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Over-Simplify: A Branding Strategy for Savvy Marketers

Over-Simplify: A Branding Strategy for Savvy Marketers

Strategic over-simplification is a way to differentiate your brand identity and communicate your personality to your target audience. When you are building a brand, it lets you define your own business as well as your competitors’ according to your own rules. It’s one of the most compelling branding tactics available to the savvy marketer.

A good place to start learning about the awesome power of oversimplification is Roger Dooley’s interview with Andy Cunningham. (Dooley is the brains behind the brilliant website Neuro Science Marketing. I’m a huge admirer of his work.)

Cunningham made her bones as part of Regis McKenna’s marketing agency. They were the team behind Apple’s famous “1984” commercial. That’s the ad that introduced the Macintosh to the world. And it’s probably the most famous commercial in TV history.

Cunningham’s new book is called “Get to Aha!” Her book was the excuse for this interview. Really though, listening to these two brilliant people discuss influence and persuasion is a reward in itself. And they offer unique insights into the power of strategic over-simplification.

If You Can’t Find an Enemy, Make One

One of the most compelling corporate branding campaigns in history was Apple’s I’m a PC / I’m a Mac campaign. Here’s how Roger described it:

“(Steve Jobs) created a social identity for Mac owners, and employed an “us and them” strategy in a lot of his marketing. The Mac person was young, cool, creative, and the people who used competing technology were, at best, boring and nerdy, and at worst, mindless lemmings walking off a cliff. That theme continued with the “I’m a Mac” campaign that was really a brilliant campaign too. …that tribal grouping caused people to make Mac part of their personal identity, and they became really quite religious in their defense of the brand.”

As Cunningham notes during the interview, Steve Jobs did not set out to make the Mac “the computer for the rest of us.” His original intent was that Mac become the business machine of choice. However, when the creatives of the world glommed onto the Mac, the smart folks at Apple, (or maybe Andy), realized they had stumbled into something extraordinary: the power of enemies.

To their credit, the Apple marketing team seized on that Us vs. Them mentality. They cranked it up to 11 and propelled the Apple brand into the stratosphere.

black spy vs white spyWas that Us vs. Them dichotomy strictly accurate?

Of course not. But strict accuracy holds no appeal to the monkey brain. Strict accuracy requires concentration, focus, analysis and – most of all – hard work.

Those things the monkey brain avoids. Those things require energy.

Plausible-sounding over-simplifications are better perceived.  And offer the benefit of being fast, consistent and “accurate enough.”

You can use the same strategies to boost your online identity and reputation in your target market.


You gotta make some enemies. (Or at least invent some.)

Draw your “line in the sand.” Declare that anyone who isn’t with you is against you. Identify your “enemy” and then conduct a single-minded and unrelenting attack.

(As a rule, you should target a thought leader you consider a competitor. Does this take big brass cajones to succeed? Of course it does!)

This is the tactic Saul Alinsky advocated in Rules for Radicals. And – as the last 50 years of American political history has shown us – it works.

Plausible-sounding over-simplifications are better perceived.  And offer the benefit of being fast, consistent and “accurate enough.

Black & White Choices: The Evolutionary Advantage

The human brain is a pattern-recognition machine. Any simple black/white dichotomy is a pattern. It’s the kind of pattern our brains are very good at recognizing.

Human brains prefer simple choices. This bias gives us an evolutionary advantage: it allows for lightning-fast decision making.

black & white chess pieces

Is that new person a friend or an enemy? Is that a poisonous snake in the path, or just a crooked stick?

The speed of such decisions often meant the difference between survival or death. Those who made fast decisions tended to be the ones who survived. Those who stopped to think carefully?

Well, they’re not around to tell us what happened.

This simple black/white pattern-recognition heuristic allowed our ancestors to survive. Speedy decisions were better than accurate decisions when survival was on the line. So our brains evolved to make quick decisions rather than accurate decisions..

And that’s why the Us vs. Them approach works. It might be inaccurate,but it’s fast and simple.

When you clearly identify an “enemy” for your customer, you appeal to your customer’s biological biases.

PRO TIP: When you identify a human tendency that has its roots in thousands of generations of evolution, it’s better not to fight it.

Apple saved its customers the effort of thinking by creating an over-simplification that worked: Us vs Them..

That’s why the market responded so positively to Apple’s oversimplified 1984 ad, the lemmings over a cliff ad and the I’m a Mac / I’m a PC ads.

Apple gave us over-simplified black-and-white choices that appealed to our built-in pattern recognition biases. They made us feel safe. They made us feel like buying a Mac was the “right” choice.

At its root, buying a Mac was the choice for survival vs extinction.

Powerful stuff.


When you identify “the enemy” for them, you save your customer effort and energy. (That’s good.)

If you do your job right and do it well, then your customer will accept your definitions for “friend” and “enemy” without being conscious of having done so.

They will almost automatically put themselves either “with you” or “against you.”

The one thing they won’t do is remain neutral.

And that’s kinda the whole point of designing a brand and defining the essence of your brand image, isn’t it?