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Clear, simple and wrong: Why modern marketers need to manage multiplicity

A few months after I had finished the manuscript for The Marketing Complex, I came across a quote from H.J. Mencken, the American journalist and satirist. He said “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong”. Had I come across it earlier I would have included it in the book as it beautifully sums up one of my central tenants, namely that marketers have been seduced by the siren call of simplicity. Instead, amongst others, I used one from that ever-reliable source, Oscar Wilde, who in his 1895 play ‘The Importance of being Ernest’, wrote:

‘The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple’.

For me, it appears that there is a real danger that, in their seemingly never-ending drive to become single-minded, brands are instead becoming narrow-minded. Marketers have been seduced first by Rosser Reeves’ Unique Selling Proposition (the USP) and then Ries and Trout’s ‘Positioning – the battle for your mind’ in which they argued, ‘In an over-communicated world, you need an over-simplified message.’ This desire for over-simplification has spread to become the mantra behind much of marketing theory and many of the tools developed, and still used by marketers today.

While fewer still talk of the U.S.P., there has been a "singularisation" of marketing – led by the attempts to sum up a brand in a word, a sentence or a single PowerPoint slide. Then there are the core target audience; the killer insight; the-single-thing- you-most-want-to-communicate; and, of course, the "big idea". There is a trend toward single-figure scores and a notion that the only way to do innovation is to be consumer-led.

For a complex world, there are just too many definite articles.

Nowadays modern portfolio brands, unlike the ‘one product-one brand’ of old, are striving to engage more frequently, with more groups of people, about more products, services and aspects of their brands than ever before. They need to cross categories, countries and customers types. They need to appeal to internal and multiple external audiences all at the same time. Singular, one size fits all, propositions may have worked well in a simpler world but in a world of multiplicity, they are an idea that is, quite simply, out of date.

The Marketing Complex  sets out the argument for marketers to manage multiplicity and provides a new practical framework to help brand management teams. It doesn’t dismiss simplification outright, instead, it recognises the strengths and highlights the dangers of over-simplification, of which you’ll find a good point to finish on in the book. For now, I’ll stick with this one from Albert Einstein:

‘Everything should be made as simple as possible… but not any simpler’.

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