Context is King

By Steve McKee

Did you know that Starbucks, the megacorporation that can throw its weight around to make its vendors do just about anything, uses only 39% recycled paper in the throwaway corrugated sleeves it distributes by the millions? Not too impressive for a company that claims to be forward-thinking.

Or perhaps it is. What appears on the sleeve is: “This sleeve is made with 39% post-consumer fiber.”

When they put it that way, it actually sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Because Starbucks took the time to carefully craft the context in which its claim was presented, the company made it sound a lot better than the way I framed it above. Kudos to them for recognizing that most people won’t stop to consider whether 39% is a lot or a little, relying instead on context for their interpretation.

Context is a subtle but powerful element of all forms of communication. We marketers spend so much time and attention buried within the blinds of our work, getting the image, deck, script, post or tweet just right, that we can easily neglect or underappreciate the context in which it will appear. For instance, consumers kicking back in their easy chairs after a long day’s work don’t want to watch a hard-sell commercial. Someone driving down a busy freeway can’t possibly scribble down a phone number they hear on the radio. And a snarky comment that might be funny to insiders could take on a destructive life of its own on Twitter. It’s all about context.

Every marketing assignment–every form of communication, for that matter–dwells within multiple contexts. There’s the business context in which it must accomplish its objective, the editorial context in which it will appear, the competitive context in which it will be compared, and the cultural context in which it will be interpreted, among others, and all are important to keep in mind. Lately, ever more companies are recognizing the critical importance of internal/staff context as well; in a world where every employee has his or her own real-time communications network, missives that are in any way dishonest, annoying, inauthentic or hypocritical aren’t just unproductive, they’re potentially suicidal.

Ask any pundit, politician, or CEO that’s ever found themselves in the crosshairs of public opinion: It’s no fun for anything you say to be taken out of context. There’s no excuse, however, for shooting yourself in the foot by being careless in this arena. As you develop any form of communications, consider many contexts in which it will appear. Like Starbucks, you may even get more credit than you deserve.

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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