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Context is simple and the online world is not that complex

July 1st, 2011 by Tim Greenhalgh

Marketing is the art of making people believe that they need goods and services, which, if they reflected, would not be strictly necessary to their lives. Marketing is essential to the current economic model we have.

I was reminded of this when I read “Embracing Context in a World of Complexity” by Gunther Sonnenfeld online today.

I’m a writer by trade and vocation so I often miss the granular details of marketing but Gunther’s post gave me pause for thought, from the point of view of a marketing outsider.

I read and re-read his post, trying to establish how we embrace context in a world of complexity. I wish I could report that I found the solution or tangents to that. But I could not.

Apart from the tyranny of type (we believe what we read), Gunther’s style is seductive as he moves towards the main point of his article, which is to promote a software application. On the way to this point, Gunther lays out his table, in some detail.

How do we embrace context in a world of complexity? Gunther opens his position thus:

“It seems that, finally, a collective realization has been made: that content – whether in the form of stories, news articles, messages, ad units or otherwise – is meaningless without a definitive reference to situation, use and/or need. Better yet, these things are meaningless without definitive relationships to one another.”

That’s an extraordinary statement. The word “collective” should be used with respect and extreme caution. We’d need to see the data on this point.

Gunther presses on: “Well, simply put, interactions in any environment are defined by relationships. The way we consume, the way we talk and the way we connect are, of course, relationship based. But this also means that the things we share or leave behind – imprints or expressions, if you will – have their own relatedness.

Well, we could argue with him on the first point about consumption and I’m no also wiser after several readings and discussions with colleagues on his secondary point on “relatedness”.

Gunther then hits us with a key thought: “,,,a much larger construct, which is how to build (and measure) personal relationships without losing their collective intent.”

I wish I knew what that meant, particularly the ‘collective’ element. If you have a ghost (the collective) at the heart of your proposition then you will have problems in defining, developing and coding the metrics.

Then we come to the heart of the article, and the problem I have with Gunther’s thinking:

“It goes without saying that trust is the most prized commodity in our consumptive world. What isn’t so obvious is why trust is so easily violated or mistreated. More important, when we build trust, objects, opportunities and stories, emerge.”

Since when has trust been a commodity? Last time I looked at the markets, I could buy wheat, orange juice, even corn – but I can’t see the current market price for trust. Trust is, and never will be, an object of exchange on global markets. It will never be a commodity.

I could go on but I’m too tired of this. At base, if we want to communicate with people we want to sell things and services to then we say the truth, be honest, do the right thing. When we talk with them, we are open to criticism and new ideas. Together we might make something better, or even great. It’s not complex – it’s really simple and the context is something we already know in our hearts.

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2 Responses to “Context is simple and the online world is not that complex”

  1. Gunther Sonnenfeld Says:


    First off, thanks for taking the time to read my stuff, I’m glad it provoked some thought, and obviously you got more out of it than what you lead on in the conclusion of your post.

    I can’t say that I understand the point of your piece, but I will say this: if you really think that context is simple or that the online world isn’t that complex, then clearly you’ve never built a major technology or managed a global campaign or developed analytics systems.

    Also, marketing is NOT the art of making people believe anything, not these days at least. Rather, it’s the art of connecting people through their own beliefs about the things they need. Big difference. Hence the notion of “collective”.

    I’m talking about intelligence gathering, and yes, it is a word that should be used with caution — I know because I work in the collective intelligence space and have had the honor of collaborating with some of the world’s leading minds.

    Much of the work that has been undertaken in the last five years deals with your last contention about trust… Trust is, in fact, treated as a commodity. And if you look up the definition online, you will see that there is more than one use in the context of business, as well as how the merger of hard and soft values can either commoditize or protect trust in the exchange of goods and services.

    Simply put, companies (major brands) think that they can buy and sell trust — from banks that sell bad mortgages to unsuspecting customers, to automotive manufacturers who sink money into engineering programs to promote goodwill around their production standards, post recall.

    Tying this all back together, I would suggest that you read an article I wrote last year on the socialization of products and services:

    This post includes many concrete examples of the merger of hard and soft values (i.e. variations of trust); if you still feel that these concepts are elusive, then I am more than happy to discuss/debate these points with you and your colleagues.


    Gunther Sonnenfeld

  2. Tim Greenhalgh Says:

    Thanks for your full rebuttal, Gunther. Very interesting and I’ve also read your post on the Socialisation of Products and Services, which also added richness to your views. I take on board your differing view of marketing and respect that. My points were simply that there is a difference between need and want. Marketing, in my view, is a (necessary?) condition for brands to survive and grow. Whether the products/solutions being marketed are strictly needed is debatable. The current News International scandal is an extraordinary example of how notions of Trust are embedded in an organisation, how essential this is and how easily it is lost. There are effects on trade when it dissolves but I still am not able to view it as a tradeable commodity. As an aside, I do have some understanding of building “major technology” as well as having had the privilege as a writer of meeting the finest minds in “Internet/Web culture” over the past 20 years. Whether I learnt anything from them is moot.

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