Aviva’s Raj Kumar on why simplicity is freedom

The outgoing group brand and reputation director explains why it’s crucial for marketers to avoid the “pet projects” of senior leaders and keep their eyes on the prize.

simplicityIt may sound counter-intuitive, but achieving simplicity is often one of the hardest tasks within business.

In order to achieve it, however, the goal must be to simplify things for the customer, not for the business, according to outgoing Aviva group brand and reputation director, Raj Kumar.

Speaking today (17 May) at Advertising Week Europe, Kumar pointed out teams often make projects happen because the outcome will be easier for the business, rather than maximising for the customer. He explained companies are largely built to be efficient in silos, while the key to simplicity requires different silos coming together.

“It’s not a simple task, but simplicity for me as a leader is to enable and remove obstacles to keep the focus for the team on what we’re trying to achieve. It is batting away those pet projects that very senior leaders often tend to come to you with, so that we keep the eye on the prize,” he added.

Describing simplicity as freedom from chaos, Kumar also noted cutting unnecessary red tape removes the bureaucracy people often rely on in business to demonstrate their expertise.

Despite being a big organisation spanning savings, investments and insurance, the goal at Aviva is to use the brand purpose – ‘It takes Aviva’ – to guide the strategy.

We know through science and research that consumers are overwhelmed with too much choice. So, let’s make it simpler for them.

Lorraine Barber-Miller, Philips

Kumar describes this positioning as a simple way of articulating the brand promise, which is understood by everyone in the business.

“Internally it is for all of us to say: ‘It takes all of Aviva to do something’. Each one of us has a part to play in that. So internally, externally, in society. It’s a very simple articulation that enables people to understand what we’re all about and what’s expected of us,” he explained.

The brand promise is the “guiding star” behind how product development is prioritised, which customers are targeted and where to increase marketing support. Kumar explained it also holds the team to account, signalling the brand is working hard to improve every day.

From a customer perspective, Aviva has seen a strong correlation between improved simplicity and higher NPS scores, a meaningful measure for the board and executive team. The marketers also look at customer effort, satisfaction and time to solve issues, Kumar added.

When it comes to simplicity, Philips chief marketing and ecommerce officer Lorraine Barber-Miller takes inspiration from iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel.

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“I’ve long admired Coco Chanel for simplifying fashion in such an elegant manner with the Chanel suit and popularising the little black dress and trousers for women,” she said.

“The brand continues to remain true to its DNA and to its values. We all know the experience is very signature to Chanel and it’s a hallmark of the brand.”

Back at Philips, the company as worked hard to “harmonise” roles and responsibilities across the marketing function. Barber-Miller explained Philips has redesigned its entire end-to-end way of working, often making “intentional and difficult decisions”.

“Namely shifting investments and focusing our work on fewer and higher quality activities, which has seen a significant reduction in what we call non-integrated, product-focused planning and duplicative activations,” she stated.

Focused on a mantra of “fewer, bigger, better”, there has been a push in the business to focus on simplifying innovation, solutions and customer engagement. That being said, Barber-Miller recognised it is possible to oversimplify to the point where a brand is unclear about its value proposition or how it’s differentiated in the market. Focusing on the customer’s needs keeps teams on track.

“I would say don’t be afraid to reduce and simplify,” she added. “We know through science and research that consumers are overwhelmed with too much choice. So, let’s make it simpler for them to really deliver on that commitment and that promise.”

Innately simple

For Giffgaff CMO Sophie Wheater, the most beautiful, elegant, simple experiences are the ones people find almost innate. While from a maker perspective simplicity can be hard to achieve, Wheater encourages her team to strive to deliver beautiful, simple and easy experiences for customers.

Given Giffgaff launched with a promise to do mobile better – free of contracts, call centres and stores – as the business has grown the team have prioritised retaining that same level of simplicity.

“We are held to account on a daily basis on our community. It’s been very difficult to ensure that we have retained that ease and simplicity throughout our products, throughout our experiences as we’ve grown. It’s something that across the entire business we hold really dear and it’s certainly not just in marketing and brand,” she explained.

I see so frequently that where we make compromises, we drive complexity.

Sophie Wheater, Giffgaff

Wheater described an “implicit understanding” within the company of the importance of simplicity. A phrase used a lot within Giffgaff is ‘That’s just not very Giffgaff’, which conveys that an experience or product is not straightforward or simple. As the wider world becomes more confusing and complex, the marketers are focused on creating “human” experiences for the Giffgaff community.

To achieve this mission, marketing collaborates closely with the tech team. Wheater speaks regularly to the chief technology officer and chief product officer, as well as the developers building the tech, to ensure the drive for simplicity is understood at all levels.

“Steve our CTO and I will have joint meetings around how brand and tech really forge themselves together in our world. I’m as challenged by our tech colleagues as I am by anyone else in our business as to what exactly we’re meaning to do as a brand in any given product or experience we’re developing,” Wheater explained.

She advises businesses to get to their roots and decide what they stand for, stripping away anything that feels unnecessary. This is a job as much for commercial, finance, data science and the tech teams as it is for marketers.

Then from a development perspective, it is essential the tech teams are given the opportunity to build “without compromise”.

“I see so frequently that where we make compromises, we drive complexity,” Wheater added. “The cleaner the code base the tech guys have got to work from, the easier it is for them to start building these really beautiful, easy, simple experiences for people.”

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