27th September 2016

making a complex proposition simple

Communicating what a company does and stands for can be a bit like this. What may have started out with clear meaning and singular vision can, over time, become muddled and confused. It happens when a business grows, when its products develop and change or perhaps when it merges with another organisation. I first encountered the challenge of the simplification of complex propositions when interpreting my first brief from Compaq Computers in 1991. When asked to communicate to the market that Compaq Deskpro computers and ProLiant servers were available with a significant user discount, without any reduction in build and performance quality due to a redefined prioritisation of materials, time and resources programme driving their manufacture I concocted the killer direct mail line “Compaq Prices are Lower”. Ok I dressed it up in a fancy gate-fold with gold inked hand lettering and indian hand made papers, but the message was clear enough and the resulting campaign achieved an unprecedented 40% response from 100k targets.

The best marketing campaigns, mission and vision statements as well as customer promises and value propositions unify the broadest ambitions of a brand, ensuring that all stakeholders completely understand and totally ‘get it’.

As the American poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose works included The Song of Hiawatha, once observed; “In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.” A word of caution however. Walter Lippmann political commentator famous for introducing the concept of the Cold War, and coining the term ‘stereotype’ notes: “ When distant and unfamiliar and complex things are communicated to great masses of people, the truth suffers a considerable and often a radical distortion. The complex is made over into the simple, the hypothetical into the dogmatic, and the relative into an absolute.”

So we need a balance that makes perfect sense, reflects the truth and inspires. Is there an art to it or is it derived in common sense?.. It is my opinion that a little of both are necessary ingredients. In challenging the assumed or simply by paring back we can reveal the truth, often asking the apparently stupid questions and challenging the presupposed. General consensus is also a vital element in the process, since consensus refers to a collective opinion. Consensus is defined by Merriam-Webster as, first, general agreement, and second, group solidarity of belief or sentiment. It has its origin in the Latin word cōnsēnsus (agreement), which is from cōnsentiō meaning literally feel together.

So, ‘How long is a piece of string?’… Let’s simply unravel it, measure it and agree the result.