The perils of simplicity and over-simplification for brands

Avoiding over simplification
Avoiding over simplification

Giles Lury, executive chairman of The Value Engineers, on avoiding the siren call of over-simplification.

It was 70 years ago that Rosser Reeves suggested (with no real evidence) that humans were able to take out only one key message from a piece of advertising – and so the USP was born.

In 1981, Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote in their book, Positioning: "In an over-communicated world, you need an over-simplified message." It suited ad agencies and the 30-second commercial, but went on to become the mantra behind much of the marketing theory and many of the tools still used by marketers today.

There is a real danger that, in their drive to become single-minded, brands are instead becoming narrow-minded. Brands, like people, are unique and complex, yet still we try to sum them up with a single PowerPoint slide.

This belief in the power of simplicity has led to a "singularisation" of marketing. People may no longer talk about the unique selling proposition, but there is still the core target audience; the killer insight; the-single-thing- you-most-want-to-communicate; and, of course, the "big idea". There is a trend toward single-figure scores and a notion that the only way to do innovation is to be consumer-led. For a complex world, there are just too many definite articles.

Brands are unique and complex, and over-simplification can be a false god for their marketers.

Today's chaotic world

Since the days of Reeves, Ries and Trout, there has been an explosion in media. The introduction of the internet led to connectivity and interaction on a scale they never envisaged. The naive post-war consumer has grown up to become the media- and marketing-literate (if not downright cynical) customer of the new millennium, who demands a dialogue with brands and brand-owners.

Brands and branding have also evolved. Forty years ago, many brands were single-product offerings, where the only variation came in pack size, or the occasional flavour or fragrance. Back then, Ries and Trout expressed serious reservations about brand extension, arguing against its effectiveness.

While other disciplines have been embracing multiplicity, marketing
is in danger of becoming stuck.

However, the days of "one brand, one product" are long gone. Nowadays, the vast majority of brands have been extended. Even Procter & Gamble – which for years seemed to be the last bastion of the single-product brand – now recognises the value of extension, and is focusing on fewer brands, more sub-brands and wider product portfolios. An ever-growing number of companies has a stated corporate strategy of focusing on the expansion of a smaller number of major brands.

Branding has spread from FMCG to the services, B2B, corporate and not-for-profit sectors – all of which have complex stakeholder structures and multiple audiences.

Brand communication has moved from predominantly unidirectional interruption advertising to multichannel, multi-touchpoint customer-experience and engagement marketing.

The reality is that today's brands operate in a chaotic world. They need to cross boundaries of category, country and audience.

They have to talk about different things to different people, in different ways and across different channels – while maintaining a single brand voice.

To do so, they need new ways of thinking and to look beyond the conventional. It's time to exchange Ries and Trout's maxim for one from Albert Einstein: "Things should be made as simple as possible... but not any simpler."

Following the latest redesign, the blogger Felipe Torres beautifully and satirically forecast the future of the Starbucks logo, which makes my point – and Einstein's – visually and powerfully.

The age of multiplicity

It's time to develop new gods: new models that can steer us through the age of multiplicity. While other sciences and disciplines have been embracing multiplicity, marketing is in danger of becoming stuck in a world of singularity.

Let's return to the oft-used analogy between brands and people. I am one person and yet have many roles with different audiences. At work I'm both a challenging and a collaborative colleague; with clients I am (I hope) a stimulating solution-provider; with my family I'm said to be a firm but fair father; with my wife I'm a companion; with old friends... I'm not sure I would want to be summed up in one PowerPoint slide.

Consider a novel or piece of music: whether through their plots, characters and narrative twists and turns, or through their melodies, basslines, vocals and harmonies, the author or composer manages and conducts their constructs of multiplicity.

Brands need to recognise that they must talk not just to the core target group, but also to users, non-users and employees; to consumers in different countries with different cultures, who have a different awareness of and attitude to their brands. Brands need to address these multiple target groups with multiple propositions simultaneously.

To achieve that, new brand frameworks are required – ones that recognise this need for simultaneous multiplicity. They need models that can differentiate between the long-term brand vision and philosophy, and the multiple, shorter-term, go-to-market propositions.

Think about the last ad you saw. Did you really take out only one thing from it? Any tracking study I've ever seen shows that advertising conveys multiple messages – not just in what it says, but in how and where it says it, and even the fact that it is saying anything at all. When I worked in pack design, the creative directors used to talk about the hierarchy of communication: a clear recognition of the multiplicity of that medium.

Rather than one message being repeated, which may "talk" to only part of a brand's total audience, brands need to orchestrate a more complex and deeper, more engaging set of messages, which are coherent without being too narrow or repetitive. Honda is a brand that has been doing this well in recent years.

Innovation can, of course, come from consumers, and co-creation is one way of doing innovation, but it is far from being the only way. Innovation can, if allowed, come from technology, or indeed brand-led thinking.

What makes a successful innovation is the alignment of all three aspects: a technical capability to deliver and answer a real consumer need in a distinctive and branded way.

What makes a successful innovation is the alignment of all three aspects: a technical capability to deliver and answer a real consumer need in a distinctive and branded way. You can start in different places and use different processes. Otherwise, it's like saying there is only one thing you need for a snowstorm, when the right temperature, humidity and wind speed are all necessary.

3M is a company that, historically, has benefited from many technology-led innovations, while, with its championing of "Google time", Google would cite Gmail, Google News, AdSense and Orkut as having been developed in this way. This methodology allows technical staff to innovate on the company's time and not to be restricted to consumer-led briefs.

Insights, like innovation, can, and often do, come from consumers and qualitative research, but equally can come from other places and other forms of analysis. Quantitative and competitive analysis, basic psychology and good old intuition can all be great sources of those "Aha!" moments. In his book, Management in 10 Words, Sir Terry Leahy cites several Tesco innovations that stemmed from quantitative analysis of data.

Insights are about breadth as well as depth. The current default method of getting to insights is to dig deeper and deeper (usually qualitatively) into an idea or a motivation. However, insights can also be found by looking across and linking to other information, rather than just digging down. It is often the combination of several insights that drives ideas and innovations.

A multiplicity-style approach is required to find and get the most out of insights, providing greater flexibility and variety.

Single-figure scores – NPS and the new NHS Recommendation score, for example – are certainly easy to read, much like a good headline. They don't tell you the whole story, though (and we all know how important and valuable storytelling can be). A good dashboard provides a far better summary and should be able to give a better overview.

Who said marketing was easy?

While there is, rightly, a desire to make things simpler and more manageable, as well as there being an appeal to it, marketers need to watch out for over-simplification. This, leading as it does to a single-minded approach in a world of multiplicity, is an approach that is simply out of date.

The world is chaotic and ever-changing; humans will never be completely rational beings, and marketers need to make sense of this to manage their brands effectively. To return to Einstein, today's marketers should aim to turn chaos into manageable multiplicity: to make things "as simple as possible... but not any simpler".

There is still a place for a central core, theme or strategy, but the execution of that core needs to embrace multiplicity and complexity. Managing this complexity may be difficult, but who said marketing was easy? Brands are built on relationships, and relationships are rarely simple or one-dimensional. For me, that is what makes marketing so interesting, so challenging and so much fun.

Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free