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Systemic marketing – the long lost art

There was a time when the furthest we went from our village was to the end of our field that was just outside the village. There was one ‘system’: produce, barter, consume…simple! Our strategy only need be one-dimensional: make sure we produce enough to eat and barter.

Today our lives are governed by numerous systems that interlink, crossover and sometimes crash into each other. The strength of our economy is determined by many systems including productivity, availability of raw material, supply chains, inflation, currency rates, trade agreements, war, pandemics.

The strength of a brand is determined by quality of the product, customer relevance, competitors, price, distribution, trust, promotion - each of which, once again, is a system. So why, in this complex systemic world, do we increasingly think and act in such a one-dimensional way?

Take a subject that is currently dominating our lives. The Government’s actions since the outbreak (well almost!) of Covid-19 has been focused on one thing, creating a system to control the spread of the disease. Was there any consideration given to the knock-on effects of the new system? I wouldn’t mind betting not because Sage would have been given a very tight brief, get Covid-19 sorted. But what of all those cancer patients whose operations have been delayed; all the people who have jammed the helplines unable to cope mentally with isolation; all those who are cooped up with an abusive partner; the million or so who are likely to die from TB because their condition went unnoticed during the lockdown. All these interlinking systems have been ignored but each one may lead to more deaths than Covid-19.

Returning to the subject of marketing, during the 80s and 90s I was part of a big marketing team at both Nestle and Pernod-Ricard. The marketing director, heading up the marketing department, had total responsibility for all aspects of the company’s brands: new product development, look and taste of the product, packaging, pricing, promotion, target sales, margin earned, forecasting. He was helped by a hierarchical team, divided by brand group, ranging from marketing managers to marketing assistants. He and they thought systemically about, and could act systemically on, all the issues that affected the growth of their brands.

Who thinks about and controls the systems that govern the performance of today’s brand is very different to the end of the last century. These systems are now divided up and controlled by one-dimensional silos such as Brand, Digital, Insight, Communications. Each department controls just one aspect of the brand.

In theory, the systemic thinking is done by the CMO but she often has far too many brands to be able to effectively think about each one in a systemic way and is bombarded by conflicting ideas from her team often led by self-interest, not systemic thinking.

The world is complicated, brands are complicated. One-dimensional thinking is not only not appropriate but also, as we will probably see with Covid-19, dangerous. For marketing to steer brands to success it must take one step back to go forward two and get back to a systemic, joined up way of thinking that can navigate the intricacies of the 21stcentury.

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