Why Simplicity Matters

We live in a world of plenty, so rich in products, features, and options that it makes our heads spin. Everywhere you turn lurks another agonizing choice or decision, another new device or software application to figure out (if only barely), another email or magazine to read.

In a complex world, brands help us cut through the clutter and confusion and choose a great product or service without having to weight the benefits of every offering in a category. Top brands are powerful because they are simple, offering people a path through the jungle.

But even top brands can go wrong. To see what I mean, visit the Crest toothpaste website and try to count how many brands they have to offer. If you’re like me, you’ll quickly give up amidst the dizzying array of lines (whitening, cavity protection, baking soda, gels, just to name a few) and flavors (vanilla mint, strong mint, peppermint, and so on). It’s enough to make anyone stop brushing!

A brand name gets its power from clarity, not variety. When busy people go to a store, they need the ability to make quick, safe, and satisfying decisions. Brands are powerful because they save people time. But when a brand splinters into multiple line extensions, it no longer stands for a single idea and begins to fade into the background noise. Simplicity always trumps complexity.

A few consumer brands really get it. And they are getting very rich by dumping the extras and offering us less. What’s the simplest Internet service out there? Google, the market leader with 49% of the search engine market. What’s the easiest to use MP3 player on the market? The iPod, with over 80% market share. What’s one of the most basic, stripped down airlines out there? Southwest Airlines, its profits last seen heading northeast.

So what about professional service brands? Do they offer the same benefits? Yes, but with a difference. Whereas consumers need to make quick, reliable decisions, business-to-business transactions tend to be more deliberate and studied. Professional service contracts are usually long-term and expensive, and the included services are often highly customized. So business buyers like to take the time to compare features and benefits.

But a brand’s reputation can still wield enormous power. The old adage “nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM” is true. More often than not, at the end of the day when the due diligence is done, the company with the strongest brand walks away with the contract.

Like the best consumer brands, service companies that have simple brands often shine through the fog of the marketplace. If you work for a professional service firm, here are four things you can do to build a simpler and more powerful brand.

  1. Develop a clear and simply stated message. If you stand for something, you have something to sell.
  2. Specialize. Many service companies want to be everything to everyone, so they keep broadening their service offerings. This is a mistake, because most buyers prefer specialists to generalists. (Would you hire a handyman or a licensed electrician to rewire your home?)
  3. Describe your services in simple terms. Many professional service companies mistake complexity for sophistication, so they use a lot of jargon and vague but impressive-sounding terminology to pump up their services. If people don’t know what they are buying, however, they will go elsewhere. Guaranteed.
  4. Support your commitment to clarity with clean and straightforward design. You’ll deliver your message with force and elegance.


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    Brand Science: Big Brands Are Easy on the Brain

    New research presented at the Radiological Society of North America's annual conference suggests that top brands evoke strong neurological responses in our brains compared to weaker brands.

    In a study of 20 men and women conducted in Germany, subjects were placed in an MRI machine configured with a video screen. They were shown logos of competing brands in a variety of categories. In each case, the market-leading brand elicited stronger activity in areas of the brain identified with positive emotions and rewards than the weaker brands. Surprisingly, when each person was asked questions about each logo, the parts of the brain associated with decision-making showed little activity. (Presumably, then, the reaction to a brand is reflexive.)

    In addition, researchers found that people reacted just as strongly to abstract service brands (such as insurance) as they did to more concrete consumer brands (athletic shoes, for instance).

    So what do we make of this research? Well, billions of neurons can't be wrong—a strong brand is a no-brainer.

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