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The concept of "less is more" has permeated our personal lives in one way or another, at least in part because of the rise of minimalism and the widespread popularity of Marie Kondo's philosophy of purging things in your home that don't spark joy.

In marketing, however, we often tend to veer down the path of "more is more"—addition, rather than subtraction.

Because we marketers are pressured to show the value that our marketing brings to a brand, that value often tends to be proven through addition: onboarding a new measurement partner to provide additional metrics, adding more data segments to an audience, adding new creative to a campaign to avoid fatigue...

We often find ourselves hyperanalyzing processes, documents, products, and resources in search of what can be added to make up for what is lacking.

It's almost as if it's hardwired in our DNA to think that problems stem from shortcomings and the only way to overcome them—to solve those problems—is to figure out what is missing in ourselves or our organizations.

Why do we default to addition?

It actually is natural instinct, it turns out: Humans instinctively gravitate toward additive approaches, even if it means more work, a study by two University of Virginia academics, engineer Leidy Klotz and social psychologist Gabrielle Adams, uncovered.

In one exercise for that study, participants were asked to make a pattern symmetrical by either adding or removing squares. Only 20% of participants opted for subtraction, despite fewer squares' requiring removal rather than addition.

So, just because we naturally gravitate toward a certain behavior doesn't mean it's the ideal or most efficient choice.

Enter the practice of subtractive innovation.

What Is Subtractive Innovation?

Forrester Research defines subtractive innovation as "a mindset and process aimed at improving a company's business through subtraction rather than addition."

Organizations that opt for a subtractive approach can often experience stronger performance from their employees (and increased happiness from simplification rather than overcomplication) as well as better end products and results.

A great example of the concept is the revered Dyson vacuum. Dyson noticed the inefficient experience of dust collecting with a vacuum bag. Instead of looking for parts to add to strengthen the suction or exploring alternative vacuum bag materials, the company instead invented a vacuum that removed the bag, which led to the creation of an effective product and a sustainable solution that generates less waste. And, by many people's account, Dyson is still the gold standard of vacuuming today.

Similarly, marketing teams often don't need to reinvent the wheel or build something new to improve a campaign or measurement. Instead, it's often the process of elimination that can engender true creativity and productivity.

Four 'Less Is More' Steps to Thinking and Acting Substractively

So how can you get started down the path toward thinking subtractively? Here are four key steps you can take as a marketer to lean into a "less is more" approach.

1. Pause and evaluate

The first step toward subtractive innovation is to start by stopping, which may seem counterintuitive at first.

However, it's important to pause and evaluate the tools and processes currently in place and whether and how much each contributes to the day-to-day success of your business or your marketing campaigns.

One way to simply conceptualize that process is to think about grocery shopping. To be an efficient shopper, you take stock of what you already have in your pantry and identify a list of ingredients you need before heading to the store. That helps you avoid unnecessarily accumulating three containers of garlic salt or wasting time and money looking for the garbanzo beans that don't actually have a place in your selected recipes.

The same concept applies to your organization: Take note of what you have and determine what you need before you start shopping for something new.

2. Consider what can be done with less

When Apple removed the earbud cord and released AirPods, consumers got to experience firsthand how having less enables them to do more. You can apply that approach to identify things that get in the way of efficiency.

Think of a current process that's in place and consider what removing a step in the process could result in:

  • Does eliminating a step remove red tape that prevents team members from taking ownership over projects?
  • Does it improve efficiency by decreasing the process timeline?
  • Does your organization have multiple analytics or research tools that have similar capabilities that accomplish the same business need?

Those are the types of questions you must start posing so that you can see the opportunity that subtraction offer for streamlining and freeing thinking and behavior.

An overly complicated marketing undertaking with a plethora of audience segments and creative versions doesn't necessarily mean it's the best approach to take.

Marketing initiatives that have the media budget sliced and diced in a million ways to run across multiple DSPs and myriad inventory sources, or that utilize every single creative type available, tend to result in cost inefficiencies and limited campaign learnings.

Opting for a more streamlined plan that focuses on the brand's core audience and message, and selecting platforms and inventories that best align with the goal, can be a more efficient and effective way to achieve success.

Negative targeting is another subtractive strategy to utilize to ensure media dollars are used as efficiently as possible. For example, maintaining an advertiser blacklist of sites and apps that are either not brand-safe or prone to suspicious activity ensures that impressions are being served where they matter most.

3. Implement guardrails for addition

The goal of subtractive innovation isn't only to remove but also to be mindful about what gets added.

To create a practice of thoughtful addition, develop a framework of conditions that must be met in order to add.

For example, if you want to adopt a new measurement tool, it's always important to keep the "why" at the forefront and consider how the addition of a new tool would help solve a business need. Also, take note of what measurement tools your organization already has and consider whether those tools have untapped capabilities that could solve your need without your having to pay for something new.

These are some thought-starters to use as a guide before adding:

  • Is there an applicable business case for this addition?
  • Does the organization already have a resource that can be used to fulfill the business need?
  • How will this addition improve efficiency or effectiveness, or both?
  • Can the problem be better solved through subtraction?

4. Encourage your organization to think subtractively

To weave a subtractive mindset into the ethos of your organization, you need to create a culture that applauds not only creation but also subtraction.

We live in a society that perpetuates the idea that addition is incredibly valuable. It's critical to recognize individuals or departments that have improved strategy or campaign efficiency through a subtractive approach; doing so prompts others to view subtraction as another avenue toward success.

* * *

A subtractive approach to innovation—and everyday work—can help unlock a new realm of possibilities for producing better end results. Removing extra steps in a process or streamlining your product by removing an unnecessary bell or whistle can lead to less friction and even cost savings.

Challenge yourself to go against the natural instinct of solving a challenge through addition, and instead take a moment to pause and shop your pantry first.

More Resources on Subtractive Innovation & 'Less Is More' Efficiency in Marketing

Stop the Churn: Why Less Is More in B2B Content Marketing

Less is More Marketing

How to Avoid TMI in Email: When Less Is More

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image of Allie Haupt

Allie Haupt is the innovation lead at Coegi, a digital media agency that fuels digital transformation using expertly crafted, adaptable marketing solutions to help brands connect to the audiences that matter most. Allie has marketing experience with both brand and agency across operations and marketing departments.

LinkedIn: Allie Haupt