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Applying Systems Theory & the VUCA Framework to Marketing Strategy


Jeannette Hanna of Trajectory Brands came to speak to our Seminar Series class last week about her work on Brand Strategy projects. She went into detail about the importance of applying systems thinking during brand strategy formation. Jeannette explained that brands are not created in a void and are connected to other stakeholders and external elements through simple and complex relationships. It is vital to understand all the elements that can influence a brand if one wants to build a strategic way forward that is grounded in contextual and predictive insights.


Jeannette explained that providing a client with insights on what could be coming down the pipeline provides exceptional value, but in order to get to this point, the situational context must be fully understood, and the stakeholder relationship structures should be mapped. Finally, Jeannette walked us through the concept of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), which considers our rapidly changing world, the elements of uncertainty and unknowns that effect our ability to plan, and the ability to see how the system functions as a whole rather than a set of disjointed parts and unrelated events. Jeannette tried to impress on us how applying a VUCA framework to brand strategy provides a systematic method of questioning, information gathering and contingency planning. The most important question to ask before even starting to plan is, what do we not know, and then go from there.


If I were to apply systems theory and the VUCA framework to the strategic marketing project I am working on this semester, our client will likely be provided with a more robust understanding of the way forward, including what will definitely occur and impact the success of the business versus what could possibly occur and impact the success of the business. If my team is to create a plan that considers both these knowns and unknowns, we will deliver incredible value to the client.


To give you a bit of background on the project, we have been tasked to audit our client’s current marketing and CRM or database strategy and provide strategic recommendations within a marketing plan. Our client is a dental practice located at Yonge-Eglinton, Toronto and currently caters to over 2000 active patients. They currently use a dental practice management software called ABELDent to store all patient treatment, scheduling, and personal information and my team has accessed most of the non-sensitive data available.


When talking about VUCA in relation to this client, it was critical for us to identify what knowledge we have access to, what we can gather or infer, and what will remain an unknown. We also identified the major stakeholders and decision-makers that exert control and influence over the decision to actually implement the marketing plan that we plan to deliver in April. The practice is small, with only a few internal stakeholders of 3 dentists, a handful of hygienists and a couple administrative staff. While the head dentist who owns the business will be making all the decisions regarding the marketing plan for the practice, it is likely the admin staff who will implement it.


Other factors that we researched to build out our contextual understanding of the business was the situational and competitive landscape of the dental industry in the Yonge-Eglinton area. This is where the concept of VUCA was really applied. We gathered neighbourhood census information and compared it to the demographic data of the patients. We also recently launched a survey as a primary data collection tactic to further engage prospective patients in the planning process. We identified mothers as key decision makers when it comes scheduling dental procedures for the family. We highlighted the ambiguity and uncertainty of the demographic changes coming to the Yonge-Eglinton area because of vast condo and transit developments and projected migration of residents to and from that neighbourhood. We discussed the complexity of dental insurance carriers and providers and how they impact patient bookings and overall revenue. We also examined how the various regulatory bodies complicate matters by dictating the kind of data that can be collect from patients and used for marketing purposes. Finally, we tried to create contingency plans if the practice switched their database software to another provider.



All this questioning, research and projective planning has helped guide our strategy and recommendations. However, the next step will be to go back over our efforts to evaluate whether we have succeeded at capturing the right system information so that we can then successfully feed it back into our plan. To do this we can apply Jeannette’s slide on metrics of success for systems thinking in a VUCA world. We will want to evaluate whether our marketing plan has built the client’s capacity to detect patterns of change; respond to surprises; survive negative surprises and create buffers; evolve and innovate; and balance planning, doing and adapting. See the attached slide for Jeannette’s metrics of successful VUCA planning.

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© 2020 by Sandy Creighton. Toronto, ON, Canada

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