This article was originally published in Muse by Clio @ musebycl.io
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 over-analyzed, 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.
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.
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.
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.