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A TCI Book Review

Simplicity Marketing – End Brand Complexity, Clutter and Confusion

Steven M. Cristol and Peter Sealey
The Free Press, New York, 2000.  IBSN 0-684-85918-I.


The simple premise of Simplicity Marketing is that we are overwhelmed by choice in today’s marketplace.  Alvin Toffler’s prediction of over 30 years ago* has come true: in our modern society we are faced with over choice – that is, a proliferation of goods and services, with many alternatives available for any given need, each having a slightly different set of features and benefits.  Having too many alternatives available to us causes stress, because we don’t quite know whether or not we are choosing the best option in the face of all the possible choices. Anyone who has recently tried to compare cell phone plans in order to determine the best deal available – as I have – will recognize this syndrome, and the analysis paralysis that can result.)  Accordingly, the authors have developed the concept of simplicity marketing – the idea that making the choice easier and more natural for consumers for a given product or service will on the one hand reduce stress for the customer and on the other increase market share for the supplier.  And that's a good thing.

 “A new imperative of the marketing discipline has emerged: that marketers look for ways to connect their brands to simplicity.  The interaction of two forceful tides – extreme choice proliferation and an exponentially increasing pace of change – creates a combustible combination that at once brings customers unprecedented opportunities and unprecedented anxiety.  This book hypothesizes that, in the most developed economies of the twenty-first century, the next generation of positional successes will belong to those brands that relieve customer stress. That means simplifying customers lives or businesses in ways that are inextricably tied to brand and product positioning.  It means becoming the customer’s partner in stress relief.”  (p. 2)

Two pillars underpin the notion of simplicity marketing.  The first of these is the idea that any product or service that people buy is either a replacement fan existing one, or a new (incremental) one, and that, furthermore, there isn't a lot of room for incremental products: 

“Any product or service that doesn’t replace something else for the customer or consolidate multiple solutions into a single solution is, by default, incremental.  Introducing something as “new” – once appositive, automatic attention grabber – is less and less likely to be perceived as a plus and more likely to be perceived as clutter (something additional) unless the product’s positioning allows the customer to forget about or eliminate something old. There is precious little room in the customer’s psyche to add things without taking something away.  As with a personal computer, if you keep adding and saving files without ever purging old files from your hard drive, performance can suffer over time.”  (p. 28)

Crystal and Sealy develop the concept of de-cluttering as the approach to dealing with the replacement vs. incremental consumer choice.  An example they give is voice-mail, where a very simple monthly voice-mail service has now essentially replaced the need for a message machine that often required - in my case, at any rate - a fair amount of personal fuss and maintenance. This is an example of a better replacement service, rather than something entirely new.

The second pillar underlying simplicity marketing is the idea that maximum choice is not optimum choice.  Here the authors cite several conjoint analysis studies – undertaken by Honda, Marriott, and others –that show that customers prefer a smaller number of basic choices as opposed toad large number of (confusing) options and alternatives.

This leads Crystal and Sealey to their key concept of the‘4 R’s of Simplicity Marketing’, which are:

  1. replace – This is the strategy of developing and positioning single or fewer products or services for multiple ones.  Conditioning shampoo (which combines shampoo and hair conditioner into one product) and packaged salad are two examples given.
  2. repackage – This related concept involves repackaging a variety of goods or services  that were previously available from many sources and suppliers, into one offering.  The Bloomberg Service for investors, where a number of disparate information sources relating to the performance of individual stocks and financial instruments are compiled into one information window is an example of this.
  3. reposition – This is the notion of promoting a replaced and/or repackaged service on the basis of its simplicity, ease of use, and guarantee of functionality.  Honda’s “We make it simple” and Hewlett Packard's" Stress-free storage. Guaranteed” (for data) are cited as examples.
  4. replenish – The fourth ‘R’ relates to themed to ensure that the customer can access the product at any time, anywhere -in other words replenish the stock or replicate the service whenever it is needed.

Cristol and Sealy advocate a strategy of simplicity marketing where each of these 4 R’s is considered in turn.  Part 2 of the book is devoted to detailed exploration of the strategic issues and options entailed at each stage essentially a chapter is devoted to each of the four R’s).  The basic strategies discussed in each case are:

  1. replace:
  • substitution – replacing one product or service for another that is easier/faster/less stressful
  • consolidation– substitution of one product or service for a number of others, thus making it (again) easier/faster/less stressful forth user
  1. repackage:
  • aggregation– like consolidation, but where there is synergistic effect involved (i.e. where the benefits from the aggregated whole are greater than the sum of the individual component parts)
  • integration– like aggregation, but also apparently where time is saved or product incompatibility is reduced (frankly, I didn't think that the difference between integration and aggregation was very well articulated in the book)
  1. reposition:
  • brand streamlining – this strategy involves simplifying brand architecture and eliminating sub-brands
  • vertical extension – stretching the brand to encompass new technologies or infiltrate new channels
  • discontinuous repositioning – this actually means what it says: a clean break with the past, and using the old brand identity to stand for new uses, new functionality, and/or new occasions for use – clearly a risky strategy, but one that can pay off – the authors use the repositioning of the Arm and Hammer baking soda brand from a baking ingredient to an odor absorbers an example of how this can be successful
  1. replenish:
  • continuous supply – ensuring that the product or service can be made available to the consumer at an instant's notice, or without interruption
  • zero defects – this involves ensuring not only product quality at a uniformly high level, but also billing accuracy and the provision of customer support when needed
  • competitive pricing – considered here are strategies such as everyday low prices and loyalty rewards

Part 3 of the book, entitled ‘Managing Simplicity’, is given over to a discussion of how simplicity marketing strategies can be effectively be implemented by a company that chooses to go down this road.  A ‘simplicity marketing audit’ tool is presented (pg. 213), which can be a useful diagnostic to get started.  Discussed in this section as well is the potential for information technology to be employed to present visible simplicity for the user, while masking invisible complexity (e.g. sophisticated web site applications). Also interesting here is the chapter on the integration of simplicity marketing concepts into the overall brand marketing strategy of the firm.  Finally, Cristol unsealed discuss the conversion of simplicity marketing (which relieves customer stress) into tangible (i.e. measurable) shareholder value.

 Simplicity Marketing is a very valuable and timely concept, and the book has much to offer marketing professionals in both consumer and B2B marketing environments.





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