Last Friday's launch of Vodafone Simply, a no-frills mobile phone built by Sagem and aimed at 35- to 55-year-olds, is the latest manifestation of technology companies' acknowledgement that they have to become consumer- rather than technology-driven.
While younger consumers continue to buy products with as many bells and whistles as the manufacturers can pack in, others have been crying out for years for less functionality and more utility. 'The bane of many people's lives is technology they can't understand, don't need and resent paying for,' says Michael Willmott, co-founder of consumer think-tank The Future Foundation.
Technology should 'de-complicate' our lives, says Willmott, but often does the opposite. 'Technologists and designers have been carried away by what the technology can do rather than what consumers actually want.'
Marketers, who should act as consumer champions within the company, bear much of the responsibility for this mistake, he believes. 'They are not good at questioning received wisdom and are swept along by fads rather than really understanding consumer needs,' says Willmott. 'Call centres and customer relationship management are further manifestations of the same problem.'
It is a charge that Philips, which launched its 'Sense and simplicity' positioning last year, takes on the chin. 'In the past we were blinded by our ability to do things and were keen to show them off,' says David Charlesworth, Philips' UK corporate communications director. 'We invest £3bn a year in research and development. We marketed the technology rather than the consumer benefits. We are now trying to be much more market-oriented.'
However, Philips' approach is very different from Vodafone's. 'Consumers want the benefit of the technology without the hassle,' says Charlesworth.
'We are not trying to do away with functionality, but to build in greater utility to our products. Our aim is to make products that combine increasing sophistication with increased utility.'
That utility starts with the box the product comes in, closely followed by being able to take the product out, plug it in, switch it on and see it work first time. 'If people want more sophisticated features, it will be easy for them to get those too, and they will be more intuitive to use,' says Charlesworth.
Philips has restructured its company to deliver the proposition, and appointed its first global chief marketing officer last year. It is also forging alliances with consumer goods firms, working with Douwe Egberts to create its Senseo coffee machine, and with Unilever on the Perfective iron, which uses a fabric conditioner capsule.
Electrolux has adopted a similar approach, positioning itself as 'Making life a little easier'. 'Our products are highly technical, but that is hidden, increasing their utility. Convenience and ease of use are consumers' top priorities,' says UK marketing director Andy McKay.
Brand strategists and analysts believe the approach taken by Philips and Electrolux to simplifying their products is more genuine and more likely to deliver long-term benefits than Vodafone's.
'It is very difficult to market simplicity,' says Marcus Mitchell, head of strategy at Corporate Edge. 'The danger is that you do something generic and low-cost that is very difficult to own and easy to copy, generating little long-term value.' Of potentially far greater value to Vodafone would be simplifying its tariff and billing structures and service, he says.
Delivering simplicity is equally difficult, Mitchell adds. 'It requires ongoing obsession. Amazon, for example, is continually refining its service to make it easier to use. The launch is the easy bit.'
Michelle de Lussanet, principal analyst at Forrester Research, believes that once Vodafone has won new customers with its 'simply' proposition, it will try to get more value out of them. 'Given the massive investment it has made in 3G technology, it will pursue new income from new functionality,' she says.
And de Lussanet predicts that although consumers might be lukewarm about data services now, more sophisticated services and growing familiarity will drive interest levels.
Nevertheless, Vodafone Simply is 'right on the Zeitgeist', says Martin Hayward, director of consumer strategy and futures at dunnhumby. 'People feel like they are marketing fodder or cogs in the machine. There is a real desire for authenticity, control, understanding and integrity,' he says.
Could it make simplicity fashionable? 'A brand like Vodafone pushing it might be enough to tip it,' says Willmott, who points to the vast scope for simplifying other areas of marketing, including phone tariff structures, utility prices and financial services.
'The potential for simplification applies to every market,' says Mitchell. 'It shouldn't be just about the products, but the entire consumer offering.'
This article was first published on Marketing