Data & Productivity

The Curse Of Knowledge: Mistakes Marketers Make Who Love Their Brand

Karan Shah
September 27, 2021

We’ve all been there. Improving our jazz standards, understanding the critical change and that high-note under our breaths, just to get 20 exhausting seconds in and be met with the sound of silence.

No one was bouncing out of their seats to figure out that tune that you so carefully practiced. It couldn’t be more obvious. Right?

Wrong.

While you might comprehend that tune inside-out, there’s no guarantee your audience will. In fact, as per research, cognitive bias implies it can feel impossible to understand how someone else can’t see what we believe to be so obvious.

And it’s not because you have an ego or you are some kind of genius, and it’s a natural intellectual phenomenon, otherwise known as ‘the curse of knowledge.’

Curse of knowledge: What does it do?

Minted by behavioral economists George Freud Lowenstein and Colin Farrel Camerer, the theory of cognitive bias has been proved repeatedly through recognition experiments. One example is by Elizabeth Newton at Stanford University in 1990. 

The experiment saw participants allocated to one of two roles – a “tapper” or a “listener,” whereby tappers were required to tap out the rhythm of a famous song (“Happy Birthday”) onto a table, and the listener was challenged to guess the song.

Tappers predicted 50% of their listeners would know their allocated song, only to be badly disappointed. Only 2.5% guessed the tune accurately.

As the Harvard Business Review put it, “When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code.” 

See, communication is a two-way path, and while something may seem obvious, the idea expressed by one person doesn’t always translate successfully to another person. And this influences all matters of communication, the advertising world. 

We have all seen ads that just don’t work or simply crossed the line, right?

Marketers, it’s time. Grab your pen and take a note. 

What you may understand about a product is insider information, and not always general agreement. It’s essential not to get too confident or see your knowledge as a given.  

As Chip and Dan Heath say in Made To Stick, how you present that information (tune, campaign, advert, or otherwise) must be obvious, emotionally relatable, and grab insider everyone’s attention. 

Or you’ll only get confusion, disconnection, or silence. Your message needs to bypass cognitive bias and stick to the mind of your audience.

So how do we ensure that marketing messages are sticky?

The Enigma To Sticky Marketing 

6 traits of Success according to the Heath brothers:

Simple: Stick to the basics. Spotlight is the single most influential idea. Strip things back. Don’t sink with choices or information. Make use of common everyday language. Simply just get to the point.

Unexpected: The curiosity gap arises when you surprise your audience with the extraordinary. Arouse their curiosity with bold, specific, unique information or statistics, creating wonder and intrigue. And make them want more.

Concrete: Create solid images, describe things in simple ways that are easy to understand: Appeal to what is relatable & recognizable, never use words/theories that are abstract and highly technical; this will alienate your audience. Even if you’re marketing a financial or technical product. 

Credible: Your plans need internal credibility and authorization to make you’re messaging astute and memorable. I.e., Statistics, Voice of Customer quotes and reviews, specificity, testable credentials – when you put some statement, always make sure your audience can confirm by themselves.

Emotions: Appeal to what your audience loves the most, their pain points, self-respect, purposes, or self-interest. 

Stories: Tell them a story that they have heard earlier. This, the story will resonate intuitively. The loser turning hero plot, the breakthrough plan memoir, the human connection tale, the level of overcoming difficult life and finally having a good one, etc.  

Remember this one important thing, the idea here is to be as straightforward as possible, with every word, representation, and imagery. See, storytelling is a long-existing vehicle for ideas, insights, and advice, being heavily cryptic or elusive will lose your audience’s attention.

While sharing your language, meanings and interpretations get lost in translation, so your message must be mutually understood to avoid. Beingerrors.

Avoid Using The Strictly Curse

If you’re too close to your product, there are chances you might be overlooking it; so, where might a marketer go wrong?

1. In Keyword Research 

  • When you’re using words that are too niche or too general to match your audience’s search words
  • When you’re using only one keyword: this will limit the options for visibility.

Without finding the right keywords (or subjects) to write about on your website, all of your content efforts might fail… keyword phrases that are being used by your target audience has dramatically changed over the years… Marketers are now required to focus on contextual relevancy primarily.” – Neil Patel. 

You can try this instead:

Focus on search intent: The audience searches Google for information (informational purpose), a particular website (navigational sense), or to buy something (commercial or transactional purpose). 

Your keywords should be molded by the language your customers would use to get their coveted results. 

Important Tip: Talk to them. 

Use different varieties of your keywords, and there are many different ways to search for one thing. Ask yourself, What would your audience search if they were not solution-aware or product-aware?


2. Use Jargon in B2B 

  • If you’re posting technical features and terms, assuming your customer will understand 
  • When you use heavily scientific and dense language or sounding too clever

You can try this instead:

  • Try to focus on the benefits of your product/service and how they will solve your customer’s pain points, improve the way they live, help them to get something they want, etc. As I mentioned earlier, appeal to their emotions and self-interest. It works. 
  • Use simple and concise language: Avoid confusing or boring your customers.
  • Be human. Spray in some human emotion, humor, empathy, and relatability. 

Go through Wealth Simple’s humorous take on the subject of money Dumb Questions for Smart People”:

3. Bad UX Design 

A clunky interface is challenging to navigate and has too much or sometimes not enough text. What seems evident to you might be confusing to the non-tech-savvy people. 

Instead, you can try this: 

A/B testing: Split tests different website versions and collects customer feedback, asking them which they would prefer. Ask them how you could improve too! 

4. Campaign Faux Pas

  • Impersonal campaigns or marketing copies fail to see your customer as an individual and address their distinct lifestyles and pain points. 

Important Tip: Don’t be nonexclusive or uncertain. Get real and get personal. 

  • Inconsiderate advertising that fails to show awareness of your audience’s social/cultural/economic reality

Try this instead: 

Observe social trends, current affairs,  cultural shifts, current affairs, patterns, and habits – anything that could shape your audience’s feelings and preferences towards your product.

Your campaigns must be socially aware, representative, and sensitive to your audience’s reality. And not your assumptions of their reality. 

Tip: Never assume. Always,, take time for research because it’s worth it.

For example, campaign faux pas that could have been avoided with the above:



In 2018, Cosmetics giant Estee Lauder came under fire for releasing their Double Wear Nude Water Fresh Makeup SPF25 range that included 30 shades, a few of which catered to darker skin tones. The campaign raised questions on the giant company’s relevance and reputation, as they failed to be inclusive and cater to all skin tones.

What Could Marketers Do, To Avoid This? 

  • Pre-product development market research, 
  • Social listening
  • Customer focus groups
  • A/B testing social messaging
  • Social listening over all social platforms and recognition of shifts in industry behavior
  • Monitoring campaigns

The brand’s assumption of a large-scale audience and global status affected their insights – i.e. the curse of knowledge. Keep in mind your brand reputation is essential and mistakes committed whether big or small can impact your customer’s opinion of you almost irreversibly. 

This can be avoided once you’re aware of cognitive bias, understand, and work with your team to ensure your marketing efforts are not in vain. 

After all, there is a light that never goes out. 

Final Thoughts 

Next time you assume, someone must know what you’re marketing, advertising, or campaigning, think twice. The curse of knowledge may just blur your vision.

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