Why should marketing be easy? 

Keep it complex, stupid

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“We find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.” I reread this quote about ‘System 2 thinking’ from Professor Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow recently, and realized how this may in fact be one of the causes of the dangerous oversimplification that we can see in much of modern marketing.

‘Simplification is good and complexity is bad’ seems to be today’s marketing mantra. “In an over-communicated world you need an over-simplified message,” suggested Ries and Trout in their famous book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. The marketing world latched on to the notion in the blink of an eye. Nowadays we look for single-minded propositions. We try to reduce things to “the one thing that…”. We search for the big idea or the killer application.

As Faris Yakob, author of Paid Attention puts it, “We always look for the super simple ‘insight’ even in areas that are amazingly complex, like cognitive research. We are biased towards simplicity because we only ever encounter complexity in the real world.” In other words we want to KISS – keep it simple, stupid.

This all fits with Kahneman’s theory of ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’ thinking. System 1 produces the fast, intuitive, more emotionally led reactions and instantaneous decisions that govern most of our lives and how we behave. It helps explain how we can do so much without really thinking about it; in a marketing context it explains how we can shop so fast – we’re on ‘autopilot’. System 2 is the slower, more deliberate and rationally led type of thinking involved in focus, deliberation, reasoning or analysis – such as calculating a complex maths problem.

System 1 is therefore easy, takes little effort and often happens subconsciously so it is more appealing (if we even bother to think about it). System 2 however, as the earlier quote suggests, takes effort and can be difficult, so is “mildly unpleasant”.

But here’s the rub: marketing isn’t simple. Managing a brand in today’s complex – even chaotic – world isn’t simple. Quantum physics isn’t simple, nor is the human brain or consumer behaviour.

Today’s brands need depth and variety. Managing a brand is complex and difficult. Modern brands have multiple products and services, they need to cross boundaries of categories, countries and consumer groups. They need to engage different stakeholder groups with different messages and experiences at different times, in different places and across different media. Do you really believe one size will fit all? For example, is the BBC just about ‘the news’? No, part of its proposition is to ‘inform’, but it also has a massive role in entertainment and education. The BBC isn’t schizophrenic or difficult to understand: it ‘informs, educates and entertains’… with authority, integrity and occasional brilliance. As Oscar Wilde put it in The Importance of Being Earnest: “The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The search for oversimplification has become so ingrained in marketing practice it is like an addiction, a System 1 addiction – making things appear easier and quicker. It’s an addiction that affects many aspects of marketing jobs, from brand positioning to proposition development, from insights to innovation. It’s time marketers kicked the ‘habit’ and engaged in more System 2 thinking. This should help address some of the issues and underlying tenets on which the search for oversimplification is based.

One of these is binary thinking – the idea that all arguments can be boiled down to a simple, two-way choice between something that is right and something that is wrong; that there is only one right answer. It is ingrained in us from our schooldays: 2+2=4. It’s black or white. Unfortunately, in reality, in the world, as in marketing, it is shades of grey and all of the colours under the sun.

I’m not completely against simplification but I think Einstein probably got it right when he advocated, “simplify everything as much as possible …but not more.”And that means marketers must engage System 2 thinking: embrace multiplicity and keep it complex, stupid.

–– Giles Lury is director at The Value Engineers and author of How Coca-Cola Took Over the World: and 100 More Amazing Stories About the World’s Greatest Brands

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