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Systems constellations: A better way to identify branding opportunities?


Building strong brands has become one of the main marketing priorities for brand-supportive companies. The leading positivist paradigm in marketing may not be, however, the most-effective perspective in identifying branding opportunities. This paper offers an alternative phenomenological point of view by applying the innovative systems constellation technique within the soft systems methodology to identify new branding opportunities. A case study illustrates its content validity but also shows there is limited support for its reliability, which is in line with the positivists' reservation on phenomenological methods and techniques.

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Correspondence to Wim Jurg.



Franchise constellation brand-lay-setting June 2002

The company of the European marketing director of the leading global franchise brand originates from a Dutch local retailer, which in the 1980s developed into a franchise company. In the 1990s, it became part of the world's largest international chain of global franchise services within its market. The Dutch company then successfully moved from the consumers to the business market and in 2002 the franchisees acquired 90 per cent of their revenues from the business market. Its name logo contains a suggestive and a descriptive part, and a strap-line consisting of its three main activities. The marketing director formulated his perceived problem situation in the June 2002 dialogue as follows: ‘Assuming a change of the brand name is not done due to its high familiarity, it makes sense to investigate whether the current strap-line is still applicable. In short: does it fit the brand name?’ The marketing director started with setting up stand-ins for the brand name and the SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) customers. At the instigation of the systems analyst, he set up the original owner as the stand-in of the SME customers stated to be focussing on something beyond the name, which was appreciated by this SME stand-in. Next, he set up the stand-in for the corporate clients, the franchiser (the problem owner) and franchisees. The stand-in franchisees experienced the stand-in franchiser as ‘irritating bossy’. As other positions of the stand-in franchiser did not improve the situation, he was taken out of the constellation by the systems analyst. Next, stand-ins for the coded three elements of the current strap-line were set up: Prue, Diana and Conny. Figure 2 shows the current June 2002 franchise situation as presented by the projection constellation.

Figure 2
figure 2

Franchise projection constellation in brand-lay-setting June 2002

The stand-ins for Prue and Diana were acceptable to the other stand-ins, while the stand-in of Conny was not. Especially, the stand-in of Prue is appreciated by the other stand-ins. Note that the marketing director is more able to see the facial reactions of the stand-ins of the franchiser, the franchisees, the original owner and Diana than those of the others from the position he has taken during the constellation. Next, the stand-ins of the three strap-line elements were replaced by one stand-in of a new strap-line, coded as Deborah and positioned on the place of Diana's stand-in. She did not feel quite accepted, which was confirmed by the other stand-ins. The stand-in franchisees now needed support from the stand-in of the franchiser and asked him to stand next to him. This improved the situation to all stand-ins. Figure 3 presents the June 2002 franchise vision constellation, showing the solution direction the June 2002 branding constellation offers the marketing director.

Figure 3
figure 3

Franchise vision constellation in brand-lay-setting June 2002

The branding constellation generated many insights, which were hard to verbalise all aceording to the marketing director. His main actionable insight was it showed him that first of all the interaction with the franchisees, however, needed improvement. In addition, he concluded that changing one of the strap-line elements might support this improvement.


Franchise constellation brand-expert-setting Nov. 2002

The franchise marketing director expressed his perceived problem in the November 2002 branding constellation dialogue as follows: ‘Currently the question arises whether our company name helps or is holding back our business. The Dutch are very familiar with our name but according to our franchisees it is associated with only one activity rather than the total product portfolio. In my opinion, it is not the name that matters here, but more the company's charisma and the selling story’. He set up stand-ins for the brand name, the service offering, the customers, the franchisees and the franchiser. Figure 4 presents the current November 2002 franchise problem situation as shown in the marketing director's November 2002 projection constellation.

Figure 4
figure 4

Franchise projection constellation in brand-expert-setting November 2002

The position the marketing director has taken showed that he was implicitly more focussed on the reactions of the franchisees and the name than those of the others. The stand-in franchiser felt he was in control. The customer stand-in felt unhappy and was allowed by the systems analyst to move backwards. This brought commotion to the other stand-ins, including an argument between the franchiser and franchisees stand-ins who was to blame for this distancing. When the brand name stand-in was placed next to customer stand-in, they felt better. It did not, however, solve the conflict between the franchiser and the franchisees, which made the marketing director change position to be more able to see the facial reactions of the stand-ins of the franchiser. The stand-in of the franchisees faulted the franchiser stand-in for not really seeing what was needed, while the franchiser stand-in charged the franchisees stand-in for being reactive. Replacing the stand-in of the current name by a stand-in for an alternative brand name only made the situation worse. When the franchiser stand-in wanted to take control, the systems analyst turned him around, which made the customer and the franchisees stand-ins more relaxed. They formed a harmonic, energising circle together with the stand-ins for the brand name and the service offering. There was even space for stand-ins representing alternative services. This franchise vision constellation is presented in Figure 5.

Figure 5
figure 5

Franchise vision constellation in brand-expert-setting November 2002

The main insight reported by the marketing director was that it again showed him that the interaction with the franchisees needed further improvement. In addition, he concluded that the brand name discussion was a nonissue and he should stop wasting research money on this nonissue.

Figure 5 shows a completely different vision constellation in the brand-expert-setting of November 2002 than Figure 3 showed in the brand-lay-setting of June 2002. The November 2002 franchise ‘vision constellation’ is rather astonishing as it is a situation in which the franchiser is out of play. Thus, opposite to the June 2002 constellation on the franchise brand strap-line and most other branding constellations, the systems analyst was not able to reach a real-vision constellation in the November 2002 constellation on the franchise brand name.

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Jurg, W., Bloemer, J., Doorewaard, H. et al. Systems constellations: A better way to identify branding opportunities?. J Brand Manag 15, 239–257 (2008).

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  • branding constellation
  • paradigm
  • phenomenology
  • problem identification
  • soft systems methodology
  • systems constellation