In marketing, curiosity is strategic

“Man’s mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension.”?–?Oliver Wendell Holmes. This is one of my favorites.

As you can imagine, I meet CMOs all the time. When speaking with them, they all talk about how essential it is to understand their key audiences, prospects, value propositions and customers. 

One discussion I’m having more frequently is on how they are going about understanding Gen Z and Gen Alpha audiences. This can be more challenging for a high percentage of CMOs when they’re inevitably at least a generation (or two) older than those they seek to market and sell to.

This has got me thinking. What makes a successful CMO, a successful marketing program, and a successful marketer?

I think the answer starts with curiosity – not only as a human trait or style, but as a strategic discipline.

Curiosity as the foundation

Those who know me and who work with me will probably agree that I have a high action bias. But I never start with action. I start with curiosity.

In my experience, curiosity informs knowledge, which informs insights, and these are the foundations we actually need to create the strategies that will deliver success. Challenging the status quo at the strategy development stage is best born out of curiosity, which feeds the questions and answers that being curious provoke and promote.

I’ve learned that being better informed helps you make better decisions. Knowing what is known and unknown, understanding what is fixed or variable, what is determining and shaping the hypothesis that you are building and testing. 

Getting to the bottom of a why (which may take layers of asking why), ultimately makes you a better strategist, and that in turn leads to better execution and results.

I’d argue that always asking for more information, understanding what influenced a particular choice, decision or outcome, measuring what results followed these decisions, and exploring what might be changed, is curiosity deployed to good effect.

Being open is better than being closed

It goes further than strategic development. Creating a culture built around curiosity embeds this approach to marketing across the whole organization. 

The quote at the head of this article is attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes. I love what it represents because it embodies positive change across an entire company, and embodies a discipline that can be learned by everyone.  

Curiosity then becomes part of a company, not the characteristic and style of a select few.

Part of turning curiosity from an instinct into a discipline in yourself and your team is remaining open – not just to new ideas or new opinions, but to changes of direction, to new opportunities. Not staying open is the pathway to failure. 

I also strongly believe that when you face difficulties and your head is hurting, or you are feeling uncomfortable by what you are facing, that is an indicator that you are experiencing an opportunity for growth. 

Seeing it as a positive, being curious as to why you are feeling that way, and where the opportunities are to learn the best path forward, leads to faster progress. The opposite to that is when people retreat or find difficulty, discomfort or pain as something negative.

The biggest danger to a leader is to set a marketing strategy and then forget it. Assuming that an initial set of inputs, questions asked and answers given, even based on hard data, will not change, is the definition of a lack of curiosity about your markets and customers. As one constant is change – things will always be moving. 

If you set and forget, you miss two things: changes in customers, prospects, and audience; and knowing whether or not your program is working. Your audience might be right and your program might be wrong. Your marketing might be supported, and your audience or market might have changed. Your competitors certainly will.

Systematic curiosity: from trait to discipline

The alternative is to be curious, to make being open systematic by continuously seeking, measuring and acting on insights. It’s important to recognize that an informed strategy represents an initial hypothesis that, almost inevitably, will change and if you are the driver of it, will change for the better.

In marketing, this translates to having always-on data points that deliver real-time insights on how changes in the markets you operate in have impacts on your customers.

If you can build a culture of curiosity in your organization you move to an approach that welcomes knowing what’s changed, away from the mindset that something is either right or wrong.

If you hire for curiosity, you can develop and nurture that culture across the organization, to create a question-based approach to people and data. 

Curiosity may have killed the cat. In marketing, it leads to better outcomes, helps you be better informed, and helps you make better decisions.

A version of this article also appears at