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The Power of Complex Thinking

“Nutella strategy” is my favorite term for reductionist marketing.

I adopted the term from a Chicago-based advertising industry veteran many years ago. Whenever one of his people came with a bad campaign idea, his comeback would be: “Go back to the drawing board. This is Nutella strategy!”

When I finally asked him what that meant, he said that he loved Nutella. But breakfast is like strategy. Too much of one thing is good for nothing.

Business schools used to be puppy mills for Nutella strategists. And because this led to a long list of economic and social problems, these days they work very hard to move outside of conventional marketing silos such as branding and consumer behavior.

One technique that can accomplish this is complex thinking or, as philosophers call it, irreductionism.

In a nutshell, irreductionism states that nothing can be explained by reducing it to some other supposedly readymade entity because each entity is never given but rather fabricated.

In their book, Speculative Turn, philosophers Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harmon describe irreductionism as an approach that renders “all entities equally real (though not equally strong) insofar as they act on other entities. While nonhuman actors such as germs, weather patterns, atoms, and mountains obviously relate to the world around them, the same is true of Harry Potter, the Virgin Mary, democracies, and hallucinations.”

Let’s look at three simple principles to make this thinking more concrete.

All Actors are Made Up

One defining characteristic of Nutella strategy is its tendency to treat all actors as natural categories. One principle of irreductionism, in turn, is that all actors are made up. For instance, saying that the Nutella market refers to the relationships between Nutella consumers and Ferrero (the Nutella producer) is a classic Nutella-strategy move. While such a definition can be useful in some cases, more often than not, the idea that there is a Nutella consumer “out there” makes managers already forget all the work and other actors needed for such a consumer to actually be created and sustained. Creating a market takes a lot of time and energy because it entails reshaping people — realigning their interests and ambitions with yours. Only eventually, they will become your consumers.

All Elements are Agents

Another principle of irreductionism is that human, nonhuman, and dead material are all real and can act. This is again different from Nutella strategy where agency is usually exclusive to human beings. For this reason, Nutella strategists would never understand that unhappy Orangutans from the islands of Sumatra and Borneo can significantly undermine Nutella’s market success. For a recent illustration, consider how activist organizations Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund challenged Nutella at least temporarily by giving voice to this hitherto excluded group of non-human market actors. Because every piece of a market constructed is immersed in a network that is constantly making and remaking itself, complex thinking can bring the relationship between Nutella, the globally growing demand for palm oil, and the problem of deforestation in areas where these animals live into clearer relief — long before a full-fledged brand image crisis hits and damage control is in order.

All Causality is Political

A third principle of irreductionism states that all causality is political. To illustrate this point, forget Nutella for a moment and consider the recent consumer research finding that ovulation — the time each month when women are most fertile — influences the desire for variety in female consumer choice. From within a purely causality-based perspective, such an argument seems sound and conclusive. An irreductionist perspective, in turn, can add the awareness that biological determinism does not exist in an ideological vacuum. Smart marketers figure that ignoring the political content of seemingly objective consumer science can come at a high price. At best, marketers can unintentionally provoke brand backlash from observers pointing to manosphere cave-dweller dreams. And at worst, they become complicit in perpetuating problematic gender stereotypes.

Applying these three principles can help marketers make smarter and more sustainable decisions. And while branding or consumer behavior continue to be important, designing a market is ultimately about leveraging the capacities of actors and elements — from local supermarket shoppers to orangutans in Borneo — in ways that create assemblages truly greater than the sum of their parts.

Further Readings

Bryant, Levi R., Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne, Victoria, S. Aust.: Re.press, 2011.

Markus Giesler

York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Canada

Markus Giesler draws on concepts from economics, technology studies, and sociology to inform his research in marketing. He determines how ideas and things (products, services, experiences, technological innovations, intellectual property, brands, etc.) are made valuable over time, with research focused on improving marketing strategy through an understanding of markets as evolving social systems. Giesler's research has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the European Research Council (ERC) and published in top-tier academic journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Marketing. Giesler has an extensive entertainment industry background. He founded his own record label at age 17 and has worked in various production and marketing responsibilities for over a decade. He lives in Toronto, Canada.