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Should Marketing Be a Linear Process?

Don E. Schultz

Linear concepts and approaches drive how we live, but should marketers always follow a linear process?

Western civilizations have always been about lines. Think of the R​oman legions whose basic fighting structure was a box-shaped phalanx. We still line up for school activities. Many, if not most, of our organizational structures are based on lines and boxes. We read in a linear fashion, one word after another, one paragraph after another, one page after another. No wonder much of our marketing and communication planning and implementation is focused on and driven by linear concepts and approaches. 

Compare that to the Eastern cultures where eating is commonly a group event, conducted on round tables. In the East, there are few hard edges. The most common response to a difficult question is, “It depends …” Even Native American discussions, conferences and powwows are conducted while everyone is in a circle. Linearity seems to be unique to Western culture. 

Linearity has pervaded marketing philosophy. The most dominant marketing concepts have developed out of linear processes used to structure marketing plans, advertising campaigns and even media programs. All are planned, developed and implemented via linear structures. Just look at our planning process: We start with a situation analysis, then move on to marketing goals, then linearly flesh out those with advertising programs, followed by linear media plans. All linear. All one step followed by another. At the end of the marketing process, unless we can avoid it, we try to measure the results, again with linear models. All those seem to assume consumers move in lock-step through the marketing systems we have developed. 

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​Don E. Schultz is a professor (emeritus-in-service) of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.