The benefits of strategy as a chaotic practice 

Carat Melbourne's head of strategy, Bethanie Blanchard, looks at strategy in the context of chaos.

It is an understatement to say that the times we are living in can feel heavy. For most people, this once in a lifetime pandemic event has shattered their expectations of stability and continuity. In our work as strategists, it can feel hard to plan in this environment. It seems there’s no equilibrium, nothing is certain, ‘everything solid melts into air.’

But strategy was born of chaos. Its origin was in battle and war, where so many of our seemingly modern marketing components have their basis. Chaos is where it feels most at home.

So, while the era we’re living through can feel difficult for any marketer, if I can put forth one positive idea, it is this: chaos is what strategy is made for. In fact, without chaos there would be no need for it.

It is my belief that there are two ways that strategy works positively with chaos: to tame it and, perhaps even more importantly, to harness it.

Strategy works to tame chaos

This is the more commonly accepted view of strategy, where it exists as the order we place upon the deluge of information and competing objectives we often receive.

This is strategy as envisioned in the famous quote by Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” We can see the myriad possibilities but the skill is in selecting the right one.

It is a side of the practice that centres on focus, restraint & restriction. Here, strategy is about distilling everything we know into a direction for everything we do.

Our work is to refine the challenge into something clear through frameworks, platforms and classic ‘four box’ processes. Where too much choice and information might prevent us from starting, we can employ the techniques of beautiful constraint.

We might use one of strategy’s greatest hits, the ‘4Cs’ which makes us feel we have an all-encompassing view of the forces working upon us across Consumer Culture Category and Company. It orders the chaos of possibility by boxing thinking in.

One of my favourites here is Wieden and Kennedy’s Narrative of Strategy, a simplified version of the ‘hero’s journey’. While there might be deep complexity and conflict initially within each of the steps, this framework gives a comforting feeling of inevitability in the brand’s path. The narrative of strategy helps to order chaos by allowing us to see our brand on a clear and seemingly predetermined journey.

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Strategy works to harness chaos 

This is the flip side of the reductive techniques. It is about expansion, the spark, the wing flap that propels us.

You will have heard of the butterfly that flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, causing a storm to ravage half of Europe. This is Edward Lorenz’s concept of the butterfly effect and is the founding idea of chaos theory: a tiny occurrence having a non-linear impact in a complex system.

This is about harnessing little moments of chaos to propel us into better. This way is more uncomfortable, more uncertain, but will move us into higher quality, richer territories.

If the fundamental question in any strategy is: what change in a person’s behaviour do we want to bring about? To base comms on the amalgamated average of millions of individuals through demographic generations or large segments can be to miss the nuance that leads to real human insight.

Here we might employ empathy mapping, where we immerse in the experience of others to understand the tension between what they think, feel and do.

This is about harnessing the small tensions, contradictions, irrational actions and idiosyncrasies that make our audiences human. It embraces chaos to get us closer to the deeper drivers of people.

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Similarly, a chaos mindset is useful in determining category competitors. Without embracing more chaotic thinking, we might have a very ordered view of our competitive set and draw the circle too small. Harnessing chaos would be about thinking not just of our direct or indirect competitors, but our substitutes too. This is exemplified in Netflix CEO Reed Hasting’s view that their core competitor is sleep.

The chaotic view asks more of us, requiring the mental leap into competitors that aren’t just SVOD or even entertainment or escapism, but any time consuming exercise (as can be seen in Netflix’s reported move into gaming). Harnessing chaos means we step into thinking of environments with richer potential than just our category.

Strategy must be subversive

As marketers, in some sense we always operate in the context of chaos, whether living in a pandemic era or not. We attempt to make the best decisions within complex, ever-changing environments, often with imperfect information. What we should fight against is strategic planning as a purely calendar-driven exercise, rather than as an act seeking the potential for real change.

Strategy should be as much about harnessing the chaos and using it as a spring board, as it is about bringing order to a disordered environment.

One of my favourite ever quotes is Nietzsche’s “you must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star”. Ultimately, strategies must have some of the chaos harnessing, not just the chaos taming, elements within them. We need to use those original revolutionary impulses in the strategic craft to see the era we’re in as a chance to bring about for our client’s businesses something challenging and new.

Bethanie Blanchard is head of strategy for Carat Melbourne. This is an excerpt of her keynote at State of Social 2021.


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