It may seem counterintuitive, but in a business environment that usually hypes “more, more, more,” people increasingly are opting for less. They’re responding to products with simpler features. Across a broad range of industries, encompassing all sorts of products and services, there is a growing need to rethink and reinvent by way of simplification. This is the positive flip side of the worrisome crisis of complexity: Within that crisis lies massive opportunity. In business, government, and health care, mounting complexity has erected barriers that make it harder for customers, patients, and citizens to get what they need. Simplicity can be the key to removing those barriers, which is not to suggest it’s an easy fix.
Actually, what’s required is not only creativity but also an opportunistic mindset, a sensitivity to what people actually need (as opposed to what they’re currently getting), and a willingness to cast off business-as-usual practices and approaches. We use the term “breakthrough simplicity” to describe an approach to innovation that is rooted in finding new ways to make everything simpler. It’s a way of thinking that enables you to envision and pursue a wide range of possibilities that can lead to major breakthroughs.
This puts a fresh spin on “innovation”–that much-used, oft-misunderstood buzzword. There’s a tendency to think of innovation as coming up with the latest gadget or adding new features onto existing ones. But the concept of breakthrough simplicity recognizes that today, the most powerful innovations don’t manifest themselves as new bells and whistles. They take the form of better customer experiences (or patient experiences, or citizen experiences). And one of the best ways to improve any experience is to simplify it–to remove complications, unnecessary layers, hassles, or distractions, while focusing on the essence of what people want and need in that particular situation.
Breaking new ground via simplicity isn’t so simple, of course. Part of what makes it hard is that within almost any industry or product category, complexity builds over time–and gradually comes to be accepted as an unavoidable part of doing business in that sector. It takes a maverick to come along and say, “Maybe things really don’t have to be so complicated.”
SIMPLICITY AS A LUXURY
Offering simplicity within a complex domain is likely to be so appreciated and valued by customers that it ends up being perceived as a luxury. That may surprise some marketers who make the common mistake of thinking that in order to position a brand as a “luxury” alternative, you must provide customers with more features, perks, and options; luxury, in this context, is equated with “excess.” But we’ve found that consumers of luxury goods have even less time and desire than most to wade through choices. One way to carve out a luxury niche is by simplifying–by making it easier for customers to use a product or service without having to waste time thinking about it or sorting through too many options. The key, however, is to make the right high-quality choices for these customers–and then make sure they understand that what you’re providing is a simple solution that has considered their needs, made the right choices for them, and eliminated headaches and potential problems.
One reason is that consumers historically have not been vocal about demanding simplicity, which has caused companies to be complacent about it. Companies haven’t invested the time and effort in thinking about simplification, or in reforming entrenched practices that foster complexity. They have underserved their customers in this area, because it seemed they could get away with it. But that’s changing. Today, it’s clear that most people–more than 80 percent–are looking for ways to simplify their lives. Some of this is undoubtedly a reaction to a world that’s getting more fast-paced, hyperconnected, and overloaded with information, choices, and distractions.
The MS & L Worldwide Global Values Study, conducted by Roper in 2008 with six thousand people worldwide, found that 72 percent of U.S. consumers want companies to be more transparent. The study concluded that transparency in business today “is not an option. It’s a necessity.” The interesting thing is that this craving for simplicity spans demographic groups. One might tend to assume that older consumers would be most resistant to growing complexity–and it’s true, there is a tremendous market opportunity out there in simplifying things for the multitudes of aging baby boomers. But it may surprise some to learn that this issue resonates just as strongly with younger consumers.
According to a recent survey by the research firm Outlaw Consulting, the youngest wave of Generation Y consumers (those aged twenty-one to twenty-seven) responds very positively to brands that communicate with them in a “straightforward and stripped-down way, use plain packaging, and avoid excess,” in the words of Outlaw Consulting analyst Holly Brickley. The respondents cited a number of companies as admirable models of simplicity, one of the qualities these younger respondents associate with simplicity is authenticity–that is, “keeping it simple” is tantamount to “keeping it real.”
Many brands these days would kill to be thought of by younger consumers as “real” and “authentic,” yet they fail to recognize that simplicity–in their products, packaging, and messaging–is one of the most important ways to convey this quality. That failure is on full display in advertising. An Adweek/Harris Poll noted that three-quarters of Americans have found a commercial on TV confusing. On a more consistent basis, 21 percent often find that commercials lack clarity.
When we talk about breakthrough simplicity, we mean an interaction that cuts through the clutter. This is a standard that should be applied to everything a company puts out into the world, from the product to the ads down to the smallest piece of correspondence: It should do its job quickly, clearly, simply. People just don’t have the time or the interest to wade through corporate rhetoric and jargon to figure out what you’re trying to tell them. Through clarity of thought and presentation, it’s possible for a business to rise above the cacophony of today’s marketplace.
Because simplification can impact business on numerous levels, it is imperative that it be championed from on high. When it is, simplicity encourages honesty, since it’s hard to hoodwink customers if your communications are straightforward and your practices are transparent. It provides efficiencies to businesses that become easier to manage thanks to focused, clear strategies and streamlined approaches. It can also foster an internal corporate clarity–helping people within the company to better understand what they’re trying to achieve and, perhaps, why they got into the business in the first place. And last and foremost–getting back to what matters most in business–simplicity sells.