Archive for February, 2011


February 2, 2011

“One of the biggest mistakes that is made in Washington is this notion you have to dumb things down for the public.”
— Barack Obama in an interview with Newsweek magazine shortly after winning the presidency

You have to wonder if he still believes this. Of course he’s in no position to express a change of heart, and we can’t know if he really meant it when he said it. I think he did. I think he was sincere, and I think he’s right.

He goes on to say that we Americans have “a hunger for explanation and complexity.” I’m not so sure, but I do believe most of us have at least an appreciation for inherent complexities. When we can see that something is not just one simple thing, we can start to form preferences and see ourselves more clearly. Sometimes we need something to push against in order to propel ourselves, and complexities can provide this provided they’re clear and distinct.

I think complexity is often mistaken for confusion or a lack of clarity, and clarity is often mistaken for simplicity. Clarity and complexity are not diametrically opposed. In fact together they can create a tension that brings significance to something that might otherwise seem obvious and uninteresting.

Identifying and articulating — clarifying — the complexity in things is a responsibility of government and business. It would be a mistake to assume that everyone understands and agrees with this, or even cares if it’s true. Customers and constituents are not so concerned with the theory of all this, they just want clarity because clarity provides, among other things, focus, direction and peace of mind.

I think Obama might have been projecting his own appreciation for intellectual rigor onto the American collective. In his interview he also says Americans possess a “willingness to acknowledge hard problems.” He says this directly on the heels of his “explanation and complexity” comment, and therein lies the problem. There is truth in his broader statement, but it’s lost because we don’t know what to focus on. It lacks clarity. It’s not that he needs to “dumb” things down, he needs to “break” things down. He needs to decide what is most important, what is secondary, and what is extraneous. (Maybe he shouldn’t think out loud so much?) He also needs to recognize that big ideas do better in the company of smaller supporting ones.

In a branding context, there is opportunity in complexity, opportunity for individuals and commercial enterprises alike to really differentiate themselves. We need to be careful not to assume, as Obama may have, that our clients, customers and consumers will care at all about the notion of complexity (in other words, complexity is probably not a platform upon which to build differentiation), but we might do well to investigate, embrace and communicate the complexity of our offers and industries in the bright light of a customer’s agenda.