OK, I have to admit that I’m not a regular reader of Sociological Theory — the journal of the American Sociological Association. But I have to say that my interest was recently piqued by an article by Professor Kieran Healy of Duke University — titled “Fuck nuance”.
His starting point was that commentators increasingly call for nuanced answers to the challenges of the world. At first sight, this appears to be an eminently sensible response to the increasingly complex problems we all face. As he says: “Isn’t the mark of a good thinker to see subtle differences in kind or gracefully shade the meaning of terms?” Well, maybe so, but Healy goes on to argue that, in practice, this often results in a focus on unhelpful details and the inhibition of new ideas (until every exception or fine distinction can be accommodated). In other words (and this seems to be a tactic beloved of certain men on social media), saying “It’s a bit more nuanced than that” becomes an easy way to shut down interesting thoughts, without providing any fresh ideas of your own.
The article got me thinking about how true this is in our world
Great marketing is invariably super simple. It involves sacrifice. It requires a ruthless focus on the important stuff: the 4Ps, not the latest collection of 4Cs, 3Es or 101 NFTs. It needs distillation and clarity, so that everybody within the organization – and everybody in the target audience – understands what the brand is about and why they should buy it.
Much head-scratching may be required along the way, but ultimately there is little room for nuance. Why? Because nobody has any time for our shit, and perhaps the most important function for any brand is to make it easy to buy, without too much thought (or any thought at all, in many categories).
Take one of the most famous selling lines of all time: “Every little helps.” It’s only three words, but that’s precisely why it’s a work of genius. A more nuanced view would quibble that this mantra does not apply to every single one of Tesco’s actions, or that some of the brand’s initiatives are actually not so little, or that they don’t always help. You could gripe that it’s generic (“Couldn’t any supermarket say this?”) or that it’s a passive statement (“There’s no Call to Action”). In short, you could add words to make it more rounded, more universally applicable, more nuanced.
But you’d be destroying its power.
All in the name of nuance
The problem is that simplification is, ironically, one of the hardest skills to master. It’s much easier to complicate, add to, build on and fudge — and that’s what too many marketers and agencies do for a living. All in the name of nuance. All based on the false premise that consumers care as much about the details as we do — or the illusion that we’ll be able to make our beautifully subtle case to them with a 100-chart Powerpoint deck.
Now, a more charitable explanation for this overcomplication is that we’re all working so hard that we just don’t notice the way it proliferates. So my advice would be to take a step back and spend a whole day focused entirely on simplification. How can you make your mission more grounded and your communications more single-minded? How can you make your pricing more transparent and your user experience more intuitive? How can you slash your product portfolio and streamline your brand architecture? In short, how can you tidy up all the unhelpful complexity that has been allowed to build up over the years?
Of course, you’ll need a headline as inviting as Professor Healy’s to get your team interested. In which case, may I suggest an appropriately simple idea? Call it a “FUN Day” and then when they ask why, explain: “Fuck Unnecessary Nuance”.