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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?