The Important Distinction Between Simplifying and Dumbing Down

How to build trust in an industry where products generally come in two flavors: complicated or complex.
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In this post, we explore the first principle of branding technology firms, adapted from our chapter on building long-term value in a system-update world in the Brand Challenge.

It seems that B2B technology brands come in two flavors: complicated or complex. The line between the two seems faint, but in the tech industry, it’s crucial: because buyers often do not understand the intricacies of the technologies they are purchasing, they have to put a lot of faith into them. And there’s a lot at risk, such as the buyer’s job and reputation. After all, they often hold the responsibility for purchasing high-ticket items. A complicated technology induces skepticism, a complex one inspires trust.

Building a trustworthy technology brand isn’t necessarily easy, especially taking into consideration tech’s rate of change. Products quickly become obsolete, software and services need constant upgrades, so tech companies need to evolve – or completely reinvent themselves – every few years.

Under these conditions, how can a tech company instill credence and devotion? To put it simply: simplify. While tech products themselves are necessarily very complex, they shouldn’t seem complicated. Take Intel, for example. Most people can’t tell you what a microprocessor is, but they trust that Intel makes the fastest and most reliable ones. How did this happen? The company introduced its “Intel Inside” marketing and branding campaign in 1991, which is a thoroughly simple concept that strongly suggests the ability to execute highly complex but unseen processes.

One risk of simplification, of course, is over-simplification. A national energy conservation firm we worked with recently had been going to market with a message built on a straightforward proposition: its technology-driven process could reveal and alter habits of building operations and management that would deliver savings that were guaranteed to exceed its fees. But research showed that customers didn’t understand or even trust how the savings were calculated. More than that, the brand made its technology and data-fueled processes seem very simple – so simple, in fact, that a lot of its prospects felt they could achieve results without the company’s help.

In technology, there is a subtle but critical difference between simplifying and dumbing down. Tech users and buyers expect technology to be complex. Therefore, the key is often to make it easy for the buyer to understand how complex a product really is, without complicating it. That energy conservation firm had been downplaying – sometimes even avoiding – its technological prowess, when really the firm needed to inspire trust by heralding its complexity.

Research helps to find that space between simplicity and complexity: insights from both inside and outside the company can help gauge the ideal balance. (Read more about what research can reveal when developing a B2B tech brand here.) It’s of course vital to determine who your buyers are, who influences decision-making, and what their criteria are. While they will likely be turned off by a stew of jargon and acronyms, be careful of going to the other extreme. Don’t dumb-down your offerings; your customers are smarter than you think.

Read the next principle of technology branding: understanding (and leveraging) return on investment vs return on emotion.

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