The Promise of
Simplicity is a Lie

McMillan
Meaningful Brand Experiences
Published Fall 2019

After more than 20 years in B2B, one thing I know for certain is that our clients’ worlds are filled with complexity — in the competitive landscape, products, pricing, channels, customers, and their organizations, not to mention the complexity in their own positions as CMOs and brand owners.

B2B is complexity, and anyone who purports to convert complexity into simplicity is overpromising, probably wanting to get a foot in the door.


Complexity comes in multiple forms.

To create the right messaging and tools to drive sales, today’s B2B CMO needs to understand not just their customers and their buyer journeys but also the technical facets of their offerings. B2B products can have lengthy sales cycles (I had a client in aviation maintenance with a seven-year sales cycle!) but also long-term commitments that either work in one’s favor or create a lengthy battle to undo entrenched loyalties.


They need to figure out the internal decision-making process, aligning sales, product, legal, finance, and operations to deliver a holistic customer experience. Unlike successful business-to-consumer enterprises, the exec team may not see value in investing at industry levels in brand or marketing or may demand a conservative approach that gives middling MROI.


Today’s customer won’t cut you any slack. They expect an experience comparable to modern B2B point solutions or successful B2C brands. The buyer journey, particularly with the under-45 age cohorts, is digital and non-linear. It’s not a straight line from need to purchase.


Today’s CMO is tasked with creating a seamless user experience that anticipates every need and removes potential pain points and barriers. It’s a tall order when gaps and off-brand behaviours in areas where the marketing leadership may have only indirect influence—sales interactions, customer onboarding, post-purchase service, and how well the products perform—jeopardize the overall experience.


Why not simplicity?

When a marketing leader asks for help with their complexity issues, most agencies jump at the chance to offer a reductionist’s solution: simplicity. Few would want to admit that a true solution to a B2B problem may be more complexity—that the only way to put out a fire is a little gasoline. It’s the sort of suggestion that might cut a pitch short. That’s not to say simplicity doesn’t exist, or that customer-facing creative output isn’t elegant, minimal, or even plain simple. Rather, the process to getting to simplicity can’t be further from the promise of it. For example, a brand foundation and top-level messaging that contains straightforward, distilled content is memorable and easier to implement, but to get there you need to add a lot of complexity to the mix.


When it comes to pulling off something successful, there are no quick fixes. Any B2B agency worth its salt needs to understand its client’s business. To reach the point where you have a simplified message, you will have needed to navigate a multifaceted, interwoven universe, one that could take years to untangle and reframe.


The key to complexity is prioritization.

I believe a more realistic alternative to simplicity is prioritization. Because when brand, messaging, marketing, and communications elements are given structure and placed in a hierarchy, it helps with setting goals and allocating spend and personnel, and improves decision-making overall. A prioritized approach acknowledges that not everything can be tackled at once—nor should be—and the complexity inherent to B2B will continue to exist, but in a reduced, less-messy form.

 

For example, a messaging hierarchy typically has simple messaging at its peak, yet each subsequent tier includes a greater amount of detail and explanation. A computer server can be described at the highest level as secure, but at some point stakeholders involved in the purchase are going to want specs, dimensions, warranty information, to see the support contract, and to understand how it integrates with their legacy systems.

 

In B2B, most complexity won’t go away. B2B marketing leaders are less convinced by platitudes and big promises of an agency’s ability to simplify. Personally, I’d rather embrace complexity and find a way to work with it than promise an idealistic outcome. The promise of simplicity may be a lie, but the power of managed complexity cannot be underestimated.

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