Similar to what also happens in Pakistan, every year in India, hundreds of pedestrians used to cross busy railway tracks as a shortcut during their daily commute. They were able to do so because of large gaps in the dilapidated boundary walls running along the tracks. Needless to say, this dangerous behaviour resulted in numerous fatalities year-on-year. Despite trying to curb this behaviour through fines, the railway services were unable to deter people from taking this hazardous shortcut. In 2014, Aditya Birla Sun Life Insurance offered to run a public service campaign to help overcome this issue. Instead of launching an extravagant multi-million dollar 360 degree campaign as one would expect, Birla Sun took a far simpler approach: placing coffin-shaped doorways in the wall gaps with a poster next to them that read ‘Short Cut or Dead End? Use Foot Overbridge’. No TVC. No digital campaign. No billboards. Not even a radio spot. This clever campaign had immediate results, significantly reducing the number of railway-related incidents by encouraging commuters to use the overhead bridges.
Apart from being extremely creative, what I love about this campaign was the simplicity. In our over-communicated, short-attention span, scroll-to-the-next word, brands often go to great lengths (and expense) to ensure that their message shouts out the loudest. However, if you think that producing extravagant, big-budgeted, star-studded campaigns and plastering them all over social media will get you noticed (or loved), think again. Audiences now have the absolute power to decide what they want to see and when they want to see it, so by churning out overwhelming and unnecessary noise, chances are it will probably fall on deaf ears. And although having ample budgets always helps, what matters is creating engaging, insightful and concise content that provides people with the right amount of information, in the right way, at the right time.
Before we continue, let me define what I mean by ‘simple’. Nowhere am I implying that brands should be boring or predictable. On the contrary, nowadays, it is essential to create communication that is disruptive, bold and engaging enough to cut through the clutter, yet at the same time, straightforward enough for audiences to digest and remember. Thanks to technology, we are exposed to hundreds if not thousands of brand messages a day and nobody has the time to sit and read through copy or make the effort to decode complex or convoluted communication. They are far more likely to respond to ideas that are simple, bite-sized, relevant and well-placed. Telenor Thailand’s ‘Disconnect to Connect’ award-winning 2011 campaign, for example, broke the mould by encouraging users to put down their phones and interact with the people around them. Despite being an extremely radical counter-narrative for a mobile service provider, the idea was inherently simple and clicked with audiences around the world. In the same year, Tesco (Homeplus) in South Korea set up digital grocery stores at subway stations to allow commuters to shop virtually using their mobile phones. This revolutionary, yet simple idea, made Homeplus the second most popular chain in South Korea and the idea is currently being implemented by other retail brands around the world.
I am also reminded of simple yet ingenious brand innovations, such as the upside down ketchup bottles that were designed to keep ketchup flowing at the ready – a great example of how brands can introduce revolutionary product improvements through simple adjustments. Similarly, Apple, despite being a complex technology-driven company (at the back-end), inspires audiences to ‘think differently’ through their user-friendly products and services, just as Kit Kat encourages people to ‘Take a Break’ or Dove gets them to appreciate Real Beauty. Look at the anatomy of any great idea, slogan or brand platform and you will find simplicity knitted into its core.
So if simple is the way to go, why don’t all brands come up with such ideas? Ironically, developing simple ideas and communication is nowhere near as simple as it seems. As Mark Twain put it, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” (Yes, you read that correctly.) Behind every amazing brand platform, slogan or campaign, there are oodles of research, rejection and refinement. Brand teams and agencies have to study market dynamics, identify core consumers, dive into their psyches, extract insights and carve out a unique brand positioning. Without this, there is no guarantee whether or not an idea or campaign will resonate with audiences.
Once the strategic approach is chalked out, creatives face the challenge of encapsulating the thought in a simple and concise expression. This too can be an incredibly difficult and frustrating process, since our industry is not designed to foster simple ideas. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen amazing work dismissed by clients and peers for seeming ‘too simple’ or basic. I would hear baseless knee-jerk comments like “It sounds like I have heard it before” or “Maza nahi araha hai”. All too often, simple ideas are thrown out with the bath water because they are over thought, scrutinised to death and eventually replaced with something mundane or convoluted. Simple ideas encounter the most internal resistance and have to be fought for and justified before they ever see the light of day. Any experienced creative will tell you that this is arguably one of the most difficult parts of his or her job – not just coming up with unique and effective simple ideas, but ultimately defending their survival.
As challenging as it may be to drum up ground-breaking simple ideas and having them approved, the rewards are worth the effort. It is always the simplest ideas that capture the imagination, empower brands, alter perceptions and change the world. Whether it is a powerful slogan, inspiring brand platform, creative campaign or innovative new product or service, simplicity is what will help get your brand’s message recognised in today’s clutter. So the next time you (or anyone around you) are tempted to throw out an idea just because it seems ‘too simple’, remember giants like Apple, Kit Kat, Nike and all the other monumental brands that have been built on simple foundations. See how these ideas have stood the test of time and connected with millions of people around the world. Invest in ensuring that your ideas are rooted in solid customer insights and expressed in ways that audiences can understand and appreciate. Resist the urge to over complicate and underestimate simple ideas when they present themselves. Embrace the power of simplicity and let it become a part of everything your brand says and does. It is really that simple.
Taimur Tajik is Creative Head, Interwood.