Making The Complex Simple


We recently covered new research that showed an interesting inversion of feelings about decisions in our post, Simple Marketing for Complex Products. Simply put, individuals were happier with decisions about complex issues that were made intuitively, but were also happier with decisions about simple issues that had been carefully analyzed. We suggested that, from a neuromarketing standpoint at least, it might make sense to promote a complex product like an automobile with a simple message, like “#1 in Customer Satisfaction.” Straightforward appeals to emotion would be effective, too. Indeed, often automobile ads have little actual data about the product, but show the car in an environment intended to make a statement about the car and its owner: pulling up in front of an elegant manor house, parked at the beach for a day of family fun, etc.

One product decision that many consumers are faced with today is buying a television. The availability of HDTV via multiple sources (cable, satellite, and over-the-air) is a big driving force, as is the adoption of higher resolution movie DVDs. Sales of large screen HDTVs are big business, but these products can be perplexing to the consumer. Like the “complex” decisions in the studies we described (done by Ap Dijksterhuis of the Department of Psychology at the University of Amsterdam and others), the decision involved in buying a new television today has a lot of variables. A few years ago, if you knew what size screen you wanted, buying a television was a relatively straightforward brand/price decision. The top-of-the-line Sony would cost more than a no-name brand – you could look at the units in the store, and decide where your price/pain threshold was. The technology was mature enough that one could buy without much worry about missing out on new capabilities or features that might be introduced in the future.

Today, though, the stakes are higher and the decision is much more complex. In addition, the risks are higher – with better source material on the way from improved DVD players and broadcast media, the consumer isn’t just buying for today but wants to be sure to buy a product that is somewhat future-proof. To begin with, three technologies compete in the big TV arena – plasma, LCD, and projection. Projection units offer the lowest cost for large screens, but are much bulkier. Each technology has differences with viewing angles, contrast ratios, and other specifications that may affect the viewing experience. Screen lifetime is an issue. Will a plasma screen “burn in”? Will pixels fail on an LCD? And how many pixels do I need? Every ad throws out numbers like 1080p – but what does “1080p compatible” mean? And then there are the connectors. How many inputs do I need, and of what type? Each model seems to offer different input configurations… Before you even get to the brand/price decision, your brain is already muddled with too many facts.

How could a marketer cut through the information overload to carve out a bigger chunk of the market? We think simplicity might work. (We’ll ignore some of the complexity in consumer electronics marketing, where most of the product volume is sold by resellers operating on thin margins.) A marketing campaign that hit a couple of hot buttons – “best picture” and “will work now and in the future” would be a great start. Coupled with a strong satisfaction guarantee, along the lines of “if you aren’t 100% satisfied with the picture in your home, we’ll refund your money,” a campaign like this could slice through the muddle of too many specifications. Clearly, the product would have to be a good one, but I think that higher margins could be achieved by taking the unit out of side by side comparisons which are terribly confusing anyway. A consumer who pays a few percent more for a quality product and a simple decision is a happy consumer.

Practical issues might intrude in this scenario – I’m sure the cost of retrieving and refunding a big TV is high – but I think it would be possible to strike a balance in both the advertising pitch and the fine print that would satisfy customers but not result in exorbitant costs. (One interesting thought would be a retailer’s private label brand to take this approach – something similar worked for Curtis Mathes for many years.) The brand that could separate itself from others with a truly simple approach to marketing these complex products could gain much more than it loses.

  1. marcai siegel says

    so consumers want clear, concise info to make their purchasing decison.


    my husband who sells cars told me the other day that he works with a couple of guys that are car fanatics. they know all the engine specs etc. but they do not sell cars. my husband said the customers are not interested in the specs.

    the customers are interested in a car they can drive and the practical implications of that. just like your research stated.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    I think some consumers DO want the details. Sometimes there’s a good reason – I’m upgrading my smartphone, and there are a lot of technical aspects that have to be right for my needs. So, I’m forced to deal with the details.

    The original research showed that customers were happier with decisions on complex issues with less analysis. So, in selling cars, I’d work for the simple sale but be ready to provide comparative specs, etc., if the customer wanted them. All that analysis may not help them make a better decision, but that doesn’t mean they won’t want the data. Some customers may feel obligated to get that information, even if they aren’t sure how to use it in their decision process.

    – Roger

  3. Roger Dooley says

    I’d add that part of the problem with detailed analysis of complex issues is that the tradeoffs become apparent. If I walk into a car dealer, fall in love with the red convertible, and drive it away, I’m happy. If I do six hours of online research and check out five other dealers in person, I’m aware that the red convertible is nice, but it’s not as reliable as the Toyota, that it isn’t nearly as fast as the BMW, that I could get the same car in blue at another dealer for a little less money. Suddenly, the red convertible isn’t perfect… it’s just the best compromise I could come up with, and I’m nervous that I should have bought a car that is more reliable/faster/cheaper.

  4. dj says

    I do research for pc?s for my friends and if I give them 3 prices with 3 diferent specs, they choose allways the midlle price. They know the first price it?s for geeks and the third is the lowest price. Best buy it?s allways in the midlle… funny but true.

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