The Precautionary Principle of Marketing

In 1999 there was a meeting of prestigious environmentalists and academics promoting a theory of thought around environmental policymaking called “The Precautionary Principle”. In its strictest sense, and broken down to its most basic tenet, the principle states that “ultimate precaution should trump all other considerations in future environmental and technological policy making”. Put more succinctly, the principal demands that if an action might cause harm, then inaction is preferable.

It is not hard to see how rigid enactment of this principle would lead to a culture of aversion and stagnation, where the mere potential of a negative would lead to positives unrealized. Where risks become something to be avoided instead of opportunities to be seized.

  • Medication that could cure a terminal illness would be eschewed due to possible side effects.
  • New technologies would be forsaken for fear of malfunction.
  • Cars wouldn’t have been invented for the risk of a crash.
  • Surgical procedures wouldn’t exist for risk of damage to the patient.
  • Fire wouldn’t have been discovered for risk of burning down the house.

The point is, by looking to remove any possibility of harm you create an environment where gain is snuffed out, resulting in net greater harm than that which you were attempting to prevent.

There is another, more simple phrase to describe this dynamic; it is called being “penny smart and dollar foolish”, and it is a prevalent force within the corporate world. It permeates an organization and trickles down to the individual to create a culture of fear that stifles innovation.

  • Fear of disrupting the status quo, so you do what has always been done regardless of the result.
  • Fear of alienating with your message, so you make it palatable to all and relevant to none.
  • Fear of standing by your beliefs, so you acquiesce to management’s requests even if you disagree.
  • Fear of challenging the competition, so you play it safe even if there is potential gain in making direct claims against them.
  • Fear of transparency, so you dance around an issue instead of getting directly to its core.
  • Fear of being ill perceived, so you remain silent instead of adding to the dialogue.
  • Fear of losing your job…fear of being wrong…fear of failure…fear of being different…

At a certain point the fear of taking risks becomes riskier than the risks themselves.

So don’t fear failure. Fear the ordinary, commonplace and unimaginative. Fear the mediocre, unmemorable and uneventful. Let those fears haunt and drive you to be disruptive and impactful. To be meaningful and magical.

Because as Harvey Weinstein once said at a conference I attended, “The only thing middle of the road gets you is hit by a car.”

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