Brand Matters: Keep It Simpler!
Creativity experts talk about the unique connections that can happen when you use the opposite hand to write or scroll your mouse. I believe the same thing can happen when we unplug, stop texting, tumblring, tweeting and trade Facebook for actual face time and pull out old-fashioned tools like chalkboards, white boards, yellow pads, markers and sticky notes. Business leaders such as Virgin CEO Richard Branson and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates use low-tech methods like these for creative thinking with their teams. So do I.
Even our most notorious tech creator, Steve Jobs, believed in the power of keeping it simple: "Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains." One of Jobs' greatest gifts was his ability to simplify complex matters and, in turn, simplify complex products. He was a master simplifier.
Today, a former Jobs' colleague is bringing that same skill to J.C.Penney. CEO Ron Johnson is looking to transform that 110-year old department store with "an uncomplicated pricing strategy, simplifying the value conversation with his customers." Wall Street is responding.
Simplicity may be the new black. Howard Beck, co-president of Seigel+Gale, writes, "Mastering complexity is the new brand challenge—the brands that get it right win passion and loyalty." Can you guess which brands topped the firm's 2011 Global Brand Simplicity Index for the United States market (see the image in the mediaplayer to the right)?
I have no doubt you have frequented nine out of 10 of these brands in the month. Why? These businesses are SIMPLER to do business with than most. They are customer-empathic in words and deeds. Seigel+Gale uses this definition of simplicity for its study: "Ease of understanding, transparency, caring, innovation and usefulness of communications, as well as how complex and complicated typical interactions are in relation to industry peers." In the nonstop whirlwind of 2012, it may be more important than ever to take a time out and ask: How would your brand stack up against these guidelines?
I see simplicity winning all around me. Whether it's the return of vinyl albums for the younger generation, the 30 percent increase in the sales of canning supplies, or the surge in gardening, sewing or knitting, brands that tap into their customers' desires to counterbalance the highly complicated tech world we live in with high-touch activities will endear themselves to their customers.
"Old school" brands that have been around for 75+ years like Crayola and LEGO have always been low-tech, simple superstars. They've learned ways to become a bit ambidextrous. Both these brands have learned how to successfully combine the best of both worlds. For example, Crayola has online art exhibits and interactive play for children while Lego unveiled WeDo, an educational product that links the child's physical and virtual worlds.
Etsy, a worldwide community of artisans, ranked No. 44 in Fast Company's list of the world's most innovative companies. Sales for Etsy reached $467.8 million last November. With 12 million members and 25 million unique monthly visitors, Etsy's vision is "to build a new economy and present a better choice: Buy, Sell and Live Handmade." Its low-tech product sales continue to increase as artists now have a worldwide outlet for their wares.
This online gathering of craftsmen and women encourages the personal interaction and artist involvement that customers have come to love at weekend, local arts and crafts shows. Renee Reese, artist and owner of HopscotchArt, shares this about her Etsy experience:
"The Etsy community is united by a passionate need to share our handmade creations. We make our art, in my case, watercolors and hand-crafted greeting cards, photograph them and post them online. Part of the fun is marketing your own wares by catchy descriptions and lots of photos of each item. You want the potential buyer to almost be able to feel and touch the product, so you spend the extra time to craft your Web page.
Within Etsy, we form teams united by a common material used or geographic area. I can click "Shop Local" and check out all the other 'Etsians' here in Hershey, Pa. I can also post, blog, compliment and share crafty ideas with the Etsy Paper Team whose commonality is 'paper lovers!' On the team site, we really feel the love as we comment on each other's new postings; mostly compliments and lots of exclamation points. It feeds our artists' souls! Basically, within Etsy we are grateful for the love and attention we feel even through what could be an impersonal cyberspace."
Like Crayola and LEGO, Etsy ambidextrously marries the simplicity of low-tech handmade creations with high-tech connectivity. So does Best Buy. This electronics retailer decided to have some fun with old high-tech equipment in a low-tech way. In a contest called "Scary Technology," Best Buy invited its customers to submit photos and a short description of their outdated and "scary" technical equipment for a chance to win a complete home theatre makeover. Best Buy understands that customers need help (and a bit of prompting!) in disposing of old technology and created a clever and simple way "to provide end of life options for these devices by offering new ways to recycle and trade in obsolete technology."
These examples from a variety of industries all point to one thing: Every brand needs a master simplifier and a master simplification strategy. Is your brand up for this complex challenge? Why not get out a chalkboard and a few sticky notes and try to move mountains?
Andrea Syverson, author of "BrandAbout: A Seriously Playful Approach for Passionate Brand-Builders and Merchants," is president of IER Partners, a strategic branding and merchandising consultancy. Reach her at email@example.com.