Seeing What Isn't There


Abraham Wald was born in Hungary. He got a PHD in Mathematics from the University of Vienna. Then emigrated to the US after the Nazis invaded Austria.


He worked for the Statistical Research Group during World War II. It was a top-secret organisation that applied elite mathematical talent to help the allies win the war.


The Group faced a big question. How to better protect American warplanes flying over enemy territory.


These planes would take serious fire. Some returned home. Others crashed and burned. The military needed to know where to put extra armour on the planes to ensure fewer of them were shot down.


There was a clear pattern in the planes that returned home. The bullet holes were clustered mostly on the fuselage but not on the engines.


The military thought the answer was obvious. Put more armour in the place with the most damage – the fuselage.


But Wald thought they should do the opposite. He said the extra armour should go where the bullet holes were missing. Not where they were present.


Wald saw something that nobody else could see.


He realised they were only looking at the planes that had safely returned. Not the planes that had crashed and burned.


The bullet holes on the surviving planes showed where the planes were strongest not weakest.


They weren’t seeing any bullet holes on the engines – not because the planes weren’t getting shot there – but because the planes that were hit there didn’t return home. The engine was the most vulnerable part of the plane.


Wald proposed bulking up the armour on the engines. It was quickly implemented.

Many more planes made it back.


Why are we talking about this? It’s easy to look at what is there. You can see the short term sales target in front of you. You can see the products in your portfolio. You can see your promotional plan.


It’s a lot harder to look at what is not there. To see the long term sales opportunities. To see the products that could be in your portfolio. To see a new and different promotional plan.


But it’s often the things that are not there that have the biggest impact. Discounters weren’t there until… they were there. Inflation wasn’t there until… it was there. HFSS rules weren’t there until… they were there (though maybe they won’t be there again…)


So, how can you look beyond what is there and see what is not there?


Products. From looking at what you currently sell. To looking at what you’re not selling. This could be about different pack sizes. A great current example of this is double rolls in toilet paper. It could be about pack formats. Quaker is a great example. From boxes of porridge. To individual sachets. To porridge pots. To porridge bars. It could be about products that take you into new categories. Bonne Maman is a great example. From jam. To yoghurts. To desserts. To cakes.


Look ahead. What isn’t there that could be there?


Occasions. From looking at when you are currently used. To looking at when (or where) you are not being used. For instance, if you are a cereal, you might be focused on breakfast. It’s where the majority of your consumption occasions are. But there are a lot more eating occasions outside of breakfast. You might be missing out.


If you’re a coffee, you might be focused on hot drinking occasions. That’s fine when people are looking for a hot drink. Not so good when they are looking for a refreshing cold drink. So, you now see a wealth of cold coffee options. More than doubling the number of drinking occasions coffee can target.


Look ahead. What isn’t there that could be there?


Channels. From looking at where you are currently sold. To looking at where you are not sold. For instance, if you’re a snack are you available everywhere that people might be looking for a snack? If you’re a dessert, are you available and visible on delivery platforms? If you’re a regularly bought product, are you available direct to consumer? Or as a subscribe & save option? If you’re a secondary product (e.g. Nutella) how often are you sold with the primary product (e.g. bread & baked goods)?


Look ahead. What isn’t there that could be there?


These are just a few examples. There are plenty more. The price points you sell at. The way you are merchandised. How you promote.


So, ask yourself… what are you not looking at?


Then look at it. You might see something different.


You’d prioritise the engine not the fuselage.


Feel free to forward. Have a great weekend. Speak to you in fortnight.