Consumer life has become too complex with overwhelming numbers of choices at every turn. Complexity leads to frustration, anger, regret and people making bad choices that make them feel stupid. On the other hand, simplicity leads to relief and undying gratitude. Imagine how I felt when I called a customer care number and actually got a person to answer right away without any “press 1 for this, and press 2 for that…”?!

What do people do in the face of overwhelming complexity? We create our own simplification strategy…consciously and sub-consciously…something behavioral economists might call “simplifying heuristics”. Brands per se are the ultimate simplifying heuristic and beyond that, we create short consideration sets that have an unstated but powerful natural rank order. We buy what it is on the top of the list unless it doesn’t offer a feature or price we want. We click the first thing in search results or at the least, what is on the first page. A typical supermarket can sell 45,000+ products but the typical shopper only buys 400 during the course of a year….99% of choices are ultimately irrelevant. How do we handle this? We de-select…we don’t even see 90% of the choices, like the gorilla in the basketball video…it’s called inattentional blindness by cognitive psychologists. Try shopping for groceries in a foreign country you have traveled to…you will gravitate to the global brands you are familiar with whether you buy them in your home country or not!

Consider the success of three firms who are in the simplification business, pure and simple.

  • Google. No company has simplified life more than Google, making search the way we find information, navigate to websites without having to remember the URL, and marking the beginning of how we shop. Yes, Google has simplified the shopping process among an overwhelming array of offerings.
  • Amazon. Who has simplified the complex task of shopping more than Amazon? It remembers us, our preferences, and our wishes. It shows us what others think of the products we are considering. It has made the access to “print” materials instantaneous by eliminating print. It is open 365/24/7 so we choose the store hours. It is always the closest store (right on our lap.) It even gives us apps so we can buy the product we see in a store at a lower price online .
  • Apple. Apple has led the greatest movement of reinventing how something works to make it simpler with the emergence of touch interface apps on smart phones and tablets. We now have the essence of a website distilled down into the most intuitive UI imaginable…an app.

Some, like the book “The Paradox of Choice”, have proposed reducing choice as a way of reducing complexity. That is the wrong way to go! What do Google, Amazon and Apple (with millions of apps in its app store) have in common? They do NOT reduce choice, they use big data and predictive analytics to extract a tiny fraction of choice that is most likely to be relevant to you, the user. Hence, when we talk about simplification, do NOT think reduction of choices; think relevance, personalization, and consistency across screens. Think log-in as the gateway into simplification.

Wherever there is choice complexity, an opportunity for marketing simplification exists. One of the biggest areas is TV viewing. The average person watches TV over 5 hours per day. Many of us have access to hundreds of channels, plus our DVR, plus VOD plus Hulu and/or Netflix; with overwhelming choices what do we do? We restrict ourselves to a small number of alternatives (data I’ve seen suggests that we view 10% or so of the channels we have available.) Imagine how Google search or perhaps Facebook log-in that remembers your preferences and makes suggestions could revolutionize TV program navigation. TV is becoming a big battleground for Google, Facebook, and Apple. I urge them to compete by simplifying choice rather than badges or some other nonsense.

Can we reinvent marketing approaches to simplify shopping? Absolutely! Tesco turned Korean subway stations into grocery stores where you order using your smartphone from virtual products displayed on the back wall and the groceries are delivered right after you get home. You can imagine retailers seamlessly linking online, mobile, and offline shopping with the use of unifying profiles, to create digital shopping lists that are brought into the store and the products on the list light up as you pass them based on beaconing. This is only a step or two beyond what you already see with ScanIt in Stop and Shop.

You can imagine a CEO saying to each direct report, “We are going to do everything possible to simplify our offer and brand experience. How are you going to change your team’s priorities to fulfill this mission?”

Marketers need to embrace simplification…it really is the essence of brand building. Insights teams need to learn how to bring this insight to marketers, developing a metric of what “simple” looks like to be able to test alternative marketing, product, and experience ideas against a simplification yardstick and prove its power at driving sales growth.