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 / Winter 2013 / Issue 73(originally published by Booz & Company)

Business Literature: Best Business Books 2013

Best Business Books 2013: Marketing

For those who remain unconvinced that simplicity is better business, the authors give anecdotal evidence of the overlap between companies that simplify and those that go on to achieve runaway success. Unsurprisingly, Apple and Google play a prominent role in Simple, as do Trader Joe’s (which offers about one-tenth of the products of a typical supermarket) and, in one of the book’s best examples, Southwest Airlines.

The Southwest story is so powerful because it demonstrates that it’s possible to simplify even in excessively complicated categories. When the airline was launched 45 years ago, its founders sought simplicity by buying only Boeing 737s, eschewing the intricate hub-and-spoke system for nonstop flights, and forgoing assigned seats. The upstart airline passed the benefits of simplicity on to consumers in the form of lower fares and fewer extra fees. (In a category that increasingly nickels-and-dimes its customers, Southwest still checks the first two bags free.) The Southwest story underscores the fact that Simple is not going to let you off the hook, even if you argue that simplicity won’t work in your company.

As you might expect, Simple devotes a good deal of time to the jargon masters who dwell at the very top of the complexity food chain: lawyers. Siegel and Etzkorn argue that the greatest fear of the typical CEO is lawsuits, and that fear has served to “elevate lawyers to a position of unchallenged authority.” They argue that plain language “can actually end up putting you on safer legal ground, because it provides plain evidence that you were never trying to hide anything or hoodwink anyone.”

The legal department’s very existence points to the most difficult thing about becoming simple: adopting the approach across the organization. Any company can whittle down its contracts, but achieving true simplicity, like every other major change initiative, requires buy-in and support from the top. It takes vision to infuse an organization with a more simplified approach, which in its highest form affects the way a business operates, how it markets itself, and how it creates great customer experiences. Thus, the first step toward better marketing may be getting a copy of Simple to the CEO.

How Can I Help You?

Like Siegel and Etzkorn, Jay Baer, president of Convince & Convert, a social media and content marketing consultancy, has little regard for traditional marketing and the quest for awareness, particularly as mass media continues its decline. “Whether it relies on old media or new,” writes Baer in Youtility: Why Smart Marketing Is about Help Not Hype, “top-of-mind awareness is less effective than ever as a marketing strategy for two reasons: You can’t promote to people you can’t find, and distrust of business erodes its foundation.”

Instead, Baer thinks that marketers should be delivering marketing that is “truly, inherently useful” to its intended audiences—marketing that has, as his would-be catchphrase puts it, youtility. Examples of youtility include Procter & Gamble’s Charmin Sit or Squat app, which features Yelp-like reviews of public bathrooms; Scotts Miracle-Gro newsletters, which offer customized advice on lawn care based on where readers live and the type of lawn they have; and the Holiday World amusement park website, which posts every detail a roller coaster fanatic could want about each of its coasters, including track length, top speed, and the height of the lift hill.

Although I wouldn’t classify these examples as earthshaking, they are worth considering in light of the real-world underpinnings of Baer’s argument. First, as marketers try to employ social media, they are competing for attention against the very people they are courting. Thus, says Baer, “your prospective customers must consider you to be a friend. And if, like their friends, you provide them real value, if you practice youtility rather than simply offer a series of coupons and come-ons, they will reward your company with loyalty and advocacy, the same ways we reward our friends.” You-tility is not getting customers to like your Facebook page; it is using that and other platforms to be helpful to them.

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