Simple Does Not Equal Easy
Simplicity is often difficult to achieve, which would explain the phrase “deceptively simple.” (It’s one of those strange dichotomy-conundrum-oxymoron-type things. Take your pick.)
Whether in writing, design, engineering, or cooking recipes, simplicity is key to effectiveness. So it follows that the challenge of this post will be to not clutter it up with too many examples. (Note to self: edit!)
Simple is Sophisticated
Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Albert Einstein remarked that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Then there’s the famous KISS acronym (“Keep It Simple, Stupid”) credited to Lockheed Sunk Works engineer Kelly Johnson.
(Vigilante Grammarians will note that although KISS is often spelled out as “Keep it simple, stupid,” Johnson used it without the comma. The expression was not meant to imply that an engineer was stupid; just the opposite.)
Marketers Discover the Popularity of “Simplicity”
It’s tempting to add “Well, duh!” to this heading. But the use of the adjective “simple” when marketing food has suddenly become newsworthy thanks to a recent study by Innova Market Insights. The subhead of the article claims the recession has prompted an increase in consumers’ hankering for the simple life: “Post-Recession Consumers Shun the Complexities of Life, as Simple Products Thrive.” For astute marketers, this may look like another case of a study validating the obvious. No data yet on how “simple” adjectives have affected sales. Nevertheless, check out these numbers:
Innova Market Insights tracked 987 new products using the words “simple,” “simplest” or “simplicity” in 2009 compared to 467 in 2008.
More than double the “simplicity” in just one year! The PR Newswire story continues:
The rise of the simplicity trend has led Lay’s® Classic Potato Chips to now feature the claim “made with these three simple ingredients and that’s it.” In June 2010, Mars Chocolate North America announced the nationwide availability of the Milky Way® Brand Simply Caramel Bar, where the word “simply” is prominent. Meanwhile Pillsbury® simply…™ Cookies are being promoted as being “made with just the simple, wholesome ingredients you and your family know and love.”
You gotta love the Lay’s line that follows their three simple ingredients: “After all, Happiness is Simple.™” Ah yes, the simple pleasures in life.
In-N-Out Burger is a prime example of how effective simplicity can be within the food industry, specifically for Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs). It was the first drive-through restaurant, founded in 1948, and the In-N-Out menu has remained essentially unchanged ever since, offering only three items: burgers, fries and drinks. But they do those three things very well. The company was the only fast food restaurant to be favorably written about in Eric Schlosser’s exposé on the industry, “Fast Food Nation.”
(Full disclosure: I did some advertising work for In-N-Out Burger while working for O’Leary & Partners, which is how I became a fan of their food.)
According to a Powell’s Books review, Schlosser’s book “ends with what can only be called a tribute to In-N-Out Burger of California, a family-owned chain that has refused to franchise and pays the highest wages in the fast-food industry. In-N-Out peels its own potatoes and uses fresh beef, and it does without microwaves, heat lamps and freezers. It’s ranked first in the nation in food quality, service and atmosphere, and the most expensive thing on the menu costs $2.45.”
Simplicity has been a significant factor in the design and marketing of Apple products, as exemplified by the iMac, iTunes music store, the iPod, and now the iPad.
A few years ago when the iPod was taking off, someone at Microsoft put together a self-deprecating video that spoofed the software giant’s propensity to clutter its packaging with bullets and bursts, versus the clean, spare look of Apple designs. Even if you’ve seen this one before, it’s worth revisiting.
“If Microsoft Made the iPod”
To keep this post from meandering on too long, I’ll conclude with a thought from the French scientist and philospher, Blaise Pascal, which sums up the challenge of writing with brevity and simplicity. (Just replace “letter” with “blog post.”)
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” — Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Are You Simple-Minded?
Can you think of other examples of marketers who are effectively simplifying their message or look? Or to look at it another way, who is primarily responsible for cluttered communication? Is it the advertisers or their agencies? Or are consumers at fault for enabling and allowing them to get away with it?
Sound off! But please, keep it simple.