Celebrating 50 years of Chaos

May 22, 2013

Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.

Fifty years ago, MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz noticed something seemingly minor: his computational weather models yielded very different results if he changed the input variables by just a fraction.

Figure 1. Edward Lorenz and the butterfly effect. 

Chaos theory spring-boarded from this observation and took shape to become the theory as we know it today: The notion of deterministic predictability in any system, although appealingly intuitively, is in practice, false. Indeed, small uncertainties in initial conditions can lead to widely dispersed outcomes (commonly understood as the Butterfly Effect).

Not just a theory, A paradigm shift in thinking

In their paper Chaos at fifty, Motter and Campbell (2013) note that chaos is far more than something of interest only to mathematicians or physicists:

Chaos sets itself apart from other great revolutions in the physical sciences. In contrast to, say, relativity or quantum mechanics, chaos is not a theory of any particular physical phenomenon. Rather, it is a paradigm shift of all science, which provides a collection of concepts and methods to analyze a novel behavior that can arise in a wide range of disciplines.

The basics of chaos have been observed and incorporated in various disciplines ranging from applied physics and engineering, to psychology and finance.

Okay, so what does chaos have to do with branding?

This question is not unfounded, especially if we subscribe to the belief that marketing and branding is not a science.

From the viewpoint of brands, we could view this phenomenon in a couple of ways.

Chaos and fluidity in branding

Firstly, we can accept the fact that this phenomenon is an impediment to the marketer’s ability to make reasonable predictions in the long run in a dynamic system like the market. Instead of disparaging long term business plans, this should encourage brands to be as responsive and flexible to its surroundings.

Brands should give themselves permission to surprise, to flirt, to beguile, to be immersive. Conversely, by not doing this, the brand could become irrelevant in a hurry. Of course, integral to this approach is that the brand first has a grounded foundation of core brand principals that it keeps intact. This fluid approach to defining a brand can be liberating for designers, brand managers and the public (see Smashing Magazine’s If You Love Your Brand, Set It Free article).

This is especially true in the age of social media where seemingly benign actions on social networking sites can have a huge impact on brand equity. This brings to mind how Oreo won the marketing Superbowl with a timely blackout ad on Twitter. On the flip side, who knows how Roche’s decision to cancel World Nutella Day will reflect on the brand in time to come?

If we drill down into the Butterfly Effect statement, we find that small, seemingly insignificant actions can, in time, evolve into great results for brand equity.

Chaos and consumer insights

Secondly, we can use this phenomenon to highlight the importance of consumer and brand insights.

It’s our jobs as researchers and strategists to build a rich, contextualized understanding of the environment in which the brand is operating, by distinguishing the random (i.e. noise) from chaotic (i.e. unordered) data. It is often by linking the simplest pieces of unordered information that the most impactful insight is gained.

Doing so involves gleaning from observations, reports, news, trends, and qualitative and quantitative research both the obvious, as well as the obscure or obtuse. It means being able to identify influences at a societal level, rather than mere business factors.

What does this mean for brands?

Chaos Theory may seem far removed from the world of marketing, but it essentially teaches us that little things matter – be it little interactions in the chaos of social media, or seemingly little pieces of research that lead to big insights. Brands would do well by themselves if they were open to treating branding like a conversation, a give-and-take between the consumer and the marketer.

Figure 2. Chaos in natural settings - Earth’s geomagnetic field, which, on astronomical time scales, reverses its poles at irregular, chaotic intervals (courtesy of Christophe Gissinger).