Branding and whole systems thinking

Dmitry Novikov

With its origins in the sciences, a whole systems thinking approach can be used to discover where a brand sits within the problems it is trying to solve for each set of its customers.



Products, projects and services never stand alone; they are always part of and influenced by the wider environment. Our job when telling a brand’s story is to help identify those networks and relationships in order to reach the right audiences. It begins by understanding a brand as being interconnected and influenced by multiple complex systems.

The world is complex, prone to change – a fact that’s always only increasing. The past year in particular has illustrated, with the Coronavirus crisis, Brexit and one massive cargo ship in a tight spot, how one event can impact multiple factors across the globe and even change the perceptions of the whole system.

In order to draw out the narratives that matter for a brand or product, it’s important to identify how it’s placed within its environment. A brand must sit within the problems that it is trying to solve (figuratively, of course). This uncomfortable exercise does not, however have to be done solo. We work with our clients, unpacking the problem, layer after layer, in order to uncover the systems that contribute to how it could be perceived and what it is that their audience needs to know.



Tackling one problem at a time may have unintended consequences or miss out vital details. With our clients we strive to become subject matter experts of their place in a wider ecosystem. As such, it’s useful to break down the factors that have contributed towards it, analyse the relationships between the elements and consider through research and stakeholder participation how solutions can impact communities.

This interrogation of interconnected elements and relationships is for some, called a ‘Systems Perspective’. The approach is interdisciplinary and actively seeks out the voices of those impacted at every stage of a journey. It embraces exploration and analysis in order to evidence decision-making and looks to mitigate, as much as possible, any unintended negative consequences or miscommunications and to manage conflict.

Whole systems thinking means creating solutions for problems, having established the knock-on implications – both positive and negative – and endeavouring to connect the dots. Part of this process is iteration, knowing factors will always be diverse, complex, context-dependent and prone to change. The approach looks to how people, processes and technology can work together for better outcomes.

At us, we believe projects that attempt to link together seemingly disparate problems can set precedents for other systems and sectors that improve service delivery and have a positive social impact. The case studies cited in this article are projects that we believe achieve this, where the aims and outputs place them within their communities and as part of wider interconnected systems. Both have adopted approaches that integrate multiple factors beyond their main remit in order to build a service that benefits their customers and the world around them.

Case Study: Hyde Housing and Brighton City Council

Housing providers seek to establish sustainable tenancies in order to avoid costly voids and arrears. Hyde Housing, in a joint venture with local government wished to avoid these costly pitfalls by using strategic planning which sought to understand the local system in order to enact social change.

They approached system change by building 500 truly affordable homes, whose rents were linked to the National Living Wage, meaning that rent is set at around 60% of the market rate, or usual affordable rent rates set at 80%. This project of housing provision understands the need to build a sustainable business model that benefits not just the organisation but the community they serve within the larger systems and problems of the UK’s housing crisis.



Monitoring the patterns of communications between organisations and individuals over time means avoiding duplication of efforts to understand where a company and its competition sits in an ecosystem, what a company’s niche is and where collaboration can happen.

Understanding the interrelationships means seeking out the perspectives of all those involved, which can help to establish system dynamics. Our work with community management has made us adept at building the capacity and capability for creating a feedback loop that engages and listens to user perspectives, feeding it back to our clients to inform better service delivery.


We all think differently and as such, the communication with users needs to be as clear as possible. One NGO working in Mozambique to improve population health for example, gave a community mosquito nets as a method of malaria prevention. The nets were instead used for catching fish.

The unintended uses of a service or product could derail an organisation’s attempt to solve a problem and like in the case above, unintended interpretations of a service or product could actually be more impactful or meaningful to the community it’s designed for. It’s our job to successfully communicate the core messages, as well as to find those surprising outliers.




Organisations can set boundaries for themselves, maybe believing that a problem is ‘not their job’ or ‘not in their remit’. These boundaries can be limiting in terms of productive collaboration and innovation; these seemingly hard lines can instead be viewed as opportunities for connection and exchange.

Case Study: MVAM, Yorkshire

Mole Valley Asset Management (MVAM) have developed an investment fund only for brands ‘Made in Yorkshire’. All 80 companies included in the scheme trade on the stock market and range from gaming companies to property developers. Through the scheme, MVAM are giving their investors the choice to bolster their local economy and their savings.

MVAM understood their brand within its social system; having watched the increasing trend of consumers buying hyper local products, they believed those values would be shared with financial services as well.



At us, we’re always looking for ways to join the dots, tracking the issues and relationships that may impact a business and conveying that narrative to the right people. Complex or wicked problems don’t always require complicated solutions or explanations – but good brand storytelling requires distilling multiple touchpoints and inputs and creating messages that are clear, cohesive and inspiring.


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© Dmitry Novikov

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