The brands of today must move beyond communicating an intangible promise to delivering tangible experiences that make lives easier for their customers, argues Matt Holt, Consulting Partner at OgilvyOne.

We live in an age of unprecedented opportunity. Digital technologies have transformed economies; in the past 5 years Internet has accounted for 21% of GDP growth in mature markets. Humans have never been more connected; 6 billion people will have smartphones by 2020. Beacon technologies help visually impaired people use their mobile to navigate the London Underground. The Internet of Things is perfectly placed to solve big global problems such as world hunger by increasing crop yield.

But it’s a double-edged sword because along with the unprecedented opportunity comes unprecedented complexity. We now create as much information every two days as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. Mobile technology and the prevalence of free messaging apps means we are bombarded with messages and notifications - Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, has even described the era of information overload as causing a form of ‘cognitive diabetes’. Faced with choosing one of a plethora of washing powders in the supermarket, we can be in no doubt that decision complexity has increased. Modern life is increasingly complex.

And, ultimately, there is a human cost to that complexity. It was Christian Louis Lange who said over 100 years ago that, “technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master.” That’s as true now as it ever was. Unless we make a concerted effort to switch off devices, we are constantly distracted. Indeed, the average attention span for humans is down from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8.5 seconds in 2015 (less than a goldfish).

Our sleep is broken; the blue light from mobiles interferes with our body clock and makes our brains think it’s the morning. The University of Hertfordshire has found that six in ten Britons are now sleep deprived (a jump of 50%) because they use smartphones and computers before bed.

Our waking hours aren’t safe either. Complexity in the world online makes us tired. The human brain, and specifically the neocortex, uses 15–20% of the total energy we use. A website that has large amounts of information or requires focus to use, increases our cognitive load, making us tired.

In the corporate world, complexity is just as damaging. Complexity erodes profit margins by increasing costs and slowing down business efficiency. Eradicate complexity and you are more likely to build a successful business; indeed, Bain & Company has found that simply structured companies grow on average 30-50% faster.

Simply, corporate structures are not built to deal with the complexity. Propagated by ever changing consumer behaviour, businesses proliferate complexity as a result. Indeed, when Nokia got taken over by Microsoft it represented the victory of complexity over simplicity. There are many reasons behind Nokia’s demise but a commonly held view is that it embarked on a series of acquisitions, diverging beyond its core product into a complex product portfolio, which was not adding value but adding complexity. More recently, new leadership and organisational restructuring have compounded the problem and Nokia has become even more complex and even less profitable.

So what’s the antidote? How do brands win in the age of complexity?

The Fox and the Cat is an ancient fable. In the basic story, a cat and a fox discuss how many tricks and dodges they have. The fox boasts that he has many; the cat confesses to having only one. When hunters arrive with their dogs, the cat quickly climbs a tree, but the fox is caught by the hounds as it deliberates its strategy. The moral of the story? It’s better to think and act simply.

In other words, to win in the age of complexity, brands need to be more cat than fox.

But how do brands become more cat than fox? First of all we need to redefine what a brand is and does. Originally, the word "brand" derived from the Old Norse "brandr" meaning "to burn" - recalling the practice of producers burning their mark (or brand) onto their products – a visual cue or short cut for differentiated quality.

In today’s age I propose that we also need to consider brands as shortcuts for differentiated utility and easiness… in my mind the role of a brand in the age of complexity is to use digital technology to build easiness into everything it does. And design products, experiences and interactions that are as easy as possible for consumers. So why should brands be focusing on pursuing easiness rather than entertainment, for instance, or any other attribute of experience design? Here are a few reasons why:

Because easiness is at the heart of usability – why else is cash still the way we pay for goods and services. Sure we might be entering the year of mobile payments (finally!) but cash has been the modus operandi for payment for thousands of years. The reason? It’s easy.

Because easiness changes lives - in 2002, a Brazilian mechanic called Alfred Moser came up with a way of illuminating his house during the day without electricity - using nothing more than plastic bottles filled with water and a tiny bit of bleach. In the last two years his innovation has spread throughout the world and is expected to be in one million homes by early next year.

Because easiness creates wealth – look at the Google home page for the ultimate example of the pursuit of easiness (one search bar and Google’s clever technology does the rest) and their latest market capitalisation value…Or Uber. Or Airbnb. 

Because easiness reduces stress – in his book, Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that decision complexity makes us stressed and that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers.

Because easiness saves time – I love the way Starbucks’ mobile app enables you to order ahead of arriving at the coffee shop, meaning you spend less time queuing and more time enjoying life

Because easiness makes brands easier to buy - a piece of research by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) found that out of more than 40 variables influencing brand ‘stickiness’ - including brand perceptions, frequency of interaction, and price - the biggest driver was ‘decision simplicity’.

Because easiness makes customers more loyal and drives advocacy – again research commissioned by the CEB has found that a 20% increase in Decision Simplicity results in a 96% increase in customer loyalty. It also leads to brands being 86% more likely to be purchased and 115% more likely to be recommended to others.

Because easiness will make brands matter again – in our Ogilvy Red Paper: Brands That Matter, a survey of UK customers found that 77% of UK customers didn’t think brands mattered that much at all to them. Brands need to reclaim their role in wider society. They need to matter once again. And I believe firmly that easiness is the way to make them matter.

However, agreeing that brands need to build easiness into their interactions with consumers is one thing, delivering those easy experiences is an entirely different thing altogether. This is because the pursuit of easiness is by no means easy - far from it. There’s an interesting paradox here - what I call ‘the easiness paradox’;

 What’s easy for the business is difficult for the customer and what’s easy for the customer is difficult for the business.

The reason? Corporate structures were not designed nor built for the customer age. The vertical siloes that made sense at their conception actually prevent brands from providing the horizontal customer experiences that customers expect and want.

Simply, corporations have not been engineered to make experiences easy for customers. That’s why digital transformation is so vital – which I often define as ‘the difficult bit that makes easiness happen’.

Let’s take an example from everyday life to bring this to life – from the world of banking. In order to access my online banking account previously, I used to have to type in my credentials, my password, then input a code into my secure key, then press a button on my secure key to generate a code, enter that code and finally I’d be able to access my account. Now? I can use Touch ID so I can log in simply by pressing my thumbnail on my iPhone button. Accessing my money in an instant. The bank has (finally) done all of the complex authentication and security work in the background, so that my experience is as easy as possible. I only see the tip of the iceberg not the huge mass of complexity underneath. And in my mind that’s the reason for digital transformation.

Another great example is Starwood Hotel’s keyless mobile check-in app which enables you to check in and access your room via your mobile – they mastered the difficulties and complexity of implementing the various technologies including the locks on the doors to create a truly easy experience for customers. Queuing to check in to a hotel will soon be a thing of the past, leaving us to spend our time on other more valuable pursuits – which, after all, is the ultimate benefit of any technology, digital or otherwise.

In today’s age of complexity, we need easiness not more complexity. Brand building is no longer just about communicating. The brands of today must use digital technology to move beyond communicating intangible promises to delivering tangible experiences that make lives easier for their customers.

Let’s reduce the clutter. Let’s reduce the noise. Let’s reduce the stress. Let’s reduce the complexity. Let’s realise the awesome power of digital technology.

Come join us on our pursuit of easiness. Who’s in?