How Fine Art Made Me a Better Marketer

They share more skill sets than you think

When you think about a trained fine artist, do you imagine someone clad in bohemian wear, splashing paint around a giant canvas in the middle of a well-lit loft? Or maybe a sharply dressed someone in stilettos sipping wine at a high-end New York gallery? How about a marketing strategist building campaigns that help achieve business goals?

I certainly did not expect the latter from my fine art college program, especially as I presented my artwork to my peers and delivered what I considered to be overanalyzed, sometimes pretentious-sounding, sometimes completely fabricated explanations of the piece I made for the assignment. But little did I realize that the challenge of coming up with conceptual art ideas, peer critiques, and analyzing famous works at length helped refine what I consider two of the most important skills a marketer can have: critical thinking and a deeper form of empathy—mentalization.

Here, I'll explain how you can apply those two skills to quality marketing.

Critical Thinking

Picture this: As a new art student, you've been tasked with creating a work of conceptual art, to be installed in a gallery for viewing and explained within the context of the modern art landscape. You've created a piece that consists of nails precariously dangling from the ceiling, attached by twine. You've spent months developing its significance: something akin to the struggles of fitting into an oppressive society. You've backed this significance with an incredibly detailed essay relating it to famous works of art with similarly deep meanings and volumes of text explaining those meanings. You also connect your work to elements from other areas—entertainment, history, economics—to support its significance.

This mind-stretching and brain-bending you've gone through—the practice of finding seemingly unrelated points across unfamiliar fields and linking them together—is a result of critical thinking. According to the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, critical thinking is the process of "actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating information" to reach an answer or conclusion. It allows you to solve problems with incomplete information using interpretation and inference. It allows you to use open-mindedness to draw information from a variety of sources to widen the data you're working with. And it allows you to use those inferences and information to make better decisions in the future.

As a new art student, though, my explanations came off as pretty dubious and far-fetched. However, that practice not only helped prepare me for a better art piece next time, but for future marketing strategy and planning.

How to use critical thinking in marketing

• As a foundation for marketing strategy: Marketing strategy is never determined with perfectly complete information. Marketers must make decisions without knowing exactly the outcome. Think through every angle of an idea and possible outcomes to find the best ways to market that idea.

• To ask and find the "why" beneath the surface: It's not enough to see that the quarterly numbers are up or down; the really valuable knowledge is the why. Look for clues of correlation, causation and patterns, and be open to considering hidden variables. This avoids simplifying complex situations and gathers more information upon which to make future decisions.

• To come up with new, different, unexpected and contextually relevant ideas: Pay attention to what's going on in the wider world to find ways to connect marketing messages to what's happening in customers' lives. Look at sources beyond marketing-focused publications or the company's direct industry.

• To break down silos: Connecting efforts across company departments not only eliminates parallel efforts, but also uncovers new sources of information that can be used in marketing efforts and connects people across teams to increase the likelihood of maintaining that source of information. In the end, this enriches your ultimate outcome as well. The key is listening and proactively searching for these opportunities to "cross wires."

Empathy + Action

In designing your installation of dangerously dangling nails, you've also practiced a second skill that is incredibly important to marketing: understanding your audience on a level deeper than empathy. Clinical psychologists would call it mentalization or theory of mind: the ability to understand the mental state of others (and one's self) that underlies overt behavior. In practical terms, it means making a good guess as to what's happening in someone else's mind and connecting that to how they act. 

You used this skill when you anticipated how your art installation might make people feel. You included visual cues that would trigger thoughts and associations in your audience. And you designed the space to predict and encourage actions they may take, such as interacting or moving around the room. 

Mentalization is some degree of understanding your audience, empathizing with them, having them feel understood, being mindful of your own brand, and exhibiting emotional intelligence all rolled into one.

How to use mentalization in marketing

• To build audience personas: Imagine how a variety of people will think and feel about the brand and construct stories to explain their hypothetical behavior.

• To design experiences for an audience that result in an expected outcome: You can imagine what your target audience will think leading up to encountering your content, how they will experience that content, and how you can guide that experience in a specific way.

• To build brand–audience relationships: When audiences feel understood, they trust the entity showcasing that understanding more. The brand can share experiences the audience relates to or signal that the brand and audience have a shared goal.

• To further define the brand: How would the brand react to a particular event that happened in the world? Would it be appropriate for the brand to make a public statement about it? What tone of voice would the brand use while interacting with customers? Mentalization can help fully understand the brand's persona.

In the end, whether viewers are trying to wrap their heads around a mystifying conceptual art installation or connect with a marketing campaign, both critical thinking and mentalization lie at the foundations of campaigns with deeper complexity and a closer connection to their audiences. Critical thinking brings all the disparate pieces together, while mentalization taps into what makes audience members tick. These skills develop through a wide range of experiences, like fine art, and teams with these skills can elevate your marketing beyond the mere execution of tactics. 

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Vanessa Zucker
Vanessa Zucker is associate director of marketing and communications at global marketing agency Firewood, an S4 Capital company.

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