Why ‘Less is More’ is Fit for the Zeitgeist

Philips Electronics was in the midst of a $600 million global effort to transform its image from a lightbulb maker into a customer-centric consumer products company last year when customer feedback uncovered a useful nugget of information. The best advertising gambit, the research led them to conclude, would be for the brand to remove a chunk of its advertising from consumers’ lives. The result: Philips decided to buy ad space and let the network or magazine fill it themselves with “real” content.

The company started small when it bought all the ad pages before the table of contents in issues of Time, People, Fortune and Business 2.0, and had no intention of putting ads there. The result was that the TOCs moved up from the hinterland to the magazines’ third pages, where readers could easily find them, and the magazines added editorial content. Toward the back of the publications, a Philips’ ad told readers what the company had done and why: to help simplify their lives by giving them less advertising with which to deal. By the end of 2006, Philips was buying 4.5 minutes of ad time on NBC’s Nightly News and giving three of those minutes back to programming.

The idea of giving back was a natural extension of the company’s tagline, “Sense and simplicity.” And while the notion of “less is more” is hardly a new one—the trend most recently resurfaced back in 2000, encapsulated in the launch of Real Simple magazine—this time around it’s the marketing that’s being pared down.

Along with Philips, companies as varied as Staples, Fidelity, Apple and AT&T all have marketing strategies that consumer anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff, managing director of Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore, dubs “simplexity.” He notes that consumers, overwhelmed by a large and fractured media marketplace, “don’t see a road map. They want their products and services to be varied, sophisticated and smart, but they want them presented in a clear, straightforward way that hides all the complexity. … They’re looking to [marketers] to uncomplicate their offerings.”

This new form of simple is now popping up in such high-profile campaigns as Staple’s “Easy button” and Apple’s “Mac vs. PC.” Last November, Fidelity and Boston-based Arnold simplified the company’s message in humorous print, TV and online ads that show investing one’s money can be as simple as answering a few questions and hanging a picture.

Claire Huang, Fidelity’s evp of marketing, says financial services seem so complicated to most people that they get stuck in inertia. “So instead of talking about our bells and whistles like other financial brands,” she says, “we tell people that if you like easy things, you might like this plan.”

As part of AT&T’s image campaign discussing its merger with Cingular, which broke late last year, GSD&M promoted the ease of the company’s multipronged business model with an ad that shows people hanging out in a coffeehouse with their favorite electronic gadgets. In the spot that broke last month, “Giants,” the voiceover talks about communications companies making business plans “while back on planet Earth people were simply communicating.” The idea, says Jeff Nixon, a cd at GSD&M, was inspired by watching people figure out on their own how to make their communication devices work together.

One of the largest electronics companies in the world, Dutch-owned Philips—the only prominent brand to literally give back ad time—made a shift to simplicity in 2002, when it began to market itself as a mass-market consumer, not technology, brand. The company conducted focus groups with 2,000 people in eight countries and found, according to Eric Plaskonos, Philips’ U.S. brand director, that they “were fascinated about new technology and what it could do, but the barrier was that marketers were over-featuring the products and overpromising the benefits.”

The company received clear marching orders from its global target of affluent 35-55 year-olds: Innovative products should be easy to use. As one participant put it, “I don’t want to build a car, I just want to drive it.”

Research culminated in 2004 with the launch of “Sense and simplicity,” a global branding effort by DDB, New York. The positioning was introduced with TV and magazine ads showing a baby on a white background holding a white box and the headline, “Simplicity should be as simple as the box it comes in.” A subhead invited consumers to “Join us on our journey.”

“We were writing a mantra for the marketing, about 30 lines to guide us in the tone and feeling we wanted for the ads,” explains Lee Garfinkel, chief creative officer of DDB, New York, who co-wrote the tag with ecd John Russo. “The phrase that kept coming up was that the brand was about the sensibility of making things simple. We realized the tag was staring us right in the face. How is something simple? When it makes perfect sense.”

The campaign has featured clean graphics, plain language and a minimal look for TV, print and the Web site. In the U.S., where the company’s ad budget hovers at about $150-160 million, most of the marketing has migrated from general branding to product ads connecting the simplicity theme with its better known sub-brands. Last year, the company ran TV, print and online campaigns in the U.S. for state-of-the-art Philips Norelco shavers, Sonicare electric toothbrushes, flat-screen TVs and energy-efficient lightbulbs, and for all its consumer products in a holiday effort with Amazon.com called, “The gift of simplicity.”

Ongoing customer research informed the company that everyone wants to be able to comfortably use even the most advanced equipment, and that increasingly time-harried customers value every second in each day, says Plaskonos. Which is why the 30-second spot “Glacier,” for instance, promotes the company’s lightbulbs and so, energy reduction, in simple terms. It opens with striking footage of melting Arctic glaciers, references to global warming and a baby on an ice floe. The ad ends with the voiceover, “Simplicity is a lightbulb that can help change the world.”

The company took this to another level in the U.S. last summer via its aforementioned media buying strategy. According to Catherine East, DDB’s regional account director, Philips bought ad space and gave some or all of it back to the content provider with the goal being to “give people their desired experience and get the obstacles out of the way.” The company ran a branded announcement of the advertising reduction, explained how it was designed to simplify the audience’s experience, and asked consumers to go to its Web site to give feedback.

The media program included: buying eight minutes of ad space on 60 Minutes and giving back half of that for programming; the 4.5 minutes of ad inventory with three minutes back on the Nightly News; and buying and giving back the entire 30-minute ad inventory for a TNT broadcast of the regular season football game between the University of Texas and Oklahoma State University .

The Nightly News effort prompted about 5,000 e-mail messages through the NBC site, plus more than 100 people scoured the Web for the online addresses of Philips executives to send messages of support, says Plaskonos. “The most passionate responses came from University of Texas football fans—particularly former band members—who really appreciated an uninterrupted game,” he says.

Feedback from the anti-clutter promotions, he adds, have been so positive that the company will continue the program starting in March.

Critics say that Philips’ marketing still has a way to go to tap the emotions behind the yearning for simplicity. “The Philips campaign strives to make an emotional connection, but falls flat,” says Jeffrey B. Hirsch, president of Right Brain Studio, a consumer research agency in Studio City, Calif. “It’s all logic. The strategic thinking is sound, but the ads read like a creative brief, not consumer communications. I want more than an ‘efficient shave.’ I want to feel free, exhilarated, secure, comforted, empowered, full of potential, or any other number of uplifting emotions.”

The work will evolve, says DDB’s Garfinkel. “We sometimes had to force ourselves to think simply. Agencies can complicate things.”

Overall, results from its effort are promising. In the 2006 annual Interbrand global brand study, Philips registered a 14 percent increase in the value of its brand to $6.73 billion, and jumped five places in the rankings, to No. 48. Global sales were up 6 percent in 2006 compared to 2005. In January, Philips CEO Gerard Kleisterlee promised to “deepen and extend commitment to our ‘Sense and simplicity’ brand promise.”

Simplicity for Philips has evolved into a defining philosophy, of which marketing is only one phase. “It defines the way we go to market and the way that we do business,” says Plaskonos. In addition to simplifying its communications, the company also simplified its products and its working procedures. For example, user product manuals have gone through a rigorous streamlining for ease of operation, say sources.

The company has also learned that “simplicity is an intricate process and it’s not easy to stay on track,” says Plaskonos. Take the much bally-hooed International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. “It’s a celebration of technical benefits, an exhilarating, overwhelming sensory experience,” he says. “But afterward, we have to get back to basics, get away from the ‘wow’ and focus on how we make life easier for consumers.”