Towards Simplicity, Marketing & Advertising News, AND BrandEquity
ET BrandEquity.com brings the twenty-third part of Strategygrams weekly series.
This week’s Strategygram titled “Getting to Simplicity” is part of a series created by Sattar Khan, a branding consultant. Each Strategygram condenses a strategic thought into a single image. The collectible series is a visual guide to strategic thinking and provides handy image prompts for your branding workouts.
Some people denigrate complexity and worship simplicity, innocent of the fact that without complexity, simplicity cannot exist.
Yes, complexity frustrates while simplicity exalts, but complexity precedes simplicity—still– and packs that rich mix of content that simplicity hones to its essence.
First you complicate, then you simplify. E=mc2 is simple but its meaning only comes from the mountain of complexity it encapsulates.
As a strategist, such is your ambition: to create the equivalent of your e=mc2.
Imagine a mountain named Complex. On the left is simplistic and on the right is simple. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to escape Simplistic, tunnel through Complex, and reach Simple.
You want to avoid simplism because it oversimplifies reality: it assumes what it must confirm; he does not know what he should notice; it dodges what it should define.
This is probably why Oliver Wendell Holmes exclaimed, “I don’t care about simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
If your strategy is consistent, it will be complex– i.e. it will encompass several interdependent parts moving in synchrony towards a common goal – but your strategy need not be complicatedi.e. difficult to understand.
The opposite of complexity is not simplicity, it is clarity. The opposite of simplicity is not complexity, it is complexity.
When you turn the complexity of your strategy into simplicity for your audience, you answer many questions – what you want to achieve, why you want to do it, what’s stopping you, etc. – but essentially you are answering the ‘How?’ question: ‘How can I overcome this obstacle to achieve my goal?’ or ‘How does it work?’ or ‘How can I turn this situation to my advantage?’.
To answer the ‘How?’ your team members are asking – or would ask if they dig deeper – you, like anyone engaged in a creative endeavor, have to go through the bad to get to the good: through stale first thoughts and half-baked notions, spin-off ideas and unrealizable options, speculative forays and intellectual dead ends.
Ah, the mess of the creative process, inevitable and unavoidable. Simplicity doesn’t come cheap.
Simplicity has three dimensions: functional, which concerns ease of engagement; the aesthetic, which is about understated sophistication; and the symbolicwhich speaks of enlightened humanity.
We’ve all seen how some brands have used simplicity as part of their identity – the uncluttered quick search box of a search engine, the standard menu of a fast food chain, the possibility of one-click ordering from an e-commerce business – and we’ve also seen, conversely, how misguided attempts to “improve” brands have confused and annoyed consumers, whether because of the “upgraded” version an app that inadvertently blocks you from using it because it’s incompatible with your phone’s software version, or the “redesigned” supermarket that has now tucked away commonly purchased goods in hard-to-find places, or the new “feature-rich” model of an everyday utility that has turned a no-brainer activity into a minor adventure.
Our focus in this Strategygram, however, is not on simplicity of branding but on simplicity of content and style of your strategy. For this you need three things: an idea of organization, narrative logicand one memorable hook (the latter of which is covered in another Strategygram).
Your organizing idea brings all the components together under a unifying concept. Think of your strategy document as, for example, taking the parts scattered on the floor of a workshop and combining them into a bicycle. “Bicycle” is the organizing idea that integrates these assorted elements into an understandable and relatable entity.
You have a coherent whole, okay; but what is the theme? You need to give your strategy – what it proposes, represents, aims for – a narrative flow that evokes cross-functional and cross-organizational resonance.
This theme could highlight change, contrast, configuration.
To change could talk about “times have changed and this is how we are going to evolve too” or “in a changing world, this is how we are going to be the reliable constant”.
Contrast could be ‘our competition is X but we are the Y’ or ‘unlike others, we don’t just give A, we integrate and optimize it with B and C’.
Configuration could be “instead of trying to do everything, we only specialize in this important aspect” or “this is how we enable scale: first fundamental A, then expansion to B, and finally , the extension to C”.
Creating simplicity is hard work of the mind and many people have realized that loving simplicity is not the same as having the gift of creating it. One of the reasons for this is that we as professionals are constantly asked to add value, but sometimes to add value we shouldn’t to addWe should to subtractremoving the inessential so that the important is visible.
Designers know this intuitively. “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the significant,” explains John Maeda. A designer might call your triumph of simplicity an example of “maximum sense, minimum ink.”
What about the language of your strategy? Is a simple style boring? Well, Hemingway had a stripped down style of prose – devoid of abstract adjectives and nouns, metaphors and commas, conjunctive sentences and complicated syntax – and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature (not to mention other prizes like the Pulitzer). Here is Joan Didion, in her interview with The Paris review:
To interview: Has a writer influenced you more than others?
didion: I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences work. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I typed up his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I learned to type at the same time. A few years ago, while teaching a class at Berkeley, I re-read A farewell to arms and fell back into these sentences. I mean these are perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, gentle rivers, clear water on granite, no sinkholes.
Hemingway’s style, unadorned and unaffected, exemplifies the subtle elegance of simplicity. Oh, you protest that you’re not Hemingway – but no one is, your audience isn’t Hemingway’s either, and you weren’t planning on presenting your strategy paper for the prize in any way. Literature Nobel Prize.
Still, there may be a thing or two to learn about a simple style from a guy who can with a single sentence of a story – the very first sentence, in fact, of The old Man and the Sea—nail the three elements: protagonist, setting and complication:
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without catching any fish.”
It takes a long time to make things simple: “Simplicity is the hardest thing to guarantee in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius. (George Sand)—but it’s worth it. The handle with which your team grasps your strategy is simplicity. If you can’t give your strategy that handle, how can they grab it? Simplicity is the art of giving complexity a grip; you are a strategist, you make handles.
So what do you want your strategy to be? Illuminating? Yes. Inspiring? Yes. But above all? With a galvanizing simplicity.
Check out the first twenty-two Strategygrams: “Speed Kills”, “Half Bridges Don’t Work”, “No Contest”, “The Silent Clue”, “Who’s For Lunch?” “, “Competition Is A Monster”, “The Distinctive Sells the Difference”, “Strategy as History”, “Timing Beats Speed”, “Conquering Fort Customer”, “How Are You Different? », « The Villain and The Hero Inside », « Galileo’s Discovery », « The Strategic Logic Chain » ‘, ‘The Brand Experience Trio’, ‘Deer in the Headlights’, ‘Do the maths’, ‘An insight is like a tram car’, ‘The leap of insights and ideas’, ‘The Three Monkeys of Strategy’, ‘The breakthrough is in the question’, and the tango of problem solving
-Sattar Khan can be contacted at [email protected]