The hardest thing you can do as a brand owner I believe is to insist on building a powerfully simple brand. It’s hard because single-mindedness is difficult in a world where the consideration set is huge and where others will quickly seek to engage you in a relentlessly upgraded features war.
Great brands telegraph simplicity – because of course they want to stand for something – and in so doing they talk directly to consumers about a direct need. As Margaret Molloy observes, “The greatest brands make life simple … They cut through the clutter by delivering what consumers want, when they want it, without hassle. By simplifying customer experience in a complex world, these brands win customer loyalty, which drives business results and creates value for shareholders.” They have, she says, worked hard to achieve minimal friction.
Our brand relationships are getting shorter
That matters because, as Martin Lindstrom points out in this article from some time back, consumers lack the patience and the attention to get to know a product well: “8 out of 10 new product releases in the western world fail within the first three months … To further complicate things, the innovation time for a new product in Europe is on average 16 months but in Japan it’s only three! Let me not forget Korea. There you’ll discover the fastest innovation time in the world – with an average of only 10 weeks.” So the onslaught of new choices, and the volatility of those choices in terms of succeed/fail, are both accelerating.
The more buyers see, the more quickly they decide, one way or the other.
Simplicity is linked to understanding rather than functionality.
Brands are drawn into making products that have more, and yet, when we look at hugely successful products like Apple’s iPhones, most consumers only use a tiny fraction of the capabilities. Most of us don’t buy a smartphone to explore its full potential. We buy it because it talks to our perceptions of what we want to do, believe, see, achieve in our world. And increasingly, we want that world to be and seem simpler than it probably is.
As attention spans continue to shorten, we are increasingly dependent, as Lindstrom points out, on somatic markers; bookmarks in our brain that help us remember things and associate them specifically. Simple brands look to lock in these deep, convenient associations.
Simplicity is not about a drive to budget. It’s not about making products that do less and therefore cost less. So while some people might describe house brands, clones and some parallel imports as simple, those are not the brands I am referring to here. Rather, simplicity in this context is about focus and clarity. This is about simplicity as a driving philosophy.
Evernote is a complicated product when you look under the hood, but it talks to a simple idea that busy people are infatuated with: being organised. Netflix too has rocketed into prominence and mainstream acceptance because it represents a simple way of cutting through to quality programs. In fact, in almost every case I can think of, simple brands work because they enable consumers to cut through the noise and bewilderment to find one thing they’re really looking for; one thing they’re intrigued by.
But they can’t stop there. Molloy makes the point that, “even brands with the highest simplicity scores cannot stop innovating. These leading companies must maintain their commitment to simplicity, as disrupters in every industry are ready to take their place if given the opportunity.”
How do you evolve starkly?
Here are some ways to manage the need to KISS with the need to shift.
Think life, not brand. I love this thought from Russ Meyer: “A user’s experience with a brand is just one event in an action-packed life.” It’s so easy to forget that when your working day is consumed by a particular brand or product. It’s hard not to think that what you’re doing matters to your consumers. The reality is, most of the time it doesn’t. It matters when it matters and therefore, Meyer observes, “Great brands look to where the brand and the experience fit within their user’s overall life, looking to make not just the experience easier but a user’s overall life easier.” Amazon’s 1-click, he points out, is counter-intuitive to a marketer’s wish to engage and hold, but completely sensible to a consumer because it saves time.
Simplicity is improvement. Instead of focusing on innovating for more, Meyer suggests that brands do the opposite. Recognise, as Apple has, that “there isn’t an end to what can be simplified and made better”. That should be the focus of change – learning how to change down, so that everything fits together more intuitively and works more simply. Apple have used this to great effect to draw and lock buyers into their ecosystem. Apple products are at their simplest and most delightful when they are activated with, and engaged through, other Apple products. That urge to resist adding more helps these brands stay clean in a cluttered world.
Transfer ownership. We talk so much about engagement and experience these days. One of the great things about simplicity is that minimalism hands power back to the consumer. It frees them up to imagine. So when brands deliver less, they ironically empower consumers to do more. Think of the simplicity of the Lego brick. It does what it has to do to get children (and adults) to play – and that’s its primary focus. It cuts through the potential noise of instructions and/or patterns to simply hand over the means to build, and then it steps back.
Begin with culture. You can’t build a simplified brand from within a tangled and complex working structure. Molloy talks about the need to build “cultures of simplicity” where she says the commitment to single-mindedness starts at the top and flows into every aspect of operations. Processes, purpose, communications … everything must be absorbable and consistent. It’s not just about having an elevator speech, it’s about having simple standards that drive pointed, searching and supportive conversations. And the push to streamline, whilst it may be driven from inside, must be motivated by, and judged on, what the consumer feels. That’s the real point of simplicity. And if that’s not the real point – then there’s a good chance your business has confused simplicity with economy (which, ironically, often leads to the search for simplicity being short-changed).