For Businesses to Thrive in Challenging Times, They Must Account for the Complexities of Human Behavior





This article was written by Monica Belmaña, Director, Center for Human Understanding, and Scott Sorokin, Chief Strategy & Growth Officer


For businesses to thrive in today’s dynamic landscape, they must be adaptable and robust enough to navigate uncertainties. In an interconnected world, challenges can emerge from anywhere; from bottlenecks in global supply chains, to consumer backlash against messaging in digital advertising campaigns. At Material, we acknowledge the presence of two distinct systems that can underlie business challenges: the complicated and the complex. 

While these two systems may sound similar on the surface, it’s essential to understand their fundamental differences and their potential ramifications. 


To anticipate and solve problems effectively, business leaders must not only grasp the complicated elements of their company’s processes and procedures, but also be grounded in an understanding of the complexities of human behavior and decision-making.


Crucially, businesses must not lose sight of the complex while focusing solely on the complicated. As we’ll explore, this is a common pitfall that can lead to costly, damaging blind spots. 

Let’s start by taking a closer look at both systems. 


Complicated Systems 

Complicated systems have numerous interconnected components yet can still be comprehensively understood. These systems become predictable and remain unchanging through fine-tuning, applying decision-making processes, and creating algorithms. 

Consider the Reference 57260 by Vacheron Constantin, the world’s most intricate timepiece, boasting 57 complications, 2,826 parts, and 31 hands. This remarkable watch took eight years to construct and epitomizes the essence of a complicated system. Although the Reference 57260 features many precise parts and mechanisms requiring exceptional technical skill to design, manufacture, and repair, it remains predictable and static once assembled.

In aerospace, producing aircraft like the Airbus A380 or Boeing 787 Dreamliner requires highly complicated assembly lines. Building these airplanes involves synchronizing millions of parts, precise engineering, and integrating advanced systems such as avionics and hydraulics. Despite these many elements, we can comprehend and optimize the complicated assembly system by carefully analyzing each component and interaction within the overall process. These systems can eventually be mastered to become predictable, repeatable and unchanging. 

Complex systems, on the other hand, often pose more nuanced and slippery challenges for businesses of all sizes. 

Women with smart phone grocery shopping in supermarket

Complex Systems 

Complex systems continuously evolve, with social, environmental, or cultural shifts generating cascading effects and multiple outcomes. These are dynamic situations where uncertainty is the norm and true mastery is elusive. Consequently, making accurate predictions within such systems is an immensely challenging task. 


Human beings are the epitome of a complex system, embodying an interplay of biological, cognitive, social, and emotional components.


Moreover, our interactions and thought processes are influenced by a tapestry of dynamic factors, including culture, history, and technology. These many facets combine to shape the complexity, interconnectedness, and versatility of human existence. 

Take decision-making as an example. In controlled marketing, consumers are influenced by many factors, including personal values and sensitivities, social norms, cultural background, and varying interpretations of advertisements. Marketers must consider these complexities to create persuasive messaging, design appealing products, and tailor campaigns that resonate with their target audiences. But even when marketers weigh these issues and adjust their efforts accordingly, unpredictable human responses and outcomes can still occur. This is because, at its core, human behavior is inherently complex and can never be anticipated with total certainty. 

As an illustration of how human complexity can influence business, consider the rise of the e-commerce platform Amazon. Before the company could achieve its unprecedented success, complex systems of human behavior, ingrained beliefs, and time-honored habits had to shift to embrace the convenience and efficiency of online shopping. This shift required:  

1.  A reevaluation of trust, as consumers initially approached online shopping with skepticism, unsure about the security and privacy of providing credit card information online 

2.  A willingness to adopt new behaviors, transitioning from the traditional brick-and-mortar experience to the digital realm 

3.  A change in perceptions around quality, reliability, and authenticity of products purchased online 

4.  An embrace of the technological literacy required to navigate the platform and confidently engage with its features 


Faced with these headwinds, Amazon embraced a holistic perspective and implemented innovative approaches to enable this human factor change. From developing a customer review system that allowed shoppers to make decisions based on the experiences of others, to investing in intuitive and user-friendly design that prioritized accessibility for the non-tech savvy, the company built its platform to address the multifaceted human needs and behaviors of its audience. This commitment to engaging with human complexity allowed Amazon to revolutionize e-commerce, ultimately establishing themselves as a trusted and convenient destination for millions of customers worldwide. 

Let’s explore a few more examples of complex systems and their real-world business impact.  


Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign

Embracing Diversity and Acknowledging Individual Perspectives 

Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign went beyond simply featuring diverse women in their advertisements. It acknowledged the importance of understanding and embracing different perspectives and experiences of beauty. 

The campaign recognized that beauty is subjective, and that each person has a unique journey and definition of what beauty means to them. It aimed to challenge the dominant beauty standards perpetuated by the media and encouraged individuals to redefine beauty on their terms. 

By featuring women of different ages, sizes, and ethnicities, Dove showcased beauty in all its varied forms. The campaign celebrated the individuality and authenticity of each woman, emphasizing that beauty should not be limited to a narrow and unrealistic ideal. 

Furthermore, Dove actively engaged with its audience, encouraging women to share their personal stories and experiences of beauty. This inclusive approach allowed a deeper understanding of women’s complex perspectives and challenges regarding self-image and acceptance. 

By acknowledging and honoring individuals’ stories and experiences, the “Real Beauty” campaign created a space where women felt seen, heard, and empowered. It resonated with consumers who had long felt excluded or underrepresented in traditional beauty narratives, fostering a strong connection to the brand. 


Image: Adweek

Pepsi’s “Live for Now” Advertisement

Overlooking Human Complexity and Missing the Mark 

In 2017, Pepsi launched the “Live for Now” campaign, which sought to capture the spirit of youthful optimism and appeal to a diverse global audience through the use of social protest imagery. Upon its launch, however, the campaign faced widespread criticism for its failure to recognize human complexity. By oversimplifying societal issues and disregarding cultural sensitivities, Pepsi’s advertisement missed the mark and sparked a significant public backlash. 

“Live for Now” neglected the complexities surrounding social movements and activism. It failed to acknowledge the historical context and deep-rooted issues associated with protests, trivializing them into marketable and surface-level narratives. The oversimplification of activism reduced complex societal concerns to a single gesture with a can of Pepsi, undermining the struggles and sacrifices of real-world activists fighting for meaningful change. 

The public backlash highlights the repercussions of overlooking human complexity in marketing campaigns. In effect, Pepsi learned essential lessons about the significance of sensitivity, authenticity, and integrity when engaging with complex social issues. 


How to Understand and Embrace Complexity in a Business Landscape 

Complexity is inevitable when dealing with humans in business, whether as employees, partners, clients, or consumers. Effectively navigating these challenges requires a partner with deep expertise in the complex factors that make us all human 

Material’s Center for Human Understanding uses a combination of behavioral science and cultural foresight to explore the internal and external forces that impact human behavior, from identity, to habits, emotion, and motivations. 

Our approach to addressing complexities in the business landscape involves three key elements: 

Embracing Uncertainty
Rather than seeking to eliminate uncertainty, we embrace it as an inherent part of the business landscape. We recognize that uncertainty can present opportunities for growth and innovation, and we approach it with a mindset of curiosity and agility.


Continuous Learning
We foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Our organization encourages curiosity, innovation, and the pursuit of knowledge. We embrace feedback, analyze data, and seek insights to inform decision-making and refine our strategies.


We recognize the need to be flexible, resilient, and responsive to changing circumstances. We provide insights that empower our clients and partners to adapt their strategies, processes, and decision-making to accommodate evolving market dynamics, customer needs, and emerging trends. 


The Center for Human Understanding leverages its expertise to help clients enhance their understanding of, and improve their ability to connect with, their target audiences. Human preferences and tastes evolve, making it essential for marketers to continuously adapt their strategies to stay relevant. Moreover, external factors such as social trends, economic conditions, and unforeseen events can impact consumer behavior and alter the effectiveness of company efforts. What appeals to consumers today may not necessarily appeal to them tomorrow. 

That’s why it’s crucial to stay alert and adapt to changing trends and customer feedback. Our approach involves ongoing learning and strategy refinement to help businesses better connect with customers and achieve long-term success. Grounded in an understanding of the complexities of human behavior, we enable businesses to anticipate and solve problems, create persuasive messaging, and design products and services that resonate with their target audiences. 


By embracing uncertainty, continuous learning, and adaptability, businesses can build resilience, strengthen relationships, and make sound decisions even in times of uncertainty.


In a world where uncertainty is the norm, businesses that can efficiently embrace complexity will be better positioned to succeed. By understanding the factors that influence human behavior, companies can create more meaningful connections with their customers, employees, and partners. Material’s Center for Human Understanding can help enterprises achieve this goal by providing insights and strategies that enable them to navigate the complexities of the human factor.


To learn more about how Material’s capabilities in behavioral science and deep human understanding can help your organization tackle complex challenges, get in touch.