Shh… and You Just Might be Heard

by Brian Erdman

In the sea of “disruptive” strategies, there is hope for the quiet leader.

As an impressionable 19 year old in my first co-op assignment at a $50 billion consumer goods giant, I was introduced to many of the values and leadership qualities that made the company such a success. One that stuck with me was “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” This was a principle that I would buy into and model throughout my career—despite some early obstacles.
What such consumer goods companies fail to explain to you during orientation is that, in the Type A-driven world of Fortune 500 brand management, the “listen first, then speak” behavior can easily fall by the wayside if its not consciously managed. After seeing several “silent leaders” wrongly interpreted as weak leaders over the years, I began to lose faith.
That is, until one meeting encouraged me to stay the course. At that gathering, a couple of my fellow marketing Alpha Males were rushing to a strategic conclusion and debating on how to best execute that strategy (an ill-conceived one, mind you). As the eager “CEOs of tomorrow” muscled for the approval of the sole decision maker in the room, they elevated their voices. And lost their tempers.
It was then, during the most heated moment, that I—who had been quietly trying to understand the situation before passing judgment—captivated the attention of the decision maker. No sooner had I mouthed the words “No way” to him against a backdrop of screaming colleagues than he offered immediate validation with a reciprocal nod of agreement. (No, I’m not naming names!)
Are you making waves?
So what happened here? My silence had gotten me noticed. And it was in that moment that my faith was restored and, more than a decade after I first bought into the idea of “quiet first”, that I formed a new appreciation for its application in branding, communication and design.
Take the retail space, for example. Consumers are inundated with choices. With an average of 30,000 products to consider in a major grocery or retailer, and an average shopping trip of just 30 minutes, consumers are becoming more difficult to seduce.
How have “thought leaders” advised marketers to compete in this new reality? Be disruptive. Make waves. Stand out. While I buy into this philosophy under the right circumstances, I am afraid that we are, at times, losing sight of the real goal here—and that is to be noticed.
As more and more marketers rush to adopt the “disruptive” approach to in-store design and communication, they are creating a scary world where Alpha Brands are all screaming their respective strategies at consumers.
So what’s left? Noise. Clutter. Look no further than the candy, cereal or snack aisles to see what I mean.
But alas, in the sea of disruption, there is hope for the quiet leader. Look at what Method is doing with clean, evocative, category norm-breaking packaging tied to a compelling environmental message. Or take Dove beauty products. Or less-publicized examples such as Wolfgang Puck frozen pizzas, Feridies nuts, Tazo tea and Izze beverages. Through sheer simplicity, these brands are getting noticed.
Interestingly, private label players seem to understand this idea more than their branded counterparts. Check out OfficeMax paper; Target’s Archer Farms brand; or Meijer grocery products.  
Turn down the volume
Now, perhaps you are reading and thinking this doesn’t apply to your brand. However, even if you are not one of the worst offenders, you can learn something here. Consider everything you are trying to communicate on your packaging. Are you being choosy? Do you know which elements on your package—design, copy, or printing techniques—are motivating your target consumers? And which of those package elements matter most? If you can’t confidently answer these questions, you should realize that, on some level, you are likely contributing to the noise.
Turning down the volume may be a genuine opportunity for your brand. But it’s important to note here that “simplicity” is more than just clean design. True, if you can be judicious and clean in design, you will enhance your odds of breaking through in cluttered categories. But the real magic happens when simplicity starts with your brand strategy.
A straightforward, differentiated idea is all you need. Let it be the impetus behind all brand expressions, whether verbal or visual. A discerning, simple, compelling positioning platform that resonates with the target is something that evades the vast majority of today’s rambling brands.
Apple is a prominent exception, presenting a simple, consistent visual expression that speaks to a key pillar of its brand promise: simplicity of the user interface. Everything the brand does—packaging, merchandising, advertising, etc.—supports this strategic idea.
Claritin is another oft-cited example—and for good reason. The brand illustrates how design simplicity does not have to mean “seamless white backdrop across all touchpoints.” Claritin takes a simple idea—Claritin Clear—and executes it in an amazingly consistent manner. Two simple, alliterative words and the unwavering use of a clear sky visual allow this brand to break through in an own-able manner.
The toothpaste aisle is home to one of my favorite examples of a brand doing it right. Talk about everyone screaming at the consumer. In this category, the vernacular of choice is foil, hologram and extreme versioning. In the center of this storm is Rembrandt, with its simply-stated design that speaks directly to the brand’s primary benefit of whitening, while also giving a nod to beauty care in a way that distances it from the “mass” category leaders. Simple positioning. And simple design and communication to support that positioning.
So now as you sit down to evaluate your own brand, remember that admitting to excessive verbosity is half the battle. You can also look to numerous research techniques—from traditional consumer input to more elaborate methods like eye tracking—to confirm your predicament. But before you go and break the market research budget, start with your gut.
In this case, you may just need to put on your consumer hat and ask yourself whether you are breaking through the clutter. Go to your shelf. Glance at your package for one or two seconds (or less), and note your takeaways. Any more time than that, and you are cheating. That is the reality of today’s shopping experience.  
Don’t overcomplicate things. Trust your gut. Be honest with yourself. Are you trying to say too much? Expecting to communicate any more than your brand idea and one additional, simple, equity and purchase-driving concept is like talking to yourself: you are wasting your breath.
As you think about how to get noticed by your consumer, don’t be tempted to say everything that crosses your mind. It’s OK to be quiet. You just might be heard.
Brian Erdman is a brand consultant at laga, a design and innovation firm with offices in Cincinnati, New York and Chicago. He can be reached at 513.961.6225 or