We experience an explosion of tools and technologies promising simplicity, yet we find ourselves ensnared in the complexities of a hyper-connected world. Is it not odd that so many of the tasks which used to take hours, days or even weeks now take seconds - and yet we seem busier than ever? Let’s distil the essence of navigating the chaos through the lens of brands, marketing, and communication.
Clutter reigns supreme: Markets overflow with choices, and the cacophony of information only adds to the intricacy with the distinction of what is real and what is not becomes ever more difficult. As the competitive cycles keep getting tighter, it becomes increasingly difficult for brands to cut through the clutter. And so, for brands breaking through this clutter becomes a science, a craft, and an art all at once.
The skills and resources required to remain efficient is increasingly less compatible with smaller structures (i.e. SMEs), let alone solopreneurs, or individuals such as people in leadership positions. Larger organizations, though equipped with more resources, grapple with their own complexities, emphasizing that success today doesn’t guarantee tomorrow.
Firstly, it’s important to bring clarity to terms. What’s complex is not the same as what’s complicated. A Swiss watch is complicated, while the intricate dance of market forces represents complexity. In our hyper connected world, unprecedented and increasing complexity paves the way for Edward N. Lorenz’s butterfly effect: the delicate balance of a brand can be impacted – positively and negatively - by seemingly inconsequential changes.
Case in point: In a strategic metamorphosis, Kentucky Fried Chicken subtly started rebranding in 1991, shifting the focus to its initials: KFC. This involved simplifying its identity and logo, echoing the desire to remove the word ʽfried’ from its name for health-conscious reasons. Much like the butterfly effect, seemingly subtle changes in the brand’s wingspan create a dynamic interplay of reactions among customers, staff, and the public. The customer base experiences a nuanced shift in perceptions, influenced by media narratives and competitive responses, sparking a series of events that impact investor sentiments and internal dynamics. If you ask any Gen Z today, they are unlikely to know what these letters mean, but they will unmistakably associate it with the mouth-watering taste of KFC’s iconic chicken.
Perceptions of complexity are inherently subjective and have existed throughout different eras, shaping the experiences of those who preceded us. Contemplating the management of complexity is not a novel concept; rather, it is a timeless consideration that hinges on one’s perspective. Different cultures have different ways of seeing and solving it. What’s complex for one culture can be simple for another. What’s complex for one industry or discipline is simple for another. For instance, managing supply chain logistics is complex for a marketing executive in the FMCG industry, but for a logistics specialist, it’s a straightforward and well-understood part of their daily responsibilities.
Prof. Alan Perlis
Here is a complexity metaphor anyone can try and observe for themselves at home: fear of complexity parallels the fear of darkness. Both are dispelled by acknowledging the absence of light. You can turn off the lights for the room you are in to become dark. Then, after a while, as the eyes begin to adjust, you will note how the environment gradually becomes more and more visible. The trained eye can remove complexity and bring clarity.
Complexity can be confusing, which can make people lose their way. The ancient Egyptians had labyrinth rituals, in which the chosen initiate would go into a labyrinth with the aim of not getting lost. They’d give the initiate a simple secret formula: if you start going to the right you must keep going right all the time. In this way, even if you make mistakes, you at least know that you made a mistake by going right. But if you make a right, then a left, and then a right turn, things become complicated, and you will quickly become lost. In many ways, this is a navigational lesson about firmness and consistency.
For example, while many see the investment sector as a complex issue in a turbulent world, a seasoned investor can simplify complex market trends, focusing on essential factors that impact investment decisions. Large creative and ambitious projects such as a rebranding exercise for instance, seem complex when it comes to realizing them, while the right person with the necessary experience manager can simplify this complexity and translate it into project plans, focusing on critical tasks, logical dependencies, and timelines for efficient execution.
For those attuned to the nuances of change, a paradox emerges: amidst the rapid flux of circumstances, certain underlying constants persist. While history doesn’t repeat itself, it often rhymes. The key lies in focusing on perennial truths, perpetual factors, and the immutable laws that govern society, culture, and human nature. Breaking away from conventional business thinking and distancing oneself from short-term observations proves invaluable. Rather than fixating solely on the immediate context, the true insight lies in observing the long-term continuum, encompassing the past, present, and the future.
Take, for instance, the ex-CEO of Faber-Castell, a 260-year-old brand, Count Anton-Wolfgang von Faber-Castell. He aptly explained: “We family entrepreneurs naturally find it easier to think in terms of generations and to see through projects whose fruits will not be reaped for perhaps decades, and only after setbacks. In a listed company, this attitude would have got me fired at least three times by now, especially in the days when shareholder value was the be-all and end-all, and the goal of short- term profit eclipsed any long-term considerations.”
We can take from his that instead of focusing solely on the current moment, it’s essential to look at the long run. In this context having a north star, the still point of the turning universe, is useful. The stable point of reference becomes the most reliable point for orientation. It is easy to be distracted and get carried away by the things that change around us. In this kind of environment, it becomes a strategic necessity to focus on what doesn’t change.
An Exemplary brand that embodies a long-term, timeless approach is CocaCola. Since its inception in 1886, Coca-Cola has maintained a consistent brand image and formula, emphasizing its iconic red and white logo and the classic, refreshing taste of its beverage. Despite evolving marketing strategies and adaptations to cultural shifts, Coke has adhered to the enduring principles of quality, enjoyment (happinesss as a differentiator), and unity. The brand’s longevity speaks to its ability to resonate across generations while staying rooted in its fundamental structure—a timeless combination that transcends changes in consumer preferences and societal trends.
Similarly, in communications, there may be endless ways of telling a story - but there are very few structures of stories. Nicely summarized by William Bernbach: “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man: with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”
While it’s widely acknowledged that complexity doesn’t solve complexity, there’s a prevalent misconception that intricate projects demand equally intricate solutions. In practice, the opposite is frequently true. Take, for instance, a large-scale project facing numerous challenges and dependencies. The more intricate the situation becomes, the more crucial it becomes to streamline and simplify processes. Just as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can set off a chain reaction, often a straightforward, well-coordinated adjustment in project strategy can have a cascading effect, untangling complexities and leading to more effective outcomes.
In the early days of e-commerce for example, an insightful engineer identified a significant challenge: a considerable loss in basket value due to users abandoning purchases, either deterred by the hassle of creating an account or discouraged by the tedious process of password recovery. Recognizing the need for a simple solution to this complex problem, the concept of ’order as a guest’ was born. This simple approach allowed users to complete transactions without the need for a lengthy account creation (or password recovery) process. The impact was immediate and resulted in substantial uplift in e-commerce sales, as the barrier to entry was dramatically reduced, enhancing the overall user experience, and encouraging more seamless transactions. Or take British Telecom, saving USD 620,000 by simply rewriting a call centre script.
In an environment of rapid growth, perceived and real complexity tends to increase and consequently so does the yearning for simplification, clarity and meaning. Especially when complexity increases, simple thinking-structures can be of tremendous help. Simplicity and beauty are hard to deliver. Indeed, that’s what makes both so desirable. Compare for example the complexity of (ex.) Nokia’s mobile phone range of 3310, 7250i, 6630, 3230, N95, E71 and so on vs. Apple’s iPhone 3, 4 … up to the current 15. Simple, clear, effective.
Prof. Albert Einstein
Communication remains one of the top priorities for businesses both internally and externally: from corporate identity to creating relevance, from employer branding to internal communications, from building the brand to protecting corporate reputation. Leaders need to have a clearly communicated plan – a forward map, clarifying what’s ahead. Whenever complexity creeps in, their GPS will recalculate and communicate the adjusted plan. Gaining and retaining clarity is an ongoing process. By always having the goal in mind, complexity ceases to interfere with the agenda. As Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist, wrote: “Governments and corporations have found that small improvements in clarity can prevent vast amounts of error, frustration, and waste...”. Simplicity and clarity are the saviours.
Clarity in communications trumps, too. For example, honest and authentic messaging can go a long way toward making business transformations successful. In challenging situations such as mergers, communications should be genuine and transparent. Why? Because employees value having difficult messages communicated in a direct way. Brief, authentic cut-through messages can bring clarity and reduce complexity for your team.
1. Distil and simplify your Brand Identity
In a world brimming with choices and information overload, brands need to cut through the clutter. Ensure your brand messages are clear, avoiding unnecessary complexity, and resonate with your audience.
2. Get perspective and tailor your approach
Complexity is subjective, varying across cultures, industries, and disciplines. Embrace a perspective-driven approach to problem-solving. What’s complex for one might be routine for another. Apply this principle to communication strategies - tailor your messages to align with your audience’s perspective.
3. Stay the course
Whether dealing with market trends or managing ambitious projects, focus on critical tasks, logical dependencies, and timelines. Simplify your approach to what really matters – and stick to it.
4. Take a long-term view
In a rapidly changing world, focus on perennial truths, perpetual factors, and immutable laws governing society. Look beyond the immediate and consider the past, present, and future for a holistic understanding.
5. Prioritize clarity
Communicate with clarity, providing a forward map in organizational changes. Brief, authentic, and direct messaging brings clarity and reduces complexity.
Implementing these action points can help you navigate the chaos, distil complexity, and embrace simplicity. Indeed, not all complexity is bad. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that people experience the most satisfaction and happiness when they are fully absorbed in activities that match their skills to the level of challenging complexity. So finding complexity, if done right, and meaning in our pursuits can also be a key source of happiness and fulfilment.
Take these strategies, embark on your journey, and turn chaos into triumph. Complexity may be inevitable, but with the right approach, so is your success.
This blogpost is also available as a white paper in PDF format, which you can find by following this link.
1) The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. ʽEdward Lorenz.’ Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 19 May 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/
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3) Esposito, Elio, and Elio Esposito. “Language Can Transform Your Brand from Bates Motel to Ritz-Carlton - Alphatrad Worldwide: Enabling on-Brand Global Business through Languages & Technology.” ALPHATRAD WORLDWIDE| Enabling On-Brand Global Business Through Languages & Technology, 4 Apr. 2018, www.alphatrad.net/language-can-transform-your-brand-from-bates-motel-to-ritz-carlton/.
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6) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial Modern Classics; 2008