by Erna George (@edgeo23) Context doesn’t only matter — it’s everything. The definition, according to Lexico Dictionaries, is “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood”. From my point of view, context gives meaning and, without this, you could make statements, deliver products or projects that are less relevant.

Context is the environment in which consumers and businesses operate; it’s a reference point against which people respond — the backdrop that influences how information is considered. Without context, much of what you can offer could come across as well-justified but inappropriate. If you do nothing else before a meeting or interaction, understand the context you are about to engage with to land your message and objective well.

Think of a consumer’s life

As brand teams, we think of our brands all the time; they are our world for much of the day, week, year. The reality is that, within a consumer’s world, your brand is but a blip.

I’ve had the privilege of working with amazing marketing mavericks and doyennes across my career. One of these drew the relative importance of marketers’ brands in consumers lives as a pie, where the circle represents the consumer’s life or world and the slight sliver to a single line represents your brand within their world.

Consumer's world pie 01 Consumer's world pie 02
In short, the message was:

  1. Your brand matters less than what you would like to think, given the clutter or other stuff in consumer’s worlds, and
  2. Without understanding the ‘clutter’, your brand’s impact will be reduced or will matter less

This clutter includes elements such as their needs, challenges, dreams and more — their context. Without context, your brand may not speak about or offer relevant features or communication. Go and find out about consumers’ worlds, then ask about your brand within this world to get a real view. Once consumers give you how they see your brand, compare this vs the brand’s positioning/role aspirations. This will highlight gaps and opportunities. Together, this full view gets you a cohesive perspective — provided no personal bias or context, please.

This matters in the ‘rands and cents’ also as it avoids a spray-and-pray approach. If you consider the trend of personalisation: consumers expect to have conversations or benefits specific to their lives or needs. Consumers want to feel special and acknowledged, and this can be critical to brand success. How well do you employ these considerations with consumer care lines and social media responses? This process requires good listening and gaining a sense for where to deep-dive to avoid data overload. Gain an overview and ask more on hot buttons to help get to the right level of personalisation balanced with what is manageable. This active focus on consumer context helps maximise the relevance of each of your brand levers, the channels used and your spend.

Context critical when working within organisations

If you, as the project leader on a new launch (as marketers often are for new innovation), don’t understand the context of the engineers, manufacturing and other team members, you will find leadership challenging. Your ability to influence and effect change is heightened when you reflect a clear view of what others need or what hot buttons are. You can make the same request focusing on different benefits or using different language with distinct outcomes. When dealing with an ego-driven person, language would be quite different with more accolades vs discussing with a pragmatic someone needing the facts. If culture is straightforward and honest vs being highly competitive, this requires different approaches or levers.

After listening, determine the way forward — is it guided or do you direct? Is it facts-only or connecting with the person first? Is it weekly check-ins or less regular feedback? You will need to use your ears and mouth in the ratio in which humans were given these — 2:1 — more opportunity to absorb what is being said or shown to you. When context is understood, you, your projects and your tasks can gain more traction as they just fit neatly.


Lastly, think of consultants who come into one’s business to provide new thinking or processes.

Without understanding context, the advice, process or idea will struggle to land. Saying you are an outsider doesn’t always work to land new thinking but it does help to innocently ask the obvious. This is a tool I used when moderating — nothing like playing dumb to get people to open up and teach or to feel they can download, as someone is bothering to listen. Frustrations I’ve heard expressed during or post consultant sessions include being fed up with the continuous convincing of the process/idea — the sales pitch. Win the pitch and move on to a focus on how it integrates with the organisation. If you are there to sell a stock standard process or to dictate without first understanding, please understand why your services may not be welcomed with open arms. (Also please avoid going to the senior team, who often is too removed from the context on the ground.) This doesn’t mean teams don’t welcome change or challenges; they just want something that acknowledges current reality and then makes a positive difference in their context.

One of my favourite sayings, “Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly”, espouses the view that, when context is understood, making a shift or changing anything becomes more achievable. When it works, the impact becomes the pitch and proof. Spending the time upfront, to learn the organisation, the behaviours, language that works and people who influence in addition to current processes you need to integrate with, means you can land a change process in their language and showcase it in a manner that fits their world. It will feel like less of a stretch as it’s not in consulting or theoretical speak.

Get ready to formulate a well-considered, relevant response and not a reaction

  1. Listen to and observe consumers or teams or environments to get the context — avoid filtering through your brand or personal lens
  2. Use questions to understand where elements are not clear
  3. Once general context is understood, deep-dive into hot spots or brand-related areas as these will unlock levers to land brand or fresh thinking or to effect change

Once prepared, find the key influencers and make a real difference — the easier way.


Erna GeorgeAfter starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@edgeo23) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her monthly “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.

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