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In the world of marketing thinking, 2003 will probably be remembered as one that focused on links. These were the links between people, organisms, organisations, and even non-living things. At a superficial level, network thinking was reinforced as part of the marketing agenda but, at a deeper level, serious questions were asked about the way we think, and our western reliance on breaking things down into parts and viewing these parts in isolation.
Ever so slowly it seems to have dawned on us that we, and the natural world, are not just made up of these parts, but that the parts interact with each other and, if we are to understand the parts, then we must also understand the links between them.
This thinking has opened up many new directions in marketing. At its most practical is our recognition of the importance of word-of-mouth, rather than treating people as isolated individuals. This has been extended into thinking about the tribal, and even herdlike, nature of humans. Extending naturally from this are new ideas on the importance of flows of many different kinds including energy, culture and words within groups of people, be they so-called consumers, or within and between companies. There has also been a growing interest in how a person really thinks, as this approach highlights that the brain does not exist in isolation from the rest of the body.
This connected view of the world leads us in many fascinating directions, from how people think, to how organisations should work, to how ads may actually work in the marketplace. A cursory journey through some of these areas should bring some cohesion to this stream of thinking and research and hopefully drive it further.
Perhaps the starting point lies in how we think and approach problems. In the west we tend to rely on scientific principles of breaking things down into their parts in order to understand the whole. This is the basis of modern physics and seems to dominate much of our approach to understanding (1). Another aspect of western thinking is the need to prove things rationally and to deride any information that appears not to be based on hard facts or rigorous study. This of course has its place (such as testing drugs), but is of limited value when applied to absolutely everything. In the past western thinking has also understated the role of emotions, seeing them as irrational, rather than a necessary part of all thinking.
Very recent research suggests that this western approach is different from what might be termed an eastern approach. In what is proving to be a rather controversial thesis based on a series of studies, Harvard academic Nisbett, argues that in the East, instead of breaking things down into their parts, people look to patterns and compare the patterns for differences (2). (This is also interesting because languages, such as Chinese, are written using patterns, underscoring the importance of language in defining how people think). In doing so, they accept that the things they are looking at are holistic in nature.
There is no doubt that in the west there is also a growing recognition of the importance of pattern recognition, as opposed to just breaking things down into their parts. Yet the predominant means to understanding complexity is still to break things down into parts. This continues in many of the traditions of marketing and marketing research, and is perhaps most clearly seen in the idea of trade-off analyses that trade off a product's or brand's attributes against the others to determine the optimal make up. Complexity theory also throws this way of thinking off-balance by proposing that each situation is too complex to break down into attributes, and that even trivial happenings can have a powerful effect on the whole.
Whole body thinking