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WITHOUT CONTEXT, WE ARE MYOPIC. Managing contexts in marketing

November 25th, 2015 · No Comments

In 1994, the Japanese Dr. Masaru Emoto started to feel interested in taking pictures of the microscopic shapes of different kinds of water, once frozen. He detected with a huge amazement that the water crystals that formed after showing it positive words, play good music or praying to it, are much more beautiful than those formed when the same water is exposed to expletives and negative stimuli. It can be seen in his website.


Now, I propose you a less mysterious issue. Please think if you -as a consumer- spend more money during a working week or during a holidays one. Most of the people I’ve asked tell me that not only they spend more on vacation, but that even their price sensitivity during that period is lower.

The two previous examples are showing us something important: context matters a lot.

Context is a great variable in marketing. In the second example, if your company sells to people who are on vacation, not only will it increase your turnover, but also its Gross Margin can increase, because many customers -in a vacation tone- accept a slightly higher price. Therefore, context can also affect your P&L account.

Too “in vitro”

The usual way to approach marketing has been something like trying to understand the predictable behaviour of customers, as if they were “in vitro”.

The renowned method of marketing mix, or the “4 Ps”, is a paradigm of this approach. We have all used (and some of us have taught) it. It something like an equation: Put 4 drops of high-performance Product, plus 3 drops of Price-below-the-average, plus 2.5 drops of a creative Promotion, plus 3.25 drops of Commercialisation-Channels to capilarise the market; and then the result = Success.

This traditional approach has great advantages: it’s easy to understand, it provides self-assurance to those who initiate their careers, it facilitates having a budget, that can be adjusted without great effort the following year. Furthermore, it has been so spread that in all countries and sectors you can find people who understand this method.

However, this marketing and research model approach forgets that customers’ life happens in contexts that influence them, many times in a non-conscious way. You don’t go to the cinema as often before having a child than after the birth.

With this evidence, we have to face two challenges:
is context understandable?, is it manageable?

The “packaging” of life

First of all we need to understand what is the context. Let’s start with a couple of examples.

The famous architect Le Corbusier said: “Paris is a lab that tempts to experiment mysterious (architecture) instruments. Paris is a “packaging”, or what’s the same, a context.

According to Dr. Natalia Fernández Díaz, context is what wraps a message. But not only this, it’s also what wraps a process or an experience. For instance, a purchasing process.

A rather usual type of context is the combination of Time plus Space.

Tesco created in South Korea a renowned initiative in which people waiting for the metro can scan with their phones certain products reproduced on the walls, simulating a supermarket, so that they could purchase before getting on the train. This idea is successful because it takes place when people are bored on the platform waiting for the train. If those walls were on the walking aisles, barely anyone would buy. The “where” + the “when” make an action succeed or fail, without changing the assortment, the price, the aesthetics, customers’ money availability, etc.

Another good example. When the first iPad was launched, this tablet was very critisised because it didn’t have a lot of the features computers had as a default. Its success was based on understanding the context of the users. When someone is working for some hours with a desktop computer or laptop, the most appropriate is having a table and a chair to seat in an ergonomically correct way. On the contrary, when someone is seating on the sofa, a tablet is the most adequate to that context, even if it didn’t have as many features as the common computers. The body position shows a different context.


It’s called “relevance” when the message, brand or experience proposed by the company fits the context or contexts of the customers.

The relevance is equivalent to context management.

Regarding the computer and the iPad the relevance of the product is related to the postural context (table and chair in the office versus sofa at home) allow to predict the success of a product, regardless of its characteristics or features.

Main types of contexts

The model of contexts proposed here is based on Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological framework for human development (Bronfenbrenner, 1994), that has been adapted to the approach we will use here.


(Clic image to enlarge)

The diagram above shows the contexts that might affect customers’ decisions. With it, we can identify those elements of our customers’ contexts that can be helpful to understand them and then devise an adequate solution.

In this model we can distinguish for levels of analysis:

At the centre we find the individual, with the personal characteristics that define him/her, such as age, gender, personality, intellectual oefficient or experiences. Most of these elements won’t be very useful if we want to orient our solution to a wide population segment. However, other elements such as age or gender, in some cases may help us understand our customers.

In a second level of analysis, we find all the elements that we can control as a business, that affect the decision making of the customer in the moment of purchase or later usage of our solution. Semiotics and the other stimuli we generate are part of this level: for example, the lighting in a store, the product layout, its framing, the packaging aesthetics, the functionality of the product when the customer uses it, or the sensations raised by the design of a store or website/app. Generating certain stimuli creates contexts that affect the decisions customers make.

In a third level we can find those contexts that are external to the person, that we don’t have control over, like:

  • The macrosystem, in which we find the family or the peer group. For example, regarding the sale products for companies, this would be the corporate culture of these customers.
  • The exosystem, in which we find local politics, networks, mass media or, in b2b, the patterns of the sector we belong to.
  • The macosystem, which includes the beliefs system, the general available resources, the customs or the influence of the hyper-connected society.

This third level, even we have no influence on it, gives us the necessary information to understand customers better.

From picture to film

One of the biggest mistakes a lot of us have made (mea culpa) is seeing marketing or brand strategy as a static picture, instead of seeing it as a film, scene by scene. And here it’s when the fourth level of analysis comes into play, the chronosystem, that introduces the variable time in the understanding of the contexts that affect the customer.

The chronosystem has two sides. On the one hand, it refers to the changes through time of the context a person is immersed in, such as the changes in the family stage, in the economic status, or the place of residence, for example.

On the other hand, at a more micro level, the chronosystem includes two moments of great interest as an inspiration to devise a brand or a customer experience:

  1. The previous moment the customer has just lived
  2. The subsequent moment the customer visualises he/she will experiment

The customer doesn’t feel the same, or pays the same conscious attention in his/her first purchase from our company as when has become a regular customer. The elements of the “marketing mix” could be the same, but the customer’s own “dynamic context”, makes him/her perceive our brand in a different way.


With the permission of the supermarket chains, I’ll give you a tip to spend less when going shopping: go after having lunch, meaning not hungry.

Again, the “retail marketing mix” of the store is the same, but the different context of the customer leads to a lower purchase.

All this leads us to a dynamic vision of the contexts. What the customer has felt and will feel can inspire us to devise the “present scene”. For example, the moment of the purchase decision.

Feeling the empathy with the customer and looking for the relevance scene by scene we can create a memorable story in a customer process.


Abstract yes. Practical, a lot

Dr. Ralf Ebert, Marketing Director at Bayer Veterinary, said during a speech at Esade: “positioning can be expressed as a product in a context. Context gives meaning to that product”.

For example, a fork is for eating, -specially in western countries-. But this fork in Vevey (Switzerland) is a work of art.

On the same direction, Dr. Neale Martin says that context is more important than any other variable.

The variable Context has various applications, such as:

  1. Understanding a type of customers, detecting insights than can be activated lately.
  2. Devising new products and solutions that fit those contexts and that therefore are liked by the customers.
  3. Designing customer experiences, for example purchasing processes, omnichannel processes, post-sale attention processes, etc.
  4. Communicating in a relevant way, and such having more probabilities that the message doesn’t get lost.

Many contexts can be managed

Many times contexts can be managed, specially those at the second level of analysis, the controllable stimuli.

This management can be reactively (we react appropriately to a challenge or complain) or proactively, meaning taking the initiative. Both can be adequate. We can see it in some examples:


(Clic image to enlarge)

If we are aware of the contexts we can reinterpret many functional tools from a higher customer centricity.

For example, omnichannel, this important global trend, can be understood as the relevance -or the adjustment- of the selling company to the customers’ contexts.

The omni-context is a fundamental base of the omnichannel, because the same customer can be in different contexts during a period of time: when being in a hurry, when being relaxed, when being alone, etc.

Great managers are able to understand well the contexts of the customers, interpreting their life and social evolution, and then acting consequently shaping a “next practice”.


About Dr. Masaru Emoto

  • http://www.masaru-emoto.net/english/water-crystal.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masaru_Emoto

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological models of human development. International Encyclopedia of Education, Vol. 3. Oxford: Elsevier.

→ No CommentsTags: context · Contexto · Dynamic · estímulo · insight · insights · Relevance · stimulus


September 23rd, 2015 · No Comments


Image source: JM Martinez

On 9 September 2015 Tim Cook, Apple CEO, announced that their US clients will be able to change their model of iPhone every year, through a kind of leasing, paying $32 a month.


Image source: Apple web site

From the customers point of view, this option is really interesting. It means being able to enjoy the frequent change of cell phone, as it happens with clothes or shoes, forgetting about the problem of facing a considerable expense that may break this month personal budget.

Nowadays, life is lived differently. A few years ago, I used to buy many songs in iTunes, but now I don’t want to own them. I just want to listen to the ones I desire when I want to, via Spotify Premium.

From the Apple perspective, an initiative like this one is relevant:

It reinforces the idea that a smartphone is a product with fashion inside. So the number of transactions will increase significantly.

The customers loyalty would be practically total, and sustained over time.

It is a coherent practice with the business model of the majority of companies: “ to grow customers”, because its makes their economic value increase. The majority of firms don’t get profitable from “one shot deals”, but from customers loyalty.

To check it’s feasibility, you can use one of the best metrics: the Customer Lifetime Value. Sometimes, a lower gross margin is compensated with a higher amount of transactions, leading to a higher economic value of each customer. It’s easy to check if this is your case.

Another long-term proposal just appeared: Alain Afflelou Óptico (a French optician chain) launched an unusual initiative called “Win-Win”: they offer they clients a lifetime warranty of two glasses -two frames plus 4 graduated lenses- and the possibility of changing the lenses for free when the graduation changes, by paying € 10,90 monthly (€ 11,90 in France), for 24 months.


Image source: My current glasses

In 1991 I proposed to a client company, an optician chain, something similar, like a “glasses leasing”, to promote a more frequent change. The idea was dismissed as it was thought to be economically unfeasible.

The real marketing seeks a sustained customers loyalty -without getting them bored-, more than trying to survive from continuous short-term sales promotions.

The paradox is that the business model of most of the companies is based on their customers loyalty, and instead, many of the new technologies (for example, some based on the “Internet of Things”) are oriented to a promotional “e-push”. For example, I send you an e-voucher now that you are in front of my store.

Marketing is about “to share our lives”, instead of practicing “sporadic sex in some crazy summer nights”.
Other considerations apart, the first approach also makes the shareholders happy.


Lluís Martínez-Ribes, 2015

→ No CommentsTags: Customer Lifetime Value · customer value · Enjoying · fidelización · lealtad · loyalty · Owning

ANOTHER WAY IS POSSIBLE. Achieving differentiation

July 24th, 2015 · No Comments

Here’s some bad news, some really bad news: in most sectors, products (or services) tend to become increasingly similar through time. I am often told this by the executives and participants on the MBA on the programmes I run at ESADE and universities in other countries.

When products are seen as similar, the most likely outcome is a price war, with the corresponding reduction in the gross margin. A decreasing profit margin leaves companies with less energy to face the future.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the quest for differentiation is such a common goal.

The usual way of differentiating

Kotler (1999) describes differentiation as “the process of adding significant and valued differences in order to make the company’s goods or services stand out from the competition’s”.

Usually, when a company sets out to differentiate its products (which includes services or, in other words, the solution that the company offers its customers), they tend to do so by adding some feature that makes the solution better than the competition’s.

For instance, our airline is the most punctual, we have added vitamin C to our soft drink or we give you more points on your loyalty card.

We could summarize by saying that the usual route for achieving differentiation is underpinned by highlighting the Do and Have features of the product.


This approach is very much in line with the definition put forward by Kotler (1999) or product-based differentiation (Michael, 2010) as it is known, and it is a response to the traditional and predominant view of how customers make decisions when shopping: if they did so consciously, objective improvements in the product should logically lead to an increase in sales.

However, it is not always the product with the best features that triumphs. For instance, the iPhone 6 has been a market leader, even though it is not the best at a technical level. It even has features that are far from new.

Alternative route to differentiation: phase 1

Another way is possible.
I suggest starting with our prime customers or potential customers. What are they like? How do they live? What concerns them? What do they do on Fridays? How are things going for them in the factory? Do they find making shopping lists a pain in the neck? And so on. It is not enough simply to describe them, but you rather need to philosophize on their life and contexts, with the aim of understanding them.

After empathizing with customers, the first stage of differentiation begins: conceptualizing the product or, to put it another way, deciding the role that it will play in the customer’s life.

This is not a matter of inventing a slogan or a claim, but rather thinking of the response that we would really like customers to give if we asked them “Product, what do you mean to my life?”.

Such a question can’t be answered by the typical clichés such as ‘value’, quality, ‘value for money’, service, choice, etc.

If a product does not manage to become part of the customer’s life, the customer can do without it because it is irrelevant to them. It does not give them anything special or different that would make it worth buying.

It is all about the verb ‘Be’: what the product is to me, for my life.

If IKEA asked its customers “How do I feature in your life?”, there would be a big difference between them answering “You are a reasonably priced furniture store’ and ‘It’s thanks to you that I can afford to live with my girlfriend”.

If somebody said to the director of Ferrari “I like the new Ferrari car”, he would probably faint: Ferrari is not a car! Because it plays a very distinct role in its owners’ lives.

Alternative route to differentiation: phase 2

Now is a good time to shift to a verb that the brain understands better: “Feel”. You have to decide what is the predominant emotion that this product should make your customers feel.

Communicating is not just a question of saying things or ideas, but making somebody feel a certain thing, and then being open to hearing what your interlocutor wants to make you feel in return.

Just as Volvo has traditionally evoked the emotion of safety and Red Bull makes you feel like a risk-taker, each product-brand must define the central emotion that it wants to evoke when a customer sees it.


Alternative route to differentiation: phase 3

Once we have been inspired by the Be (what the product is for their life) and the Feel (the dominant emotion), we can move on to the procedure for making it a reality, capturing it and now expressing what it would be good to Do and Have.


For instance, if an industrial company sells technical products so that its customers have a better quality of life at work, and it wants to symbolize that its is focused on making their lives easier, it can differentiate itself at its stand at a trade fair by offering the system in the image to customers so that they can comfortably take a break.

To sum up

  1. Let’s be practical; let’s start with the abstract. The proposed differentiation process ends just where the traditional route begins: Do and Have. However, by first completing two abstract stages (Be and Feel), we can achieve better synergy, consistency, visibility, relevance and much better commercial results.
  2. Differentiation is not achieved by adding more features or benefits to the product. This is almost sure to add more cost and organizational complexity and, if these features do not reflect a shared sensation, focus can be lost in the customer’s mind. You need more than worms to catch the big fish.


  • Kotler, P. (1999) Kotler on marketing. Simon and Schuster.
  • Levitt, T. (1980) Marketing success through differentiation – of anything. Harvard Business Review, January.
  • Michael, A. (2010) Differentiation strategy: how to gain competitive advantage through product leadership. BrandUniq

Lluis Martinez-Ribes

Source: Código 84, number 189

July 2015

→ No CommentsTags: centricidad en cliente · decisión de compra · Diferentiation · emociones · emotions · empathy · empatia · product · producto · purchasing decision · Quality of life · sentir