Lessons from an unnoticed violinist

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English: Violinist Joshua Bell following a per...
Violinist Joshua Bell following a performance at the San Francisco Symphony in California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always loved the story of Joshua Bell playing the Bach pieces largely unnoticed in the Washington metro station. Please watch the video if you don’t know the story. And while the experiment does indeed confirm that we don’t take the time to appreciate as much as we should, more particularly, it’s also a poignant example of the contributions of context and information to our everyday decision making.

Context provides so much of how we read situations. No-one expects to see a concert violinist playing at a station – and because no-one expects it, no-one notices what he is doing, regardless of the extraordinary quality, and even fewer reward it. In that setting, in the blink of an eye that people evaluate, he’s just another musician, just another busker. If he was that good, many people would have subconsciously thought, he wouldn’t be playing here. So if he had played in another setting, even if it wasn’t a concert hall, would that have given his performance greater credibility for those passing by? Quite possibly.

There’s always competition. Whether you win or not depends on your ability to flourish in the prevalent operating conditions. In a concert hall, Mr Bell stands head and shoulders above most. In that context, he is at the top of his game. But in the context of a metro station, Mr Bell was uncompetitive. That is absolutely no reflection on his immense talents. The operating environment in a metro station is centred around time. The driving dynamic is rush. Mr Bell’s requirement that in order to appreciate what he was playing one had to pause for a moment and pay attention was incompatible with the environment and with the dynamic of that particular environment at that time of day. The destinational impulse of commuters completely overrode their cultural impulse. One could well say that was to their cost – but in reality, most clearly didn’t care.

What you make is actually less important than what you market. I wonder if it would have made any difference if Mr Bell had played alongside a sign that provided his credentials? Because then the perceptive dynamic would have changed markedly – from “another busker” to “free concert by an international musician”. Without information, without “marketing” most people, most companies and most brands are just anyone to everyone else. Mr Bell makes some of the sweetest and most skilfully played music in the world, but until people can see why someone like him deserves attention, he won’t gain most people’s interest or time. Today, everyone, including consumers, starts with “No”. It’s their fastest and simplest filter.

For every marketer who has felt like Mr Bell must have felt that day, three questions to ponder on:

1. Does the context in which people see what you offer provide the right signals – or does it telegraph all the wrong things about you?

2. What is the most powerful dynamic for buyers in your sector – and how are you addressing that in ways that make you the best answer?

3. In your marketing communications, have you really told people what they need to hear in order to say “yes” to you?

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