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Can You Make Complex Things Simple?

Q: You always preach the value of simplicity in marketing. But let's face it: Some businesses aren't simple (like mine). So what then—oversimplify?
- Don't Simp Me In

locopops Dear Simp, simplicity is important precisely because things are complex. "Being simple" would be pretty lame advice if it only applied to things that were already simple, no? For instance, there's a shop I love in Durham, North Carolina, called LocoPops. They sell gourmet popsicles. That's all they do. Marketing LocoPops is a pretty hard thing to screw up. (Or is it? More on this later.)

But if you've got a tax accounting consultancy, or a new-media viral branding agency, or a distribution meta-consortium, or whatever, life is harder. You offer a lot of products or services. They are complicated. None of them are as concrete (or delicious) as a popsicle.

But your customers' needs are not so complicated. They need someone who can help them understand what adding a plant in China will do to their tax bill. They need someone who can get teenagers talking about their high-end skateboarding equipment online. If you think in terms of what problems you solve instead of what services you offer, your messages will be simpler.

A business-book publisher named Ray Bard once told me that he looked for books that responded to a "felt need." Meaning that it's not enough for a book to be "good for you," like a brussel-sprout sandwich. Rather, the book needs to offer answers that readers are craving. A felt need. Are you speaking to the "felt needs" of your customers? And are you using the language they use in describing that need?

This brings us back to LocoPops. Is having a popsicle a felt need? Sometimes. Maybe you get intense cravings for mojito popsicles, as I do. But I suspect even more people have felt needs that aren't specific to popsicles—the need for a break; the need for a quick sugar high that's not too over the top; the need for relief from a really hot day.

Even though selling popsicles seems like the simplest thing in the world, what's even simpler is to say "Cool Pops for Hot Days"—the tagline on their Web site. That connects the dots. They've connected the solution to the need, the aspirin to the headache. And if you follow this pattern and you use the language of felt needs, rather than the language of self-description, you can't help but be simple, no matter how complex your business is.

Ask Dan is a weekly column. Read last week's entry: The Snuggie Is Everywhere. WTF?

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  • Ed Loessi


    I think that the reason people struggle with getting a simple message is that while they are developing the simple message they are very quickly trying to anticipate the rest of the conversation that they expect to have with a customer.

    As an example it is awkward if I just come up to you and say my name and that I am a CMO stop ..... Because, well, there should be something more to say and while my name and what I do can be a great start it really isn't the whole story.

    One thing I like to say to people is yes, keep to a simple message but also "Market by Manifesto" meaning start a dialog with customers where you tell them what you believe, how you got there and where you think it's heading.

    One company that does a great job with this is 37 Signals, they have a simple message "A Better Way to Work" and they have a really good book (manifesto) called "Getting Real". What they do is combine simple with a dialogue, which allows them to explain more about what they mean.

    I believe more people could get over the hump of creating simple messages if they felt they could also easily tell their story as well, it's usually important to them and important for their customers to know a bit more.


    Ed Loessi

  • Shawn Graham

    I once suggested Locopops use the tagline Gourmet Pops, Crazy Delicious. Sigh, but they went in a different direction. Although I do think they need to do a better job of telling the Locopops story in their store fronts so I know why I'm paying $1.20 for a popsicle. Things might have changed since I left Durham adjacent, but the stores could benefit from a little pun intended.

  • Steve Elliott

    Getting the right message to the right people is marketing in a nutshell. It applies everywhere but nowhere moreso than online, where we are bombarded with promotional literature day until night. The right tagline is key.

    -- - The name says it all!

  • Mike Dalton

    It's a good question. Everyone thinks there situation is complex and that the rules of simplicity can't apply - But they can. Even the most complex systems are interdependent meaning that there's a bottleneck somewhere that limits it's output. Discovering that bottleneck and then deciding how to exploit it greatly simplifies improvement. You can only improve by widening the bottleneck. It's what Goldratt calls inherent simplicity - a root cause and effect that you can exploit to simplify your improvement efforts.
    Michael A. Dalton
    Author of the forthcoming book - Simplifying Innovation
    On Amazon 01/01/10