Whittling success - branding

Brand Simplicity – Whittling success down to its core.

brand credibility from branding expertsIn business I think it’s human nature to add unnecessary complexity to all sorts of things.

Business owners, inventors, entrepreneurs and marketers add complexity because it feels like it adds value… It gives us more to talk about, more features to tout, more bullet points for the pitch deck, more hype to hype, more stuff to keep us busy.

The problem is, it’s also human nature to crave simplicity.  So in the seller’s head, more is more…  In the buyer’s mind, less is more. Way, way, way more.

The basic need for simplicity wins every time.

In “Made To Stick” Dan and Chip Heath point to numerous studies that support the need for simplicity, both in the fundamental approach to business building and in brand communications.

Ideas that stick are inherently simple. And successfully sticky ideas are also communicated simply.

Simple is the first and foremost letter in the Made To Stick recipe of  SUCCESS.

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A brand simplicity disconnect.


I recently ordered a product from a new client, just to see it for myself and do a little mystery shopping.

In our initial discussions and research effort the product seemed like a nice, simple solution to a common problem. Nothing to it, really, which is what made it intriguing to me and my team.

But when I opened the box I was taken aback by the complexity of it.

I was paralyzed… Stuck in one of those IKEA moments of confusion when you see all the random parts, pieces, diagrams, instructions options and explanations sitting on the floor, just daring you to complete the puzzle. 

The presentation of the product in its box completely contradicted everything the owner told us about his brand.

His core idea of “simplicity” was out the window. So we went back to the drawing board and started whittling away at it.

Sharpening the focus. Removing the clutter.

That’s what strategic leadership is all about… deleting all the unnecessary nonsense and getting to the core of your product, your operation, your brand.

Jim Stengel, former CMO of Proctor & Gamble, led an exhaustive study of this. What he found is the fastest growing businesses are those with the strongest brand ideals. 

“A viable brand ideal cuts through the clutter and clarifies what you and your people stand for and believe. The businesses that are driven by a higher ideal, a higher purpose, outperform their competition by a wide margin.” 

It’s not enough to just know the core idea, you also have communicate it clearly and implement it in all facets of your operation.

Inventors and entrepreneurs are often really bad at the communication part. Unfortunately, great ideas communicated poorly will always just be great ideas.

Communicating that core is what saves people from the paralysis of indecision. When you remove all the stuff that’s unnecessary or irrelevant, you add persuasive impact and enable progress on many fronts.

Focus motivates internal teams, attracts prospective customers and generates momentum.  The clarity you’ll enjoy when you simplify things can be amazing.

As the Heath brothers say, “we must be masters of exclusion.” Exclusion and editing in every facet of your business.

Editing as a business discipline.


I’ll never forget an editing lesson I learned from a crotchety old Journalism School professor, way back when. I had turned in a writing assignment — a magazine article — that I was quite proud of. When I got it back there were three words scribbled across the first page:


I got a C on that assignment, but the lesson was an A+.

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That’s what Branding comes down to: Boiling down your business to its core idea, and then communicating that core concept in simple, profound ways.

Define the core idea and then create simple, creative brand signals that drive the idea home for your target audience.

Your logo is signal — a simple graphic expression of that core idea. Preferably artistic. Often impressionistic.

If it’s too literal you probably need to simplify it. Like a sculpter whittling away at a shapeless block of clay until all that’s left is a masterpiece of minimalism.

Your tagline should complement the logo. It should enhance the symbolic meaning and help set the tone for your brand. It is the simplest written expression of what you’re all about. Don’t skimp on that.

Your website provides a platform for all the complicated stuff. It allows you to expand on the core idea and add a depth of understanding for those who seek it.  This is the only place where complexity can live and be useful. (Think long tail keywords.) But that doesn’t mean you should neglect the editing. Even long format white papers should be written with an eye toward brevity.

Your social media posts, your advertising and your packaging should be mysterious little tidbits from the same bone.

Like the marrow of your brand.  The core nourishes everything you do.

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Let’s get back to that new client with the unnecessarily complex IKEA-style packaging. Our editing has far exceeded the scope of work that the client ever imagined…

First we boiled down his product offering, so instead of a dozen confusing options we now present just two.

We boiled down his brand name, from four boring words to two memorable syllables.

We boiled down his packaging, which saves him a ton of money and changes the entire pricing structure of his business.

We boiled down his advertising messages and his social media effort based on the true core of his brand.

And we’re working with him to align his operation with that newly exposed core brand concept.

It’s a constant battle… He’s an engineer. His natural instinct is to add, add, add complexity to the smallest, most meaningless things. Our job is to counteract that tendency, streamline wherever we can, and make sure things don’t devolve back into the land of mass confusion.

Think about that… The cost of complexity in that business is tremendous, so what is the value of a partner that helps eliminate complexity and achieve simplicity?

This ad we did delivers a message of simplicity to restaurant owners.

In his book Brand Simple, Allan Adamson says “simplicity trumps everything”  and that the most successful brand ideas are always simple, in hindsight.

Quite often, business owners don’t discover the core of their brand until they’re years into it.

So if you have a start-up, you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration and guesswork by thinking about your brand right up front.

Spend the time to define the core and get it down on paper. Don’t just dream of all the things you could offer, also think about what you’re going to leave out.

With established businesses we have to whittle away all the unnecessary stuff that’s been piled on over the years. Quite often that means sacrificing things that the executive team is pretty fond of.

At Ford Motor Company they’ve sacrificed sedans completely, in favor of a simpler, streamlined offering of trucks and SUVs.

No one would have imagined that Ford would abandon the car market. (But let’s remember… for every Mustang there were several Festivas and Edsels.)

Instead, they’re introducing a hybrid version of a crossover Mustang and two new truck models, including the Lightning — the first mass-produced electric truck.

Ford builds a vehicle every four seconds. Electric vehicles require far fewer steps in production, so the automotive assembly line — Ford’s invention — will be much simpler in the future. Imagine how much a tad more simplicity on the line will mean to Ford’s bottom line.

In an HBR interview, Jim Hackett, the CEO of Ford said, “Complexity creeps in over time. Right now we’re right in the middle of the work eliminating complexity, and we’re seeing great results. The costs of complexity are hard to see until they’re gone.”

If you’re hoping for a little more simplicity in your marketing messages and your overall operation, contact me here.  It’s just a simple little baby step toward a better brand.




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