If you want to grab someone’s attention, engage their interest and sell them something, it makes sense to keep the message simple.  However, achieving this has always been challenging.  And those challenges have been getting bigger – to the extent that many of the marketing messages you see today are anything but simple.

I got to thinking about the reasons why simplicity was becoming increasingly elusive, and the deeper I got the more complicated it all became!

 Capitalism is the culprit

It goes back the capitalism, a system that relies on selling us more, more, more.

Consumer demand is the engine of our economy.  Politicians and economists are obsessed with growth, and that can only happen if there is ever increasing consumption.  Watch “The story of stuff” video (scary!) if you want to get a handle on this.  But here are a couple of highlights.

Your country needs you – to buy

The average person in the US now consumes twice as much stuff as they did 50 years ago.  That’s no accident – governments and corporations have designed it that way.

Victor Lebow, a retail analyst, noted shortly after World War II that “Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…. We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.  We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.”

At around the same time the chairman of Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors declared that “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.”

After 9/11 President Bush went on TV and suggested the most appropriate way that citizens could rally round and do their patriotic duty.  And what did he come up with.  Grieve?  Pray?  Hope?  No, he urged them to SHOP!

Get the picture?  You gotta consume more!

More is good

But a sense of duty is a poor motivator.  People are selfish, so you have to get them to want more.  There are various ways to make people want stuff (that they don’t actually need).  One of them is to create new stuff that makes your current stuff old stuff.  And this new stuff often has more features, more knobs on, more functionality.  Ie it’s more complicated.

Remember when a phone just had a single app (to talk to people)?  When a car was simple enough to fix with a few spanners and a Haynes Manual?  When a TV only had four settings (on,off, BBC and ITV).  Simple is so 20th century!

This need to increase the consumption of stuff has also led to another kind of complexity.  Complexity of choice.  Let’s take potatoes.  Not so long ago you went to the shop and bought the potatoes that were in season locally.  Now there are different sorts from all over the world, including organic of course. But that’s not all.  Go on the Tesco website and there are over 60 types of frozen potato products listed, from McCain Crispy French Fries to Microwave Fries, Tesco Finest Beef Dripping Potatoes to Tesco Potato Alphabet Shapes, Aunt Bessie’s Chunky Croquettes to Birds Eye Potato Waffles, with many varieties of fluffy mashed potatoes, hash browns and Mexican Wedges in between.  Then there’s the crisps and potato snacks – all 298 of them!

To differentiate is to complicate

This makes markets, from potatoes to laptops, increasingly crowded.  And marketers have to create points of difference – by adding more features (lower fat, more RAM, organic, longer battery life, gluten free, etc).  So that’s another thing driving complexity – the imperative to differentiate.

It’s the same with buying anything from airtime packages to hair care brands, insurance policies to train tickets, DIY products to holidays, it’s just so confusing.  Then there’s all the added value stuff – this company offers free delivery while these guys donate a percentage to charity, this lot have a better Tripadvisor rating but these ones won a Business of the Year award, these chaps have more likes on facebook but these ones have more twitter followers…and so it goes on.

Just when you thought they couldn’t sell you any more…

You can’t just buy something and leave it at that.  The company gets your contact details, because they want to build a relationship with you – so they can sell you more.  Remember when the AA just provided breakdown assistance – now they’ll flog you everything from life insurance to saving schemes and weekend breaks to foreign currency.

Then there are the loyalty schemes, which add another layer of complication.  Making meaningful price comparisons when you factor in the points requires the brain of Einstein.

Confused.com – you will be

But no worries, a host of helpful price comparison sites have sprung up.  But companies pay them commission for referrals, which adds to the price, so are you better off buying from companies that make a point of not being listed on comparison sites?  Even the guys promising to help you are just making your life more complicated.

Nanny state to the rescue

Really confused now?  Relax, the government is looking out for you (because they really want you to shop!).  So they pass legislation to protect you.  But this just makes everything even more complicated because companies have to add extra stages to every transaction to show they have complied with all the regulations.  And when companies are caught mis-selling something like payment protection insurance (another thing they can sell you on top of the thing you originally wanted) you get 10 calls a week from law firms promising to get your money back.

Even chucking stuff away has become brain draining – which bin do I put it in, is it eligible for kerbside collection or to I take it to the recycling centre, do I have to pay for disposal, shall I stick it on ebay or freecycle?

Too much information 

From the marketers point of view it’s great news.  It keeps them in their job.  But from the poor old consumer’s perspective it’s a NEW AND IMPROVED version of hell.

Which brings me back to my original point.  If you want to sell someone something, keep the message simple – because most people are working at capacity.  If they think “that looks complicated” then you’ve lost them.

How to keep it simple

So, if simplicity is the goal, how do you achieve it?  The good news is that smarter marketers have come up with a way of ordering information, sorting and distilling it into messages that are attractively uncomplicated.

The bad news is that this post is already too long.

So I’m working on a helpful little ebook that explains the process, step by step.  If you’d like a copy just subscribe to my mailing list, using the FREE UPDATES form on this page – I’ll let you have a copy when it’s done.