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The interaction of two forceful tides—extreme choice proliferation and an exponentially increasing pace of change—at once brings customers unprecedented opportunities and anxiety.  Companies that understand this, and act to eliminate brand complexity and clutter, will flourish.

Is Your Brand a Nuisance?

Steven M. Cristol and Peter Sealey, Ph.D.

Contemporary marketing has been based on an unflagging belief in giving customers more and more choices.  The choice curve ramped up after World War II with a relentless juggernaut of product proliferation and "line extensions."  The result of this half-century of bombarding customers with an overload of options is that their mental circuit breakers are beginning to trip.

By the early 1970s, with marketers desperate for their brands to stand out amidst more choices, the concept of "positioning" rippled through the marketing world.  Positioning focused on differentiating a product from its competition, and success has come to those brands with a unique, relevant and credible positioning supported by aggressive marketing.

But many such successes are now threatened by overchoice.  A new imperative for the positioning discipline has emerged: that marketers look for ways to connect their brands to simplicity.  We hypothesize that the next generation of positioning successes will belong to those brands that relieve customer stress.  Brands that do this will be the customer's heroes.  Brands that don't will be nuisances.

This might seem fairly straightforward, but it is much easier said than done.  A strategic framework is needed, and we posit one we call Simplicity Marketing.  With Simplicity Marketing, choice and innovation need not clutter the customer's mind but can instead be positioned to de-clutter it.  This will translate to stronger sales, customer loyalty, brand equity and competitive advantage.

The Customer's Perspective

How did we get to a world of 40,000 products in a supermarket, hundreds of long distance and cellular calling plans, 52 versions of Crest toothpaste, magazine ads that show 37 available configurations of a Dodge Caravan on a single page, and the distribution of a thousand coupons per human being each year?

How did we get to a business world confronted by more than 200 different brands of conference room chairs, 225 different models of mobile phone handsets, and 100-plus brands of desktop and laptop computers—all marketing for mindshare of the purchasing manager.  Can the human brain cope with such overwhelming choice?

The increasing number of product categories—and options within each category—not only represent more customer decisions; they also drive exponential increases in telemarketing calls, direct mail, Web marketing, traditional advertising, and point-of-sale promotions that all ask customers to react, respond, or make "sub-decisions."  In 1970 telemarketing calls interrupting dinner were rare; by 1999, more than 20 million telemarketing calls poured into U.S. homes each day, and the average U.S. household was receiving about 150 pieces of mail a month.

And it's monitoring the decisions already made.  (Uh-oh, have I reached the number of stays threshold to keep my Swissotel Club Swiss Gold card for next year?  Have I exceeded my home office Internet service provider's fixed 50-hour monthly maximum?  The tracking requirements are endless.)

Even valuable offers contribute to customer stress.  Sometimes life-simplifying products come along, only to sabotage themselves with complex pricing schemes, arcane short-term promotions, and less-than-clear advertising.

The message for marketers is clear: human capacity for choice is not infinitely expandable.  Choice must be proactively managed in the 21st Century, and this puts contemporary marketing at a crossroads.  Those who succeed will increasingly have to market new products and services as replacements for, or consolidators of, existing choices rather than merely as something new.

Whole Life Context

One key to stress-reducing customer solutions is the concept of whole life context—placing more emphasis on how a product interacts with other products in the customer's life, and less emphasis on analyzing the product in a silo.  Ostensibly, in most categories, customers continue to demand an abundance of choices.  Different needs and lifestyles have naturally led to the call for products and services tailored to the individual, with more and more customization.

But customers' lives are a complex quilt of hundreds of product categories.  And their minds are not neatly segregated into separate compartments the way marketers compartmentalize their definitions of product categories, sales channels and communications vehicles.  What may be good and desirable in one category compounds over many categories to create dysfunctionality for the individual customer.  A central cause of this is that market researchers generally interrogate customers about their preferences within a single category, when the customer's real life is not so segregated.

The Role of Brands

Brands can play a core role in stress reduction, especially when brand managers understand them as time savers and simplifiers.  In the context of too much choice, brand becomes the shortest, most efficient path to potential satisfaction and tension release.  The exasperated consumer says, "I've hit my threshold for comparing all these features; this is the company (brand) I want to do business with, so let's just get on with it!"

Waning consumer confidence in everything from travel agents to doctors to advertising puts more pressure on making choices for one's self.  A strong brand becomes more appealing as choices pile up with less reliance on third-party advice.  More than ever, strong brands are simplifiers.  Weaker brands shouting for attention are not.

Some leading marketers have already woken up to the simplicity imperative.  Proctor & Gamble was first major packaged goods marketer to commit to weeding out unnecessary variations of products and packaging.  Among the first categories in which P&G decided to reduce customer choice was hair care products.  Starting from more than 30 varieties of Head & Shoulders shampoo alone, P&G reduced formulas and packaging variations until the  total number of hair care SKUs was cut by half.  Less choice for consumers, yet P&G market share has increased steadily every year since.  If less than ten percent of household and personal care products account for more than 80 percent of sales, there's a pretty strong clue that shoppers' lives are unnecessarily cluttered with product variations that few people really care about.

Meanwhile, Burger King eliminated 27 menu items in one year.  Refocusing on core products and a simpler menu ended a series of marketing missteps and was considered a key driver of the reversal of Burger King's fortunes, generating double-digit revenue growth internationally by 1997.  Also during the mid-90s, companies as diverse as Sunoco, Nabisco and General Motors began reeling in product variations.  But most marketers continued to crank out an unprecedented number of new products, line extensions and complex promotions.

A Stress-Relief Framework

There are at least two reasons why most marketers haven't been more responsive to the customer's plight.  One is that as long as there are shareholder expectations for revenue growth it seems antithetical to eliminate products and take the risk that competitors will offer something customers may still be interested in buying.  The other reason is that reducing customer stress is a tough, complex job without much of a road map.  There have been theoretical frameworks for years on how to strategically extend a product line, but how many road maps have you seen for consumer stress reduction?

Two fundamental concepts can serve as guideposts in assessing where your brand sits on the stress spectrum.  The first is the concept of "replacement" vs. "incremental."  The second is the concept of "maximum choice" vs. "optimum choice."

Replacement vs. Incremental. Every product or service falls into one of two mutually exclusive, zero-sum categories: replacement or incremental.  Any product or service that doesn't replace something else or consolidate multiple solutions into a single solution is, by default, incremental.  Introducing something as "new"—once  a positive, automatic attention-grabber—is less and less likely to be automatically perceived as a plus and more likely to be perceived as clutter (something additional) unless the product's positioning allows the customer to eliminate something old.

A new model of VCR ostensibly will replace an old model.  But an incremental technology like Minidisc audio CDs, introduced in 1992, met great resistance in spite of marketers' hopes that it could replace audio cassettes—largely because many consumers saw it as an incremental product that didn't really replace anything.  As choices continue to proliferate, it is increasingly likely that incremental products will fail, or, at best, erode their perpetrators' brand equity.

The true power of Simplicity Marketing, however, is in products that go beyond merely replacement and actually reduce the number of products, brands or decisions in a customer's life.  Such reduction, or de-cluttering, may take the forms of consolidating, aggregating or integrating multiple functions into a single product or service.

De-cluttering may occur at the product development stage—as a guide to streamlining product lines, features and variations, and allocating more resources to those products and features that have stress-reduction potential.  Or, it may occur in positioning strategy, branding or even logo design.

In positioning strategy, some marketers will choose to directly leverage customer stress in their advertising tag lines that try to communicate a "brand soul" which is simplicity-sensitive.  Honda was early to market with this approach—"Honda. We Make It Simple."

Another de-cluttering approach to branding is reducing the number of sub-brands.  Acura reversed a market share decline after replacing sub-brands like Legend and Vigor with simple model numbers attached to the Acura name.

Still other brands will de-clutter with logo design.  A recent study published in the Journal of Marketing found both greater memorability and appeal of simple logos like Nike's "swoosh" than detail ones such as Green Giant.

The more dimensions on which de-cluttering occurs, the more likely a brand's identity can represent simplification.

Maximum vs. Optimum Choice. As layer upon layer of multiple categories have clogged the customer's brain, even within individual categories we find more frequent evidence that less is more – whether in the number of choices available or in the positioning and packaging of those choices.  Each category has an optimum level of choice within the customer's whole life context, beyond which there are diminishing returns.  With the build-up of incremental categories, the customer's maximum capacity for choice within individual categories is diminished.

In 1992 CEOs of large cable TV and telephone companies waxed eloquently about the "500-channel information superhighway" that so-called full-service broadband networks would soon deliver.  But by the time the Web had trumped interactive television, it was clear that 500 channels were not exactly what consumers wanted.  For more and more customers in the Simplicity Marketing era, "500 channels" was an anxiety-producing, incremental, maximum-choice positioning.  The real Holy Grail was in a different perspective on the same offer: one personal mega-channel that has only what the consumer wants to see, and when he or she wants to see it.  Optimum choice, rather than maximum choice.

In that subtle difference of orientation lies the appeal of mass customization.  By making maximum choice and flexibility look like optimum choice, the choice appears deceptively simple.

Let's say you take daily nutritional supplements.  The shelves are lined with several brands of each substance, multiplied by different sizes and different forms (tablets, capsules, etc.).  This maximum-choice environment is both overwhelming because of overchoice in a relatively high-risk category (health) and comforting in the belief that, if you work hard enough, you can find the right combination of pills to satisfy your needs.  But you still a need to take six different pills a day, and replenish six different products (and you will run out of each at different times, since pill-count bottle sizes are not uniform).

Recognizing that the price for maximum choice is often paid as much in time as at the cash register, Acumin Corporation was founded in 1996 as a mass customizer of nutritional supplements.  The customer decides how much of each vitamin or mineral s/he wants and in what form, and on demand Acumin manufactures the unique formula in a single pill and ships it directly to the consumer.  Delivering optimum choice spelled rapid success for Acumin.

Stress Scan

The stress-sensitive marketer will continually conduct a "stress scan" of the market.  The stress scan addresses three key things:  (1) locating stress pockets in both the existing and prospective customer bases, (2) identifying the drivers of stress that create those pockets, and (3) identifying customers' own strategies for coping with stress.

Traditionally, most market segmentation attention has been focused on demographics, psychographics, and product usage.  Certain of these characteristics have repeatedly shown strong correlation with preference for a particular product type or brand.  But as customer stress continues to grow, we will see a growing number of cases in which stress—encompassing both the level and nature of stress—eclipses traditional variables in determining purchase behavior and brand relationship.

Technically, attitudes and beliefs about stress might fall under the psychographics umbrella, but for the immediate future they risk getting lost there.  Until managing stress becomes an integral day-to-day part of what marketers do, stress is sufficiently complex and poorly understood that it requires its own area of focus.  We call it stressographics—if perhaps only until it's such an obvious part of psychographics that it can be subsumed by the psychographics moniker.

The simplicity-astute stress scan will routinely measure both the level and nature of stress across the market, looking for hot spots where stress levels are most pronounced and where the nature of the stress is such that the marketer's product or brand can be made relevant to stress relief.  This will be especially beneficial for marketers in higher-anxiety categories.  Stressographics are likely to yield greater dividends for, say, a pharmaceutical company than for a marketer of impulse items.

Identifying Stress Drivers

Locating stress pockets in the marketplace requires measuring and tracking customers' "drivers of stress" (stressors in psychology parlance) where the customer has articulated the sources of stress and how stress is impacting his/her life.  This is best done on an open-ended basis—that is, asking customers in qualitative research to talk freely about stress and its causes—and ultimately focusing that discussion on the specific product category of interest (but not before understanding in general what the customer's stress is like and where it's coming from in his/her whole life context).  What actually evokes anxiety varies greatly by cultural and demographic context, and each individual experiences stress differently.

Quantitative research can be used to track the presence and relative importance of these stress drivers in the context of specific purchase decisions and brand perceptions.  Both qualitative and quantitative research can also help establish linkages between the customer's feelings of discomfort and behavioral changes.

Short of doing custom research, some of the more obvious drivers of stress can often be deduced even from a basic demographic perspective.  For example, common sense (as well as many research studies) tells us that in most cases stress in the consumer marketplace is likely to be higher in households with children vs. those without.  Among two-parent households, stress is likely to be higher when both parents work fulltime.

Coping Strategies

Every customer has his or her own strategies for coping with and reducing stress, whether premeditated or haphazardly done on the fly.  By keenly observing these strategies among your customers, you can position your products and brand to be enablers rather than obstacles in the customer's private war against stress.

All of the ways customers cope with stress fall into one of two categories: tackling stress and escaping stress. Each of these subsegments in a target market may have greater propensity to engage in certain anti-stress behaviors that you as a marketer can help enable.  For example, two closely related stress-tackling behaviors are clearing clutter and getting organized.  Among the most popular stress-escaping behaviors are watching TV and listening to music.  The retail chain Hold Everything, which sells personal storage and organization solutions, might target tacklers.  Windham Hill Records, purveyors of relaxing New Age instrumental music, might target Escapers.

The Four R's

We find great utility in simplifying the range of Simplicity Marketing strategies by reducing it to what we call the 4 R's: Replace, Repackage, Reposition, and Replenish.

Replace is developing and positioning products as replacements either for multiple products, or for more complicated products or processes.  To reduce customer stress, Replace may be as basic as substituting a simpler product for a more complex one, or may focus on consolidating the number of products or steps required by the customer to accomplish a particular task or goal.

One of the most obvious examples of Replace is conditioning shampoo.  For consumers who use hair conditioner, conditioning shampoo provided the opportunity to simplify by substituting one product for two—and save time both in purchasing and using hair care products.  For that substantial (and growing) market segment that is concerned with saving time and effort, conditioning shampoo has become a must-have staple and is now a $5 billion plus category.

Repackage is bundling together a number of products or services that were previously available only from multiple sources (or as separate purchases from the same source), offering integrated solutions with a single point of contact for the customer.

Bloomberg L.P. built a highly successful digital age business based on its core competencies in pulling together vast amounts of financial information for professional investors.  From many different sources, the Bloomberg Service aggregates into a single source comprehensive worldwide securities information, news, research and analysis, and real-time, historical and projected prices.  With inventive Repackaging, Bloomberg has built a strong enough brand to successfully extend it beyond the professional market into television, radio and the Internet.

Reposition is directly positioning a brand on the promise of simplicity, or expanding a brand's positioning to reduce the number of brand relationships that a customer requires over time.  This may involve extending an upscale brand downmarket (for example, the less expensive Mani suits from high-end fashion designer Giorgio Armani) or finding ways that products can satisfy additional needs (Tums antacid as a calcium supplement).

Replenish is providing a readily available continuous supply of zero-defect product or service to the existing customer base at acceptable price points, resulting in the customer only having to make the purchase decision once.

For loyal users of Crest, part of the appeal is knowing that the 6-ounce tube of the tartar-control variety will always be available on the shelf of any retailer, regardless of location.  Formulation, flavor and quality will not vary.  With replenishment, Crest eliminates the toothpaste decision and reduces it to a near-automatic action.  Proctor & Gamble's job is to execute product management at the level of zero defects and zero out-of-stocks.

Simplifying the Value Chain

Harvard University Professor Michael Porter has defined the individual consumer's value chain as the sequence of activities performed by a consumer in which the product is directly or indirectly involved, and the firm's value chain as the collection of activities performed to design, produce, market, deliver and support its products.  If the 4 R's are the strategic colors of customer stress relief, then the value chain provides the relevant set of canvases.

The value chain provides a comprehensive window on stress reduction in consumer marketing.  Each area of personal or household activity relevant to a particular consumer's use of a product or brand can be assessed for opportunities to simplify with the 4 R's.  Lowering cost, especially nonfinancial costs, and raising real or perceived performance are the arenas in which to look for these opportunities.

It is important that what are considered relevant personal or household activities are not narrowly scoped.  In the value chain, actual performance will sometimes have less impact on perceived performance than will the stream of activities that the product is used in conjunction with.

For a highly stressed working mother, for example, greater value may be perceived in an adequately performing laundry detergent with a highly concentrated formula than in a superior performing detergent that is not concentrated.  The concentrated formula means the product stretches further, lengthening its use cycle, and reducing the frequency of trips to the store, while saving shelf space at home.  For this customer, drivers of stress lie more in the activities around shopping for storing and monitoring the supply of the product than in actually using it.

Your Competition

If your brand is creating stress, it's vulnerable to being depositioned by more customer-empathetic competitors.  The more stressed your particular target market, the more vulnerable you are.  Customers will be paying more attention to which brands are helping them.  There is little gray area in between, partially explaining why by the late 90s an average of nearly 400 U.S. businesses were failing every business day in spite of a very strong economy.  With survival of the fittest, "fittest" may increasingly mean "simplest."

The 4 R's are about making substitutions in the buyer's value chain.  These strategies are alternative approaches to substituting simplicity for complexity.  For market leaders defending market share, the threat of substitutes increasingly means the threat of simplicity and customer stress relief—at the hands of a competitor.

This article was adapted from Simplicity Marketing: End Brand Complexity, Clutter and Confusion by Steven M. Cristol and Peter Sealey and published by The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster.

Steven M. Cristol is a leading authority on brand strategy and a consultant to leading technology companies.  He is co-author of Essentials of Media Planning: A Marketing Viewpoint, now in its third edition and translated into five languages.

Peter Sealey, former Chief Marketing Officer of The Coca-Cola Company, speaks widely on brand strategy as a Principal of Los Altos Group, Inc. Dr. Sealey teaches marketing at the Haas School of Business, University of California, where he also serves as Co-Director of the Center for Marketing and Technology.