In his highly influential paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”, psychologist George Miller found that the maximum number of things people could hold in their working memory was, as you might have guessed; seven, plus or minus two. But between brand identities, slogans, values, behaviours, purpose and positioning; brands frequently expect people, both internally and externally, to retain more than double that amount of information.
Research has shown that customers increasingly feel “overwhelmed by the volume of voice and information they’re exposed to” as well as marketers’ “relentless efforts to ‘engage’ with them.” A 2015 study found that 63% of consumers would be willing to pay for a simpler experience, 69% would be more willing to recommend a brand because it offered simpler experiences.
So how do you cut through the complexity with your brand strategy? Here, we’ve outlined six steps (sorry, George) to focus your thinking and simplify your brand strategy.
Start with simplicity, don’t end with it
Too often we see brands create a strategy, realise it’s too convoluted and then try to strip out parts after the fact. It’s no good waiting for things to become complicated, and only then trying to make them simple. Start with simplicity at the heart of your strategy, and work towards the ambition of creating something that has less content, but more clarity.
Be clear about what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it for
When a brand strategy is devised in the boardroom, it can sometimes become a bit of an academic exercise with no regard for the practicalities of its day-to-day use. Most of the time, the real beneficiaries of your brand strategy aren’t in the room when it’s being made; they’re the brand managers and consumers who’ll be engaging with, and using your brand out in the real world. Stay focussed on why you’re doing this, and who you’re doing it for.
Begin by understanding the complexity
A lack of understanding leads to being simplistic, not simple. Complex strategies are often a consequence of protracted discussions and lots of internal politics, which is why it’s so important to know exactly why things are the way they are before you start suggesting a more streamlined approach. To be able to cut something down, you need to understand exactly what you’re cutting.
Prepare to compromise
Simplicity always comes at a price, and that price is compromise. The harsh truth is, your brand strategy can’t afford to accommodate everyone’s ideas, but it does need to have a central idea that everyone can get behind. It’s not a box ticking exercise; at the end of the day not everybody is going to be happy. But the point of focussing your thinking isn’t to please everyone all of the time.
Have clarity of thought, not just clarity of approach
There are two parts to simplicity: simplicity in terms of the model (the way you wrap up and present the strategy); and simplicity in terms of the unifying idea. If your unifying idea is vague, it places more emphasis on the supporting elements surrounding it. A clear directional idea at the heart of your strategy will always cut through complexity.
Don’t think that an internal strategy has to remain internal
There’s a discipline that comes from creating something meant for an external audience, something that’s lacking when we know we’re communicating with our peers. As a result, brands frequently create strategies that have great internal-facing ambition, but that ambition often fails to make it out of the office environment. When consumers know that your brand’s values are consistent regardless of who you’re talking to, it builds transparency and trust. It also reminds staff throughout your organisation that there isn’t a divide between theory and practice.
Finally, one important thing to remember is that “simple” doesn’t have to mean “boring”. If you have a compelling unifying idea at the heart of your strategy, you’ll have something that connects with people not in spite of its simplicity, but because of it.