Posted by: kwbrand | April 13, 2011

Optimists versus Systems-Thinkers

Yesterday I saw a bumper sticker on the back of an old Honda that said “I refuse to participate in a recession.” Have you seen this?

My first reaction was: “Okay then, Sweet-Pants. You just refuse whatever you must and good luck to you.”

But the more I thought about it, the more irritated I became. Was this a sample of down-with-Obama rhetoric of some kind? Or just happy delusional thinking? As it turns out, it’s a little bit of the latter. I did a little digging and it turns out that you can get buttons, pins, tote bags, and even flag-themed signs with the refusal sentiment stamped on it—that is, if you still have a job and can afford them.

Just kidding; they’re all value-priced to move.

Apparently, the sentiment is being promoted by Dr. Ivan Misner, founder of the networking giant BNI (i.e., Business Networking International). Dr. Misner’s theory is if you “refuse” to participate in the recession, you can turn that global frown upside-down and convert it into contacts, referrals, and success. Rah, rah, shish boom bah! Let’s hear it for positive thinking! And boo to the fun-haters who lost their jobs or can’t make a sale.

Now it is true that I’m a bit of a cynic. That’s what makes me a good researcher. I’m also, however, a strategist so the part that really bothered me about all the blithe refusal idea was the inability or unwillingness to see the big picture—namely the big, very complicated, system in which we all live and breathe. And while a can-do attitude is a must, it’s best to target that can-doing energy at the sweet spots in the systemic web where it can do the most good.

In brand strategy, one must consider the system in which the organization lives and breathes. I run across a lot of marketing and advertising companies who claim to do “strategic” marketing, But what they mean by this is that they will conduct a two-hour exercise in which the client-company leaders are gathered into a conference room and led through a flip-chart SWOT analysis. It goes like this: “What do you think are our Strengths? Okay, how about our Weaknesses? Great! Now onward to Opportunities…” At the end, everyone feels good about having teased out some “strategic “points. The problem is that it what the leaders consider to be their strengths or opportunities are likely influenced by their own day-to-day triumphs and headaches. They’re too close, too enmeshed in history and habit.

I’ve sat in on many a strategic session that began with leaders describing their strengths in exactly the same terms as the leaders of another organization. I routinely hear things like: “Our key strength and primary differentiator is that we really care.” Okay. That might be true. However, what the leaders need to realize is that this message won’t sound true if it’s one of a jillion messages saying the same thing. And, ultimately, the message isn’t true until or unless their customers say it’s true. So, while it might be “cynical” to admit that your organization operates in a tough economy or a crowded marketspace, it’s true if your customers think or feel it’s true.

What are the systems-oriented questions you ask yourself and/or your clients to help them grasp the complexities of their environment? Some of my favorites are these:

  • Who do your customers see as your competitors?
  • Your customers live in a system too. Other than your direct competitors, what else competes for their attention, commitment, and enthusiasm?
  • What’s the point when their need for your services rises above their own level of distraction so they begin to hear what you’ve been yelling all along?
  • When customers choose among vendors, which features or attributes do they consider?
  • How do they rank the relative value of those features? What are the deal-breakers and deal-makers?
  • Do you prioritize and promote the deal-making interactions or leave it to chance?
  • If it’s true that your competitive strength is the extent to which you “really care,” what does that mean to the customers? How do they define and experience your care?

Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation



  1. Calling any thinking “strategic” without the benefit of current, robust market research in hand (and mind) is a waste of time, talent and treasure. And it’s dangerous unless the organization can afford to buy its way back from a major mis-step.

    In 2011 with sound market research so easily conducted, sitting around a conference table jabbing opinion and intuition at mission-critical questions is the epitome of irresponsible leadership. If you’re not investing at least 10% of your operational budget in gathering marketplace intelligence, you can’t possibly invest the other 90% wisely.

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