Marketing for Scientists

I Learned Marketing From My Toddler

I became a father two years ago last month. In those two years I blogged a little less often and gave few workshops than I would have otherwise. But I kept learning valuable lessons about marketing and baby-genius-image-300x257communicating science—from life with my toddler. Here are a few of the priceless lessons he has taught me.

You can’t win by fighting.

My two-year old son loves puppies, grapes, fire trucks—and above all—tongs. Yes, tongs: those springy tools you might use to grab chicken thighs from the grill or toast from the toaster. Whenever I open the drawer and take out the tongs, a row begins. “My tongs!” he cries, grabbing hold of them. If I try to yank them away, it becomes a tug of war. Screaming, crying, kicking—he pulls out all the stops. If I do manage to wrest them from his grasp, the screaming only intensifies. Fighting a two-year old is simply a waste of time.

Instead of fighting: redirect.

So the chicken thighs are burning and I need those tongs to take them off the grill. But my toddler has them and is using them to spread cheerios around the rug. So how do I get the tongs back? I offer him something else in exchange for the tongs, another enticing toy he can grab hold of. It works most of the time.

Use silly words.

There’s a chain of convenience stores in my part of the world called “Wa-Wa”. I stopped at one the other day with my son. He couldn’t stop giggling when he heard the name. And it was such an easy word to read and say and remember—and he could even almost read it himself. Now he asks to go to Wa-Wa all the time. Where do you want to go for your birthday? Answer: Wa-Wa! And if he really gets upset over the tongs and he won’t settle for a toy fire truck—you guessed it—I can always take him to Wa-Wa.

Much of this may seem obvious to you, but it dawned on me one day that my son was teaching me important tools for shaping the public debate over scientific issues. We scientists always seem to be in some kind of battle for public opinion these days, right? Certain topics in science—like climate change, for instance—just take them out of the drawer and they are guaranteed to start a fight. Well, that’s where these toddler techniques can really shine.

Living with a toddler has taught me that the fight over climate change, per se, is not a fight you can win. The big toddlers of the world—the Marco Rubios and the Sarah Palins and so on—will not let go of their end of this argument. They will just continue to get more and more upset, and continue outspending those of us with the right answers.

But we can still ultimately control the discussion, provided we let go of the tongs. The trick is to redirect our opponents by distracting them with new toys, that is, new topics for debate—of our choosing. And the best way to frame these new topics is with silly words (like “Wa-Wa”). The silly words are new brand names.

Of course, climate change is not a silly topic. And a proper discussion of climate change often does call for precise terms like external forcing and general circulation models, and other non-toddler friendly jargon.

But we do have some good, evocative, fun, easy-to-pronounce words about climate change that have already started shifting the center of this debate: Tesla. Carbon Footprint. Energy Star. Smart Metering. Any toddler can say these words. These words lead us down a path toward fixing the problem, and crucially, give us a good feeling just to say them. And we can invent more. By offering people enticing new brands like these, we can redirect them away from a hopeless tug of war over climate change itself, and get them talking about how the problem should be addressed. Maybe we can even save them from themselves.