the pragmatic relationship with probabilities


“Behind each door of what-if lies an unanswerable question that unhinges an infinite Rube Goldberg machine of probabilities.”
Maria Popova


“With respect to the requirement of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.”


Far before Nassim Taleb published Fooled by Randomness or Antifragile I learned the lesson of the pragmatic relationship with probabilities. In the 1980’s I managed the Valvoline Motor Oil advertising and grassroots business. This included motorsports which will make sense why I point out a bit later.


In the good old days, we didn’t speak of probabilities, we would sit down and pragmatically think about the likelihood of shit happening – both good shit and bad shit. And, yeah, most times when probabilities are being discussed these days “crisis” is tossed around.

Let me be clear. Crisis is never good. That said. There is certainly bad crisis, i.e., “the bottom has dropped out from under our feet and we are 5,000 feet up”, but then there is also good crisis, i.e., “holy shit, they loved it and we have an order for a 1,000,000 sock puppets but we only have a 1000 capability sock puppet manufacturing capacity.” Both are certainly a crisis just that one focuses on survivable and the other on thriveable.

So let me get back to pragmatic probabilities.


Sometimes you take some chances. Chances, in marketing, usually circle around aggressiveness, i.e., how aggressive do I want to go to market. Needless to say, a testosterone-driven business like motor oil can be quite aggressive in their attitude. Motor oil can appear to be a commodity category but in reality, is it is just ‘commodity-like.’ What I mean by that is there are some nuanced differences between motor oil production and you can create some fairly vivid demonstrations to amplify some fairly small differences <albeit I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that sometimes small differences in car performance can equate to big consequences on vehicle lifetime as well as current optimization>. Valvoline had an opportunity. They had done some comparative testing and found a performance difference. Creatively we had attached a visual which amplified that difference to create a vivid metaphor which had a Valvoline semi-truck pass all the competitors’ trucks going up a hill while the voiceover walked people through the difference. The combination of words and visual were a compelling communication that Valvoline surpassed everyone else <the close was also “#1 choice of car mechanics”>. It was pretty simple and pretty powerful. And pretty much suggested the competitors were shit in comparison. Valvoline loved it and it was a defendable claim with research. This is where probabilities enter onto the discussion. The discussion revolved around “what is the likelihood a competitor challenges and we receive a cease & desist.” The conversation quickly concluded “extremely high probability” <our guess was someone would pull their own research to make our research look a bit murky in its claim>. Now. We also assessed a likelihood we would win or lose <because we had support>. This probability was a bit more hazy. Oh. And whether we actually cared if we won or lost <that was a bit less hazy>. But this entire likelihood/probability discussion led to producing an entirely different execution saying almost exactly the same thing, but with a different visual to have in our hip pocket. The initial competitive execution ran for one month in high rotation, competitors went ballistic, brand awareness & preference went thru the roof, market share increased, and we quietly pulled it off air right before we had to get into an extended fight legally and ran the non-controversial execution. My point here is that a pragmatic discussion revolving around probabilities helped us develop a plan of action of which we created a potential crisis and, yet, averted it at exactly the same time.


Motorsports is a tricky sport. In something like NASCAR, you can win only 2 races an entire season and yet still win a championship. That said. IndyCar, NASCAR, any professional circuit, if you are a main sponsor, winning is good. Here is where probabilities and marketing cross paths. Inevitably all marketing groups have to hash out how to apply limited resources against all marketing opportunities <not just motorsports>. So, at the beginning of a season, you attempt to build programs to maintain positive awareness and optimize positive awareness opportunities, i.e., when you win or figure out some vivid demonstration of your product positioning. Depending on the quality of your sponsored team, if you look at individual races each probability of a win can seem fairly minuscule particularly as you assess all marketing dollars available to you. But then when you sit back and say “likelihood of a win at least once in a season”, well, all of a sudden people around the table sit up a little and apply a higher likelihood <I know that’s not the way statistic/probabilities works but this is a pragmatic business probabilities discussion>. As soon as you reach this point in the conversation, of probability accepted, then everything circles around “how do we optimize the opportunity.” In other words, you move into ‘thrive’ mode and a win crisis <and, yes, when someone wins it is always a scramble no matter how well you prepare> it is not “oh shit”, but rather “let’s go.”

This is actually optimizing a low probability opportunity or, let’s try, the inverse pragmatic relationship with probability <not building to probability but rather to little probability with high return>.

Oh. About “win at least once in a season.” Yeah. “A” win. Someone will always say “no one will care you won A race.” That’s silly out-of-touch thinking. If even for one moment I can get some people to think “hey, they are a winner” I have already enhanced my brand value <directly & indirectly>. The value of a ‘win’ to the light user or new entry into the category is invaluable. The value of reminding any customer you are a winner is never bad. So, the importance of amplifying a win, correctly, when you have limited resources <who doesn’t> is, well, important. I am sure I could make a probability point on this also if I was smart enough, but I am not.

In the end.

I imagine my larger point on this is probabilities get discussed pragmatically all the time. We don’t need to be statistics nerds or run simulations or even delve into scenario planning. What we need to do is run through survive and thrive situations and make sure we have a plan because neither situation is something you want to screw up. Ponder.

Written by Bruce