“It is crucial that we help consumers understand technology better”, says Simon Silvester, EVP Head of Planning: Y&R EMEA. In his book, “My Brain Hurts” he talks about how digitization is fundamental to our economic growth, because it secures our jobs, living expenses, house prices, pensions and ultimately our future. As virtually every industry is digitizing, it is important to take a step back and assess the advancement of technology in our time. We know that no industrial change in history has happened as fast as today’s digital revolution and unfortunately there is one part of the digital world that hasn’t gotten any more powerful – the mind of its user.
This poses a strain on the brain for the consumer as each new year more complex digital products and services are launched. The ability to understand these slow down. Even though we may laugh when our friend fails to understand the full capabilities of their phone, TV or computer, the failure to grasp technology is no trivial matter. Research reveals that consumers never touch most of the buttons on their TV remote controls, washing machines, utilise the full functionality of software programmes or make use of the wide choice of online funds offered by banks. Silvester highlights that the inability of consumers to understand a piece of technology can hold it back not just for years but for decades. It is therefore the pace of consumer intelligence and not the pace of technological change that will determine the pace of digital revolution. Unfortunately, the technology industry has failed to acknowledge this and needs to re-think its attitude towards its consumers and fast.
The question that comes in is - how do you get inside the consumer’s head? It is important to understand that winning technologies are those that appeal to ordinary people and not just geeks. According to Akio Morita, Founder of Sony, the ideal consumer electronics device has only one button and this goes to show that simplicity is key in communicating with the consumer. This thought inspired him to communicate the idea that he needed a product that could be understood in one way only. He wanted to launch a device that would appeal to young people who could carry and listen to music anywhere they went without disturbing or annoying others around them. Being challenged in his idea by his engineers, they believed a record function and a radio would also need to be incorporated.
In his quest to think simple, his one function press and play device went into production.Young people were forced to take Morita’s intention seriously forcing the walkman into the public consciousness making it a worldwide hit. The outcome – a device that performs one thing well is a much stronger consumer proposition than a complex multifunctional offer. The following points illustrate this in a very clear way:
1.Simplicity gets remembered – When offices flooded with new technology in the 1960’s, the only office machine with one button simplicity was the photocopier which has made its footprint in history.
2.Simplicity builds loyalty – The technical products that are easy to learn inspire great loyalty from their users. An example of that is Nokia’s highest loyalty amongst mobile phone brands.
3.Simplicity solves complex problems – If a product is complex, it still pays to market it simply. When Microsoft was launching the latest Word upgrade, their engineers uncovered a product with many new functions. However, Microsoft’s marketing didn’t mention any of these as they focused all their efforts on communicating something quite simple – its ability to make simple spelling corrections as you typed.
4.You can never be too simple – If you want your technology to take off, think simple. A great example is Google’s one fill-in box and blank screen which has become the preferred search engine of choice. On the other hand pricing options for airtime packages has become so complex in terms of its choice that the consumer becomes confused. If these weren’t so complex, they might just attract more customers.
Y&R South Africa’s CEO, Fraser Lamb, explains that as the market is flooded with less tech savvy consumers, the average level of understanding falls because it is driven by the mainstream of our population. “We can then segment our audience into various categories in terms of how technology is understood and adopted and tailormake the product’s communication accordingly”. First, there are the nerds who love technology and have a natural inclination to understand how it works. Secondly, there are the early adopters who are excited by the technology but have slightly less knowledge. Thirdly the mainstream group floods in with their scepticism and ignorance and last to follow are the laggards who simply don’t want to be left behind. As a result in this downfall, companies need to adjust their offer to target the less savvy consumers and not look to the nerds as a representation of the population.
Lamb adds, “Another point to take into account is focusing on making your technology infectious”. The speed at which technology passes from person to person is decisive to its success. If we look at the iPod as an example, it spread fast because of its distinct white headphones visible to everyone. Another is the Blackberry which includes the default message “sent from my wireless BlackBerry handheld” clearly branding their output making it viral. Many technology brands have to rethink how they want people to use their products promoting usage instructions. It also helps to better articulate how your product can change the life of your consumer in order to persuade them to purchase it. Observations have shown that most consumers never read the instruction books, no matter how well they are written. The only way most consumers learn is through doing and continual practice.”
We also need to consider how consumers value technology in relation to its price. A consumer’s expectation of a price fall causes a big barrier to the marketer’s sales strategy. Anticipating certain products to go on sale at a certain time of the year or finding ways to cut prices by using a product for more than one function should be an indication to marketers. For example, as average voice revenue per user continues to decrease for mobile phone companies, consumers should be encouraged to spend more time on the phone. Marketers could then suggest that the ultimate sign of commitment is the “always being connected relationship” where a couple agrees to eat, sleep and work being permanently available via their phones.
Likewise in relation to price, consumers also place little value on technology that they can’t see. It is for this reason that satellite phone technology failed to take off. In the late 1990’s, the Iridium consortium had a network of forty satellites orbiting the earth allowing phone coverage across the whole planet. As great as this seemed, the consumer didn’t buy it because all they saw was a handset the size of a brick. On the other hand, mobile network service providers suffer from being invisible. Due to this, mobile handset manufacturers became stronger brands than mobile service providers across the world. Vodafone however, insisted on putting their logo on phones connected to their networks and in this way increased their visibility.
We must also keep in mind that devices usually offer a range of benefits. Consumers usually gravitate to those who promise just one good thing. Lamb does not believe that convergence is good marketing. As an illustration, when scientists invented synthetic detergent in the 1940’s, they saw it as a multi-functional product that would clean clothes, hair, floors and cars. “However,” comments Lamb, “Smart marketers recognized that consumers want different products to satisfy different needs and launched separate product lines for shampoos, laundry detergents, floor cleaners and automotive foams based on synthetic detergent. So, when consumers are buying email devices and video phones, they are buying them because they offer real tangible benefits, not because they offer a combination of uses.”
Y&R maintains that as digitization proceeds, technologies that consumers do not understand will fail. “We must remember that consumers are visual creatures and after a while they forget that invisible technologies exist. Rarely grateful for the changes that technology brings to their lives, once something works for a consumer, they forget about it. To be successful you need to go against the tide of the industry. It is the only way to secure long-term success and ensure that technology works for humans and not against them.” concludes Lamb.