Simplicity Rules

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Against a backdrop of an increasingly complex and fragmented consumer culture, media overload, multiplying retail channels, and an increasing cynicism among consumers, some marketers are rediscovering the power of simplicity in expressing their brand ideas. It simply makes sense. 

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Simplicity rules the day. In our über-branded world, we’re seeing a sea-change washing over the landscape. Some say it started with Google, sporting the cleanest user interface on the web at the time. (Interesting that Microsoft’s Bing is now trying to out-simplify Google on functionality.) Others say Target paved the way, with a simpler, cleaner shopper experience, utilizing design as a strategic advantage in its pitched battle with Wal-Mart. (Equally interesting that Wal-Mart is now trying to out-design and out-simplify Target.) 

Other examples abound:

Häagen-Dazs touts a few simple ingredients with its Häagen-Dazs five™ line.

Pepsi creates Throwback versions, harkening back to simpler times.

Coca-Cola renovates its trademark brands, eliminating gratuitous and superfluous design elements to express brand symbols more simply and compellingly.

Volkswagen builds an entire design language around simple forms.

Philips touts “Sense and Simplicity” as more than a tag line but as a corporate covenant.

Countless other brands feature simple, back-to-basic value propositions that appeal to a seemingly endless desire for the honest, the true, the uncomplicated...in a word, SIMPLICITY.

WHAT’S GOING ON HERE? 

This is more than a trend, even though it’s clearly trendy. It’s a more fundamental change, a cultural shift, and one that the cultural anthropologists and semioticians will be studying for decades. And the brands that recognized it early are reaping the rewards of reflecting the values that are driving the culture, even as they accelerate the shift through their powerful brand expressions. 

The shift has many parents: our increasingly fragmented culture, media overload, overextended brands, SKU proliferation, and of course, the current economic reversal that fosters a deep desire for simple value as a response to the excesses of the recent past. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, psychology professor Barry Schwartz argues that consumers today are faced with far too many choices, noting that consumers would be far better off with a few distinctly different options instead of the countless array of choices they currently have. Whether choosing an insurance plan, a can of tomato sauce, or even a pair of jeans, Schwartz shows that a bewildering array of choices is overwhelming, and paradoxically inhibits happiness instead of enhancing it. He debunks the notion that more choices will make consumers happier, offering instead the idea that having all these choices actually infringes on consumers’ psychological well being. 

Author and consultant Jack Trout similarly contends, in The Power Of Simplicity: A Management Guide to Cutting Through the Nonsense and Doing Things Right, that simplicity is one solution for marketers who find it increasingly difficult to gain traction among consumers beset by too many complicated choices and options. He urges managers to “get back to basics” and use simplicity as an organizing principle to guide enterprises to success. Trout notes that simplifying the value proposition will reduce cost and increase sales and profits. 

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In our own practice, we’ve seen brand owners leverage the power of simplicity to strengthen their brands. Heinz, in its Australian market, launched a new line of frozen stir-fry vegetables with a fresh, confident look that communicates convenient, everyday cooking. Bright, complementary colors, ample white space, simple design, and appetizing photography suggest healthy, unprocessed, and easy to use benefits. 

This trend toward simplicity and purity has also taken hold in the beverage category, where unsweetened flavored water beverages are growing faster than any other segment.

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Dasani Essence is an all-natural, no-calorie clear beverage that adds a hint of fruit to bottled water, including lime, black cherry, and strawberry kiwi flavors. The design took a straightforward, bold approach to the brand that conveys honesty and simplicity. The new packaging is clean, modern and stylish to help encourage a healthy lifestyle and attitude. 

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Gundowring Fine Foods’ design features a series of smart two-color labels; the restricted palette, minimal typography, and a handdrawn swirl create an appealing label design that conveys real food, few ingredients, and simple authenticity. 

Outside the FMCG world, smart marketers are applying some of the same principles, and are gaining real marketplace advantages. In the used auto business, CarMax has become the nation’s largest retailer in just over 15 years, with around 100 locations today. Its growth traces directly to the core concept driving the value proposition–honest simplicity and straightforward dealing–the direct opposite of most consumers’ experiences with used car dealers. 

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In another non-packaged-goods example, Intuit recently bought Mint, the web-based tool featuring a simple design interface that helps people manage their finances for an eye-popping $170,000,000. Simplification is absolutely central to the Mint proposition: Mint simplifies financial management, and does so in a way that is intuitive, accessible, and non-threatening. By helping consumers get organized and in control, it makes a notoriously complicated aspect of their lives more manageable. And by providing an elegantly designed, deftly executed product/service that WORKS, Mint has made a mint for its owners–while serving its user base admirably. 

So, regardless of commercial category, we can see that the principle of simple, straightforward, honest expression of no-nonsense value is gaining traction with consumers and delivering value to brand owners. 

A FEW SIMPLE RULES 

Simple ideas capture imaginations, inspire organizations, and motivate audiences. Consistent with this, a few simple rules can assist brand owners in ensuring that their brand activities simply are effective. 

Base everything you do on a simple, compelling, differentiating idea. 

Make sure your brand expression is consistently executed, across media and across geographies. 

Use plain, honest, unpretentious language, not jargon. Think Strunk. Think White. 

Edit, edit, edit...not just verbally, but visually and conceptually. We all know the maxim that “less is more.” Put it into practice with your marketing communications: every element you add needs to “pay its way” in furthering the central brand promise. If it doesn’t, you should think twice, or three times, about adding it. 

Create a “culture of belief” around your brand promise, making sure you manage all brand points with the central theme of your brand in mind. (Southwest Airlines has nailed this. Nordstrom’s famously shopper-centric attitude drives sales and loyalty.) 

Revisit your product line regularly. Are there too many choices? Are products clearly differentiated from each other? If not, borrow a page from Barry Schwartz’s book, and simplify!

Remember – managing brands for growth in these tough economic times is difficult; but when done right, it looks...well...simple.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR    

Michael Coleman is Managing Director in Anthem Worldwide’s Chicago office, where he leads branding engagements for FMCG and retail clients including Coca-Cola, ConAgra, True Value, Kimberly-Clark, and many more. He speaks frequently on branding and marketing issues at industry conferences, and has written extensively on topics of interest to brand owners. 

Anthem Worldwide, a Schawk Strategic Design Company, is an integrated global network that provides innovative solutions to articulate, unify and manage brand impact. Anthem creates compelling brand experiences by aligning its strategic, creative and executional talent worldwide with the business needs of companies seeking a competitive advantage. Anthem offers a full range of branding and design services to our clients including Campbell’s, Coca-Cola, E-Mart, Foster’s, General Electric, Hbc, Kimberly-Clark, Microsoft, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Revlon, Safeway and Unilever. With our network of world-class design professionals in 13 cities, Anthem is presently located in Chicago, Cincinnati, Düsseldorf, Hilversum (The Netherlands), London, Melbourne, New Jersey, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney, Toronto, and York (U.K.) 

For more information on Anthem, please visit http://www.anthemww.com

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