Is your issue complicated or complex?

April 8, 2013

This is complicated…

… and this is complex.

The difference between something being complicated or complex, is the extent to which you can pull it apart and identify the individual pieces that went into creating it, the role of each piece, and how each little bit contributes to the operation of the whole thing. 

A jet engine is complicated – if you had the time, the patience, the right tools and a really good manual, you could take it apart into all its constituent bits, and recreate it again (great example, thanks to Mark Earls who wrote the wonderful book ‘Herd’ about how social context considerably, and often unconsciously, influences our behaviour). 

Mayonnaise, on the other hand, is a wonderfully simple example of something that’s complex. Its individual ingredients (egg yolks and olive oil) interact together and are transformed into something else – which is impossible to separate back out to its constituent parts. 

So, jet engines and mayonnaise – what’s this got to do with strategy and brands again? It’s about the fact that human behavior is complex, and culture is complex, and therefore the field into which we launch our brands and want them to thrive and evolve is complex. All of our interactions (with others, with the brand, with the product itself, with comms, with other people who use the brand, from society at large) have an effect (mostly unconsciously) on how we perceive a brand.

However sometimes we look at our customers, our brands, our competitors and the marketplace, as if they are complicated. And we’re often schooled to do it that way – we want to make sense of things, to build a model to understand purchase propensity, brand loyalty, equity, mind share – and reduce our consumers to the rational. And much of psychology (and isn’t that supposed to be about understanding human behavior?) is based on experimental theories, tested in a laboratory setting by trying to remove all the variables that can influence us except for isolating the one mechanism that makes us behave in a particular way. But using this approach as marketers can result in oversimplification of a path to action (think AIDA).

A ‘complex’ view however is that we are all subject to a myriad of influences in every social situation, which is for most of us the way we spend most of our lives. So it makes our jobs as researchers and strategists and advertisers and marketers challenging and exciting. Uncovering a brand insight isn’t about pulling everything apart to isolate the gem; it’s about building up a rich, solid, contextualized understanding of the environment in which the brand is operating – so that we appreciate its layers of complexity and build up some respect for what’s obvious and what’s not.

Taking this approach means developing an understanding of complexity and identifying influences that are happening at a societal level (doesn’t everything?).

Using this richness and layered understanding can be insightful across many different categories – once you start to see the threads it’s remarkable how they are woven through consumer behavior in different spheres. And get onto Mark’s book ‘Herd’ – lots of insight and learning there too!