Context is Everything


Context is Everything

Without context, words and actions have no meaning at all.– Gregory Bateson

It seems very obvious when someone points it out to you.

Of course the context in which we experience things affects how we experience them. The wakeup call for marketing has been just how much context affects things, and just how much we have largely ignored that in how we market to people and how we investigate their responses. Think how hard it is to recognise someone in an unexpected setting when you have only ever seen them in the same, quite different place. Or consider that we may have no idea what something costs but we’ll know if a competitive brand is more or less expensive. Context truly is everything.

Would brands be adopting sustainability programmes without the context of global warming as a powerful cultural theme? Does the price of a bottle of beer have an absolute value or does it depend where you are drinking it and with whom? Putting customers at the heart of a company’s culture means bringing the whole person and —more importantly—the context of their lives into your business. And that context isn’t always easy to fathom.

1. People live whole lives and defining them narrowly as market segments loses the context—and context rules our lives. If you take behaviour out of context you have no way of understanding how you can influence it.

2. This broader context does not just set the framework for understanding people; it is also the overarching framework for how people process brands.

3. Social context is a far stronger driver of behaviour than any attitudes we may have about a brand. The way we see a product when we are chatting with our workmates may be quite different to how we respond to it in a focus group made up of strangers. And we don’t have just one social context in our lives—it’s not as simple as ‘the mates we drink beer with’.

4. While the big overarching context of our lives forms ‘who we are’ as a person, there are more subtle ‘micro-contexts’ involved in our decision making, which can be influenced by marketers with insight. These include:


Where the judgements we make about a product are influenced by another separate, and potentially irrelevant, piece of information—often price. Anchoring is an easily-applied device to influence real life decision making, or constructively inform insights. But it is also a powerful cause of bias in research data to catch the unwary.


A psychological concept where an earlier stimulus subconsciously influences response to a later stimulus. Priming used creatively can access the relevant mindset we seek to understand, but left unnoticed undermines the value of what we learn.


The way information is presented—is a powerful tool that opens our eyes to how our brand or offer is being evaluated and gives us the power of experimentation to unlock insights.