Simplification is not a trend.
That’s not to say it’s unimportant. It’s only to say that you should look askance when you hear simplification being bandied about as the next big thing. It’s a big thing, yes. There is just no “next” about it.
Yet, lots of fancy trend names have been given to anything and everything related to making things simpler for consumers. Simplicity, though, is just an enduring consumer need, or benefit, that keeps getting rediscovered. Every time it pops up on the radar screen again, it makes new headlines. But there is nothing new about it.
Perhaps the best evidence that there’s nothing new about simplification is that it has been a much-ballyhooed benefit for decades. It was the promise of TV dinners in the 1950s, and that of microwave ovens in the 1960s. It was the promise of multifunctional laundry detergents in the 1970s, and that of personal computer spreadsheets – the first killer app – in the 1980s. It was the promise of PDAs in the 1990s, and that of Real Simple magazine in the 2000s.
Simplification is not just decades old; it is as old as humanity. The preference for less complexity, more convenience and greater ease is hard-wired. One of the most highly cited papers in the history of psychology is a 1956 literature review by Princeton cognitive psychologist George Miller who noted that study after study had found that the maximum number of things people could hold in working memory while making a decision or rendering an evaluation was seven, plus or minus two. Subsequent research during the ensuing 50-plus years has confirmed this time and again.
Studies of multitasking find that when we divide our attention, a rule of 50 percent kicks in. We miss half of what we’re exposed to and we make half again as many errors. Not only is there an upper limit on our cognitive capacities, too many options often cause us to avoid making any decision or choice at all.
In short, we don’t like complexity. Simplicity is our nature. Simplification isn’t a trend. It is something that is always around, day in and day out.
The confusion over simplification is illustrative of a broader misunderstanding of the difference between unmet needs and new wants. Trends reflect the emergence of new wants in the marketplace. Unmet needs, on the other hand, are nothing new, just gaps in the marketplace that wax and wane.
But unmet needs are not trends when waxing. If trends included gaps in satisfying an enduring need like simplification, then everything would be a trend. Under-performance against a fundamental need is a gap that relates to basic, on-going brand management. It is what brand marketers must focus on as a matter of course, whereas trends are opportunities for brand marketers to take a new course.
Trends analysis must do more than echo tracking studies or product tests that show a gap in performance against key needs. Trends must point to new wants emerging for the future. By this reckoning, simplification is not a trend.
Generally speaking, new wants reflect a shift in underlying values. The biggest such change since the end of WW2 has been the emergence of individuality during the 1960s and 1970s as a value taking priority over allegiance to authority and community. This pivot of values changed the entire landscape of society, politics and brand marketing. It created wants that were new to the scene. Over time, many of these new wants became routine needs that now define the on-going course of business for brands. When performance gaps arise relative to these needs, they don’t constitute a trend. The trend that established these needs has long since played out. Individualism in all of its varied and nuanced manifestations is now an essential part of what people need, not a new sensation that people are suddenly starting to want.
Implicit in this discussion of individualism is the fact that trends are both rare and deep-seated. Most brand marketing opportunities are gaps in performance against established, enduring needs. While these gaps are often dolled up in the fancy garb of the next big thing, they are actually just the run-of-the-mill concerns of brand marketers. A real trend is rare. It is the emergence of something wholly new, and this kind of shift typically comes from fundamental changes in the macro context of society that remake priorities and preferences.
It is in this sense that trends are deep-seated, not the fickle fluctuations of predilections and partialities that constitute the fads and fashions of pop culture. What’s fashionable is not necessarily what’s trending, and what’s trending is not a gap in what brand marketers already know to do. While it’s not trendy, shoring up a brand’s performance on established needs is usually where brand marketers can find the biggest opportunities for success. Simplification is one such opportunity.