Brands, ignore complexity at your peril!

Cultural Researcher and Strategist Gemma Jones says, if brands are to be a guiding light in a messy world, they must acknowledge the complexity of people through research

Marketers are in the business of holding a mirror up to the world and finding strategies, customers and brand identities somewhere in the reflection. As we find ourselves thrust into sharp focus by a pandemic, a civil rights movement and climate collapse, it’s time for some serious reflection on the how and the why behind what we do. For too long, too many of us have been walking a hall of two-way mirrors, reflecting a warped reality that obscures the bigger picture.

The explosion of context

The world is incredibly complex and as John Sterman says “there are no side-effects, only effects”. With any marketing question, there is a web of context to negotiate - finding out about say, laundry behaviours, implies a whole set of cultural, economic and symbolic cues subtly informing consumer preference and brand loyalty. This is because consumers are people and they are engaged in complex ways with culture. But so often because of factors like deadlines, actionability and presentation formats we try to reduce the wonderful complexity of people into charts and segments. Like many powerful systems, including governments, media platforms, education and businesses, marketing has a habit of reducing complexity so that the message is clearer. But messages have the power to reinforce norms or create change. I’ve seen too many instances where sustainability has been reduced to a narrative for a certain type of consumer or category. As though, a single parent of four working nights is not impacted by environmental issues because they don’t fall into the ‘sensorially curious nature lover’ segment.

Maybe our frameworks are broken when a humanity-defining issue like sustainability just won’t fit?

If brands and services are to be a guiding light in a messy world, they must acknowledge complexity through research, work with it and reflect on their role in a much bigger picture.

Widen the lens

One way to work with complexity is to widen the lens of research. A cultural framing helps - history, semiotics and anthropology are disciplines rooted in the negotiation of contextual complexity in qualitative and quantitative data.  Try looking at your marketing strategy as a historical event, a product of its context with many interconnected sources that support and challenge its validity.  This might sound too cerebral but it’s powerful to simply ask the kinds of questions a historian asks - ‘what are the invisible assumptions underpinning this document?’, ‘who is speaking and who is silenced in this dialogue?’ and ‘how has this strategy gone wrong, and for who?’.

A commercial semiotician looks to make explicit the implicit cues that shape particular assumptions and behaviours. A powerful tool for interpreting and influencing consumer perceptions, but it’s perhaps equally empowering for organisations and sectors to put themselves under the semiotic lens. A process of decoding can reveal the holding patterns of meaning that are limiting the connections we can make. This isn’t just about identifying opportunities for category disruption, but holding ourselves accountable for our internal biases by seeing how they work, by making them explicit.

A commercial semiotician looks to make explicit the implicit cues that shape particular assumptions and behaviours

Working on creative strategy for diversity in beauty communications illuminated for me the worrying depth of implicit meaning patterns within organisations. It seems there is an invisible threshold for acceptably diverse beauty images - ultimately limiting the cultural impact of creative and the positive progression of the industry. Perhaps the missing prequel to the research brief is an analysis of the organisation’s diversity commitment. Anthropologists can teach us a lot about observing human behaviour with full awareness of the relative cultural position and biases of the observer. Erasing yourself from the data feels cleaner but it continues the false division between marketer and consumer, brand and culture. Come out from behind the two-way mirror. For instance with the practice of ‘embodied’ fieldwork, the researcher uses their own lived experience to understand a product or service and the context around it - we carry so much intuitive knowledge of the world in our bodies, we shouldn’t be afraid to use it.

Both acknowledging our cultural position and valuing our own embodied knowledge point to the commercial and ethical imperative for diversity within research and strategy teams.

We carry so much intuitive knowledge of the world in our bodies, we shouldn’t be afraid to use it

Upping the ‘anti’ on our ‘isms’

Much has been said about a move from a passive stance on racism toward a proactively ‘anti’ role. This has provided useful and powerful language for how change really happens. It’s also signalled a reckoning for companies who use the public face of their brand to support marginalized people while continuing practices that reinforce inequality. Adidas’s statement on Twitter; "We've celebrated athletes and artists in the Black community and used their image to define ourselves culturally as a brand, but missed the message in reflecting such little representation within our walls." shows a new and necessary kind of honest reflection on the double standards of marketing practice.


The North Face and REI, the latest brands (at the time of writing) to pull advertising from Facebook as a response to the company’s perpetuation of hate speech, indicates a move toward media planning strategies that consider cultural complexity as an ethical matter. The Ellen McArthur Foundation is working with brands to shift the sustainability agenda toward circularity; it's no longer enough to be clean, to really make a difference brands need to be regenerative. These are just a few examples of ‘anti’ marketing activity that is still the exception to the rule. But part of taking on this ‘anti’ commitment is that you commit everyday; as legislation shifts, suppliers change policies, resources deplete etc.

Backcasting looks forward to a possible or preferred future and then maps out the steps needed to take us there

As marketers we must push to be part of the nitty gritty conversations about supply chain, delivery systems, performance metrics and human resources. We can’t be agents of ‘anti’ until we are connecting the dots, internally and externally. As an industry we have cultivated a huge toolkit of foresight methods but not many of them prepare us to be agents of ‘anti’. A ‘backcasting’ approach can help us make sense of our proactive role in change. Backcasting looks forward to a possible or preferred future and then maps out the steps needed to take us there, starting with today. This isn’t the same as a pipeline of activity toward a new product or campaign, it's a picture of the events that need to happen to manifest change.

If there’s anything we can learn from the world right now, it's that we ignore complexity at our peril and we need our ways of thinking, framing and doing to reflect that. If we don’t analyse our place in the big narratives of change - as individuals, companies and as an industry - we risk perpetuating harm and not even seeing ourselves doing it.

This article came from issue 7 of Marketing Society publication Empower. Read the archive here.