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Keep it simple when connecting with customers

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Helping business through the art of effective communications

Why is it so hard to keep things short and simple? Because it is hard. Someone once said: "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."

Ask chief executive officers (CEOs) to tell you why you should use their product or service, and most will fail to respond succinctly.

You will likely be buried in a blizzard of words that describe what the company does, but not necessarily the value you get.

Ask why you should pick their product over their competitor's and most CEOs will struggle to answer.

But it is not a trick question. Choosing between providers is a critical decision for customers.

For a company to be successful, its value proposition needs to be different and communicated effectively to have an impact.

Messages stick when they are short and simple. Preferably, they also have an emotional appeal. Why is this so hard for companies and leaders to understand?

Selling and communicating are not about the speaker but about the listener - the customer.

Beating one's chest about what you do and how good you are, are not effective. Customers care about what is in it for them - a truism sadly forgotten by most leaders.

Also, neuroscience tells us that the capacity of the human mind to digest information and handle complexity is limited.

Plus, people are not perfectly rational, and the heart often overrides the head. When companies take aim at the customer's head with complex or unclear messages, it is no wonder they miss the mark.

The striking fact is that a corporate customer is represented by an individual. Understanding what makes a person tick, what he remembers and how he acts applies equally in the business-to-business space.

Furthermore, companies miss the fact that implicit in the buying decision is a choice.

Buying one product means not buying another, and the communication has to help customers make this choice.

Presenting information without sharp differentiation from others and expecting customers to hold information about different companies in their heads to make a rational choice is an irrational expectation.

Simplicity, as someone said, is the ultimate sophistication.


Most companies do one or all of the four things that matter to customers - help them make money, save money, reduce risk and increase convenience.

It is that simple - which dimension a company chooses to emphasise is important.

Is it possible for a company to distil its core message in a few words? Most certainly.

A tagline is not a cheap marketing gimmick. It is a powerful business tool if used correctly.

Is it possible for a company to distil its core message in a few words? Most certainly

Developing one requires clarity regarding the core value to the customer and discipline about what to say and what to leave out. Some do it well, most do not.

Here are a few examples of strong taglines and value propositions:

  • Ajax - "Stronger than dirt". Three words only, but straight to the point. It reinforces the main reason for buying the product.
  • Subway - "Eat fresh". It is simple. It not only catches the core value proposition but, in two words, differentiates itself from other fast-food companies.
  • MacBook - "Beauty outside. Beast inside". In four words, you get why you should buy the product. It also addresses some concerns customers may have had about performance.
  • L'Oreal - "Because you are worth it". A classic, it appeals to the emotion and, in five words, builds the buyer's self-image and self-worth in a powerful manner.

Let us look at the taglines of the largest banks here and in Malaysia:

  • "Living breathing Asia"
  • "Right by you"
  • "World's local bank"
  • "Asean for you"
  • "Humanising financial services"
  • "Your bank, Malaysia's bank"

Do they tell customers what the bank can do for them? Is the value to customers clear? Are the taglines interchangeable among some of the banks? Do they uniquely apply to one bank? Is there a call to action?

A tagline need not answer all these questions. Good ones cover at least a few.

It is better to not have a tagline than to have one which confuses or gives the wrong message.

There is a marketing truism that says that the more undifferentiated a brand, the more there is a need for a tagline.

And the more distinctive a brand, the less the need for a tagline.


Taglines are equally valuable for internal communication. Long-winded vision and mission statements that cannot be recalled by employees achieve little.

When transformation is being undertaken, there needs to be a simple and powerful call to action.

The onus is on the CEO to distil a complex business situation into a simple message of seven to 10 words.

It is possible but rarely done effectively.

Simplicity and brevity cut through the chatter and create recall and impact.

Communicating value and how it is different, if not unique, is in fact a highly sophisticated activity. To be effective, messages need to be concise and precise. Less is indeed more.

Many try but most fail. The rewards for getting it right are enormous.

Simplicity is indeed the ultimate sophistication. And real sophistication is simply not that simple.

The writer is the managing principal of Falcon Associates and a former CEO of Citibank in Malaysia. He can be contacted at This article appeared in The Business Times on Tuesday.