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Brand Simplicity: As the World Becomes More Complex, Simplicity Reigns Supreme

Brand Simplicity: As the World Becomes More Complex, Simplicity Reigns Supreme

One of my core branding principles states that the more complex the technology or science, the simpler the brand messaging needs to be. When marketing their products or services, companies violate this principle at their own risk.

Evidence of this principle abounds in the consumer electronics world.

In a 2002 poll, the Consumer Electronics Association discovered that 87% of people rated “ease of use” as the most important factor when considering a new technology. Lately, it seems like a lot of companies have rediscovered the strategy of simplicity and are incorporating it into their products and their messaging. But before we examine these newcomers to the simplicity scene, let’s look at a couple of pioneers who have held true to the principle of simplicity over an extended period of time.

No company in the consumer electronics world understands simplicity better than Bose. While the technology driving Bose’s innovations is quite complex, the consumer interface has always been simple. The result is an industry-leading sound quality with interfaces that consumers can understand in seconds — without reading the user’s manual.

In the 1950s, Dr. Amar G. Bose observed that loudspeakers didn’t deliver natural sound. In 1968, after extensive research into the science of sound, Bose introduced the legendary 901 Direct/Reflecting speaker, which reflects 89% of the sound off walls (similar to a live concert) for a natural, lifelike sound. In 1975, Bose developed the 301 series, which went on to become one of the bestselling loudspeakers of all time. Since that time Bose has introduced a new product every few years — such as the Acoustic Noise Canceling Headsets, the Wave Radio and the 3·2·1 Home Entertainment System — that captures the interest of consumers.

The result of pursing this strategy of simplicity? Millions of satisfied customers, a spot on the Forbes Weathiest 400, and an estimated net worth of $900 million for Amar Bose.

Henry Klaus offers another example of a design engineer who understood the importance of simplicity. His Tivoli Audio Kloss Model One — an AM/FM table radio with amazing sound quality — has remained on the market for more than half a century. You won’t find a better desktop radio for $125, and it fills a room with a high-quality sound that compares with systems costing thousands more. Klaus also innovated the first acoustic suspension speaker that became the basis for the Advent Loudspeaker, which became the reference design for all loudspeakers that followed. When he passed away in 2002, Klaus left a long legacy of technical innovations that bordered on genius but always remained simple and clean at the interface with consumers.

Opposite Ends of the Spectrum

At the other end of the simplicity spectrum is Sony.

Most analysts attribute Sony’s recent woes to lack of innovation — a real Achilles Heel for product leadership companies that strive to deliver the value proposition of “best product, period.” I agree that lack of innovation tops of the list of Sony’s challenges, and deservedly so. However, I submit that the second through fifth reasons have to do with overly complex products.

As I write this blog, a Sony DA5ES receiver sits next to me on my desk. It has enough power to simulate a California earthquake, but it also has enough complexity to confuse an engineering Ph.D. from Stanford. This receiver sports no less than 37 buttons and knobs on the front panel, most of which I have no idea of what they do. Worse, neither do my teenagers, because after they mess with all 37 knobs it really sounds bad. In today’s world, if a teenager can’t figure out a technology, you know it’s too complex.

Today’s leaders in the simplicity movement include TiVo, Skype’s Voice-of-Internet service, Google’s search engine, Intuit’s Quicken and the Blackberry by RIM. But the real shinning star in the simplicity category is Apple’s iPod. The iPod has been this year’s runaway success story for many reasons. At the top of the list, however, is its simplicity.

Other manufacturers tried for years to achieve dominant market share in the MP3 player market, but their products were too complicated, too confusing or too difficult to use. Apple cracked the nut on a simple design for both the iPod and the companion PC software, iTunes. As a result, Apple has sold more than 20 million iPods to date and holds a 75% share in the MP3 market. More important, Apple has experienced an eight-fold increase in their share price as a reward for their simplicity.

The Simplicity Dark Horse

While Apple may be currently leading the way, I see a real dark horse coming up fast in the race for the simplest consumer electronics — Royal Philips Electronics.

By the late 1990’s, after decades of relentless Asian competition, the Netherlands-based Royal Philips Electronics had become a slow-moving sluggard whose products — which ranged from medical diagnostic imaging systems to light bulbs to flat panel TVs — were quickly losing ground in the marketplace.

According to an article in the November 2005 issue of Fast Company Phillips attacked the problem of declining market share by deploying researchers in seven countries to survey nearly 2,000 consumers. Their goal? To identify the biggest societal issue that the company should address. The response from those surveyed was loud and urgent — consumers felt overwhelmed by the complexity of technology.

According to Phillips’ research, some 30% of home-networking products were returned because people couldn’t get them to work. In addition, nearly 48% of people had put off buying a digital camera because they thought it would be too complicated. As a result of this feedback, Phillips strategists recognized a huge opportunity — to be the company that delivered on the promise of sophisticated technology without the hassles. Rather than merely retooling products, Philips would transform itself into a simpler, more market-driven organization. More important, Philips, would position itself as a simple company.

Phillips launched an internal and external campaign, entitled “Sense and Simplicity [http://www.simplicity.philips.com/global_flash.html],” which required that everything Philips did going forward had to be technologically advanced but designed with the end user in mind. It also had to be easy to experience. More important, every product and its resulting features had to emanate from a stated and tested consumer need. This ideal now drives everything Phillips does, from product conception to development to packaging and distribution.

This drive for simplicity spans the entire company. For example, Philips recently introduced Dynamic Lighting, which brings the dynamics of daylight into the workplace, creating a stimulating, “natural” lighting ambience and giving people personal control of their lighting. In this way, Dynamic Lighting enhances people’s sense of well-being, motivation and performance.

While many of Phillips’ new products have yet to hit the market, early results of the business reorganization, particularly in North America, have been dramatic. Sales growth for the first half of 2005 was up 35%, and the company was named “Supplier of the Year” by Sam’s Club and Best Buy. Phillips’ Ambilight Flat TV and GoGear Digital Camcorder won European iF awards for integrating advanced technologies into a consumer-friendly design, and the Consumer Electronics Association handed the company 12 Innovation Awards.

My bet is that Philips will reemerge over the next several years as a leading technology company, much as Apple has recently done. I don’t pretend to be an investment advisor, but I will be surprised if we don’t see a similar rise in Phillips’ stock price. History shows that markets reward the ability to simplify companies and their products in ways that are meaningful to consumers. As Phillips appears to be learning, a little simplicity can go a long way.