Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Nonlinear Tipping

You can call it the “Law of Unintended Consequences” if you like. I prefer to think of certain situations as nonlinear tipping points. This phrase comes from Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson – he’s referring in this particular novel to the idea that a major global climate shift can happen in as little as three years:

It was such a radical notion that it had forced climatologists to acknowledge that there must be nonlinear tipping points in the global climate, leading to general acceptance of what was really a new concept…abrupt climate change.

Now apply this concept to marketing. Two examples come immediately to mind.

Who would have expected (or anticipated) that Enron would collapse so suddenly – and take an entire multi-billion-dollar natural gas marketing industry with it? With hindsight, Enron-watchers could, in fact, reconstruct the snarky deals which would bring the company down…so this part reflects 20/20 hindsight. But to topple a complete industry? I think this makes it nonlinear.

Who would have expected that Wal-Mart’s hiring of advertising chief Julie Roehm from Chrysler in February 2006 would lead to such a massive, indeed radical change in the major retailer’s relationships with its stakeholders? In fact, Roehm says in this article, “I was hired by Wal-Mart as a change agent a little less than a year ago.” So the objective was clear (in her view) from the outset; it’s this progress of events that led Wal-Mart to a non-linear tipping point.

So (according to this argument), abrupt changes in the marketscape can happen quickly – as with the Aqua Teen Hunger Force “guerilla marketing” campaign’s unusual effects on Boston…ultimately silly in this case.

But I wonder if there are other nonlinear tipping events in progress right now: ones that we’ll recognize only in hindsight. Or when something blows up in a marketer’s face.

Photo © Destonian,

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