The Chaos Theory of Marketing

Last week, I wrote why marketers are struggling with job security. In an effort to provide career counseling to an industry, I would offer this suggestion: start learning about the behaviors of non-linear dynamic systems. You’re going to have to get comfortable with the special conditions that accompany complexity.

Markets are always complex, but there’s a phenomenon that gives them the illusion of predictability. This phenomenon is potential. Potential, in this instance, means the gap between the current market state and a possible future state. The presence of potential creates market demand. Every time a new product is introduced, a new potential gap is created. Supply and demand are knocked out of balance. Until balance is regained, the market becomes more predictable.

Here’s an analogy that makes it a little easier to understand how this potential can impact the behaviors of a complex market. A model that’s often used to explain complexity is to imagine a pool table filled with balls. The twist is that each of these balls is self propelled and can move in any direction at random. Imagine how difficult it would be to predict where any single ball might go.

Now, imagine taking this same pool table and lifting one of the corner legs up 6 inches, introducing the force of gravity as a variable. Individual predictions are still difficult, but you’d be pretty safe in saying that the pocket that was diagonally opposite to the raised leg would eventually collect more than it’s fair share of balls. In this example, gravity plays the role of market potential. The market still behaves in a complex manner but there is a consistent force – the force of gravity – that exerts its influence on that complexity and makes it more predictable.

Marketing is built on exploiting potential – on capitalizing on (or creating) gaps between what we have and what we want. These gaps have always been around, but the nature of them has changed. While this potential was aimed further down Maslow’s hierarchy, it was pretty easy to predict purchasing behaviors. When it comes to the basics – meeting our need of food, water, shelter, safety – humans are all pretty much alike. But when it comes to purchases higher up the hierarchy – at the levels of self-esteem or self-actualization – things become tougher to predict.

Collectively, the western world has moved up Maslow’s hierarchy. A 2011 study from showed that even those living below the poverty line have a standard of life that exceeds those at all but the highest income levels just a few decades before. In 2005, 98.7% of homes had a TV, 84% had air conditioning, 79% has satellite or cable TV and 68% had a personal computer.

But it’s not only the diversification of consumer demand that’s increasing the complexity of markets. The more connected that markets become, the more unpredictable they become. Let’s go back to our overly simplified pool ball analogy. Let’s imagine that not only are our pool balls self-propelled, but they also tend to randomly change direction every time they collide with another ball. The more connected the market, the greater the number of collisions and subsequent direction changes. In marketing, those “collisions” could be a tweet, a review, a Facebook post, a Google search – well – you get the idea. It’s complex.

These two factors; the fragmentation of consumer demand and the complexity of a highly interconnected market, makes predicting consumer behavior a mug’s game. The challenge here is that marketing – in a laudable attempt to become more scientific – is following in science’s footsteps by taking a reductionist path. Our marketing mantra is to reduce everything down to testable variables and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. I’ve said it myself on many occasions. But, as with science, we must realize that when we’re dealing with dynamic complexity, the whole can be much greater than the sum of its testable parts. There are patterns that can be perceived only at a macro scale. Here there be “black swans.” It’s the old issue of ignoring the global maxima or minima by focusing too closely on the local.

Reduction and testing tends to lead to a feeling of control and predictability. And, in some cases (such as a market that has a common potential) things seem to go pretty much according to plan. But sooner or later, complexity rears its head and those best laid plans blow up in your face.



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