Maps for strategic choices - How they can help and mislead us.

There seem to be two general forms of working and thinking when we develop strategies: A) Thinking within universal maps of reality B) Thinking without such predefined maps.

 Thinking within universal maps (like e.g. the Limbic Map image on the left) involves a belief in dimensions or a typology that are valid for all kinds of objects of a certain category - say brands, products, activities, people, companies, etc. Here are some more examples for such maps:

BCG's Value Patterns (A Typology of Companies’ Success Formulas)

Sinus Milieus (A Typology of German Lifestyles & Mentalities)

TNS Needscope (A Consumer Segmentation Typology and Brand Positioning Map)

Basically, any system that is not case specific but claims to be applicable to your case is such a universal "map" of reality (with reality in the marketing context most often understood as consumer affinity to some kind of universal values or behavior patterns). In these maps your specific case or task can be "located", "measured" or at least discussed in terms of the map's dimensions or the proposed typology's segments. There are some fundamental advantages of such systems. Let me give you the most obvious ones:

1) These models do convince clients (because they are visually compelling, and are based on what clients consider to be "science"). They also do deliver sexy schemes for presentations or workshop work-sheets. And don't get me wrong - all too often this really is important.
2) They get polled by research companies, media networks, etc. and are often available for us planners at a cost way below that of case specific ad hoc research.
3) These models create a framework for discussion and a common language between client and agency - as such they are perfect workshop tools for rough brand positioning or target group definition.
4) Some of those dimensions or typologies get measured by media companies so that ad clients can actually plan their media spend based on these variables. (This for instance is often the case with the Sinus Milieus in Germany)
5) These models deliver a framework for comparison with other brands (competitors or benchmarks).

But there definitely are some disadvantages which sometimes get overlooked due to the convenience these maps offer. Let me give you 5 - in order to keep it somehow balanced:

1) Being universal (i.e. applicable for all cases) means the exact opposite of being tailor-made. No client specific or situation specific circumstances influence the dimensions/clusters of a map/typology. The client has to be treated just as any other case showing a the same pattern within the given map. If we believe, that our strategy should deliver specific answers to specific problems, than such maps cannot be our weapon of choice. Consider this: none of these models reflects the basic behavioral, attitudinal tensions or trends in the product category you are dealing with. Not one specific reason-to-buy a specific category is included in these models.
2) Such maps foster a thinking mode of "choosing" instead of "inventing" or "coming up with". Since the dimensions or segments are universal - the outcome is rather a position CHOSEN on the map or segments CHOSEN as ours. Having a standardized, universal approach is also likely to generate results other brands and other agencies would also come up with using it. This is basically true for all "measurement + logic" methods.
3) The advantage of having a framework and a common language for the discussion has a downside: things and effects outside the framework get lost out of sight. We start seeing the map not the territory. E.g. "to become a Rebel-Archetype Brand" becomes a legitimate goal or strategy, almost replacing goals like "become the Nr. 1 publishing house for art books in the UK".
4) Maybe the most striking disadvantage is this: even knowing your position on such a map or knowing which societal segments to target doesn't tell you what exactly to say or what your brand should stand for. I mean - actionably stand for. In other words: a position on a map is not a brief to a creative or any other team. You cannot brief "somewhere here on the map, and just a bit of here as well". From my experience you even cannot brief a corporate identity design team by pointing onto a map of human values. They need proper brand purpose, benefit or positioning statement too.
5) Finally, just some side notes for the rare readers interested in research methods: Most of the models and their measurements are by far not on that level of scientific rigor they pretend to be operating on. They all have been tweaked to be "plausible" and "easy to use" for management purposes. The measurements are sometimes astonishingly small-bore - given the depth of qualitative descriptions of certain milieus or map dimensions. The proprietors try to hide the "secret recipes" of the method - for a good reason, I guess. And it is not even their fault mostly. Whoever tried to execute a factor or cluster analysis herself knows how messy and arbitrary this can get. (Same even applies to interpretation, not just measurement: In most cases interpreters look at deviations from the average or competitors  (indexes), thus leaving us with the problem of having define "the right average" or "the right" and also with the problem of neglecting the absolute dominance of per se large segments or per se dominant dimensions in such a framework. Yes, this is always the case with any data, but it's important to understand that these tools are not "objective" or clear-cut.)

So far, I think my whole argument could be summarized as:
  • Thinking in such strategic maps is a good starting point for a conversation that can often be supported by affordable data and even prolonged into media strategy. 
  • But they are not good in helping to come up with actionable, fresh solutions to specific problems - neither to those of our clients nor to those of consumers.