear About Objectives

Growth is not really a goal, and if we consider it one it’s a lazy goal. Everyone wants growth. Growth is a result of great objectives and great work. Regardless of the channels or methods we’re using to reach our customers by investing in discovery, we’re really try to do one thing; give them the context, information, problem-solving, value and even joy to consider our product and become loyal customers.

One of P&G’s objectives in their “Breathe Happy” campaigns was to address a problem. Febreze, initially marketed as a way to get rid of unpleasant smells, sold poorly until P&G realized that people become accustomed to smells in their own homes, and stop noticing them even when they are overpowering (like the smell of several cats in a single household). The marketing then switched to linking it to pleasant smells and good cleaning habits instead, which resulted in a massive increase in sales. Only after the product became well established in the marketplace did the marketing go back to emphasising odor elimination properties as well. This deeper investment in discovery helped them better connect with the customer for product consideration. Subsequent efforts with their #NoseBlind Campaign focused on the original approach of getting rid of unpleasant smells that people have gotten used to. This is a great example of re-evaluating customer need and re-launching a brand based on discovery. P&G stayed true to their original objective.

Sure it can be hard to be clear about objectives, especially longer-term ones, but we can find inspiration in a lot of places. In a nearly 20-year old document, NASA outlined their vision, mission, short and long term goals that stand today.


NASA is an investment in America’s future. As explorers, pioneers, and innovators, we boldly expand frontiers in air and space to inspire and serve America and to benefit the quality of life on Earth.


To advance and communicate scientific knowledge and understanding of Earth, the environment of space, the solar system, and the universe,
To explore, use, and enable the development of space for human enterprise,
To research, develop, verify, and transfer advanced aeronautics, space, and related technologies.

Near and Mid-Term Goals:

Be at the forefront of exploration and science.
Develop and transfer to industry cutting-edge technologies in aeronautics and space to fulfill our National needs.
Establish a permanent human presence in space, expanding and sustaining human exploration, use and development of space in our solar system and providing benefits in science, technology, and commerce that will contribute to a better life on Earth for this and future generations.
As we pursue our mission, we will enrich our Nation’s society and economy.
We will communicate widely the content, relevancy, and excitement of NASA’s missions and discoveries in order to inspire and to increase understanding and broad application of science and technology.

Long-Term Strategy:

Undertake bold and noble challenges and share the excitement of NASA’s future programs with our fellow citizens.
Conduct international human missions to planetary bodies in our solar system such as the Moon and Mars.
Enable advances to air/space systems to support “highways in the sky,” “smart aircraft,” and revolutionary space endeavors.
Support the maturation of established aero/space industries and the development of new high-tech industries.
Enable humans to forecast and assess the health of the Earth system.
Establish a virtual presence throughout our solar system.

Their discovery included not only identification of vision, mission and goals but strategic roadmaps, identification of potential partners, agreement on key assumptions, alignment on outcomes and sharing of lessons learned.

If an organization as large and impactful as NASA can align on discovery that drives their actions, brands should be able to do the same.

Perhaps the largest loss of information, context, learnings and data occurs on digital marketing teams when we skip the discovery process. One way to overcome this type of loss when resources and partners change is to turn processes and procedures into storytelling. How do we engage the human part of marketers and planners? We can move marketers from information gathering mode to engaged brand partners by turning marketing materials, deliverables and data into storytelling (the Content Scorecard is a great example of marketing storytelling that engages).

Too often brands and agencies or multiple agency partners lack past stories and context to help move a strategy forward with the power and instruction of discovery. Investing in discovery to help align teams against a shared knowledge through storytelling is effective, not just for teams but for customers.

Executing is the most effective strategy for learning, but that can be very expensive, whether you’re NASA or a Paid Media Strategist. Storytelling is the second most effective strategy for learning and can provide some framework prior to execution.


Consumers Have Control

Historically, advertising has been about the voice of the advertiser. What’s the message we, as a brand, want to share? What channels are our customers engaged in? Those simpler, brand-focused, Mad Men days of push messaging are over. Consumers have control. Control of the channel, control of the message and control of viewing and even sharing that message. Jumping directly into executing a marketing campaign without first understanding the customer and audience is an all too commonplace example of skipping discovery.

Discovery for Customers Happens in Lots of Places Besides Google

Proctor & Gamble began investing more heavily in SEO when they realized that simple searches on YouTube for their Tide Tabs product were unsuccessful in being found in the customer journey. YouTube is the second largest search engine, discovery requires thinking about the full search experience not just one that included Google. We can’t control the content customers consume or even the channel in which they consume it. Spending time in discovery to understand our customers and their search behaviors increases the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time.


Let Critics Contribute to Discovery

Some people responded to the Febreze campaign negatively, “I totally disagree with your publicity about cats smelling awful – I have 2 cats 16 years old.who smells like flowers and I have many visitors and they agree…..and what smells is not the animal..it’s the litter when the people don’t take time to clean.” On any given topic on any given day, there will be detractors and critics. It’s not the marketer’s job to quiet that voice but to amplify it. Respectful listening and thoughtful response can turn critics into customers. P&G response to this cat lovers post was thoughtful, giving them a chance to win her over.


As marketers and business builders we want to believe there are absolutes. There rarely are. With focus groups, testing, past experience and data we can create hypothesis on what will resonate with a customer during their journey, but it requires investment in discovery.

Allowing your craft to tell the story and your customers and critics to guide and even change that story is a powerful outcome of investment in discovery. Investment in the discovery process is time consuming and expensive. If we continue to underestimate the odds of our future pains and overestimate the value of our present pleasures we’ll continue to avoid discovery and the long-term potential discovery drives.

Ultimately that’s now our goal as brands, to provide enough context, information, problem-solving, storytelling and value that people are delighted to join us and invest in us, if only we invest in them first.



Lisa Williams is the Associate Director of Digital Engagement at Oregon Health & Science University and author of "When Everybody Clicks: Sustainable Digital Marketing". She is a 19-year veteran of online marketing and has been featured in Kiplinger Magazine, Glamour Magazine, Boston Globe and The Oregonian. Lisa is on the SEMpdx (Search Engine Marketing Professionals of Portland Oregon) Advisory Board. She speaks at regional, national and international conferences on the topics of digital strategy, marketing integration and leadership. Opinions are her own.