Simple Secret to America’s Most Loved Companies

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There’s nothing complicated about the results of a new study: Consumers prefer brands featuring products, services, pricing, and other policies that they can actually understand.

Understandably enough, consumers like good prices and quality products and services. But during an era when the shopping landscape has grown more complicated than ever, what with constant confrontations with “exploding mortgages,” hundreds of possible cell phone plan permutations, an ever-changing roster of airline fees and the like, it makes sense that many consumers place exceptionally strong value on products and services that they can simply understand—with no gotchas, fine print, or unnecessary hassles to worry about.

The new study from Siegel + Gale, a brand consultant firm, should serve as a reminder that businesses should always strive to keep things simple for customers. “In a world clouded with complexity, simplicity stands out,” the study states. “It brings clarity instead of confusion, decision instead of doubt. And the rewards are real. Simplicity inspires deeper trust and greater loyalty in customers, and clears the way to innovation for employees.”

In surveys around the globe, three-quarters of consumers said that they are more likely to recommend brands that provide simpler, easier-to-grasp experiences and communications. Consumers are also willing to pay more for simpler brands—around 17% more, for example, for Toyota and Nissan automobiles because the product and purchase transaction is viewed as adequately straightforward and uncomplicated.

In the U.S., Amazon received the highest scores in Siegel + Gale’s Brand Simplicity Index, which isn’t surprising considering that the world’s largest e-retailer often tops customer service surveys. Globally, Amazon is ranked #2, coming behind first-place Aldi, the low-cost German supermarket chain that focuses on inexpensive store brands and has been expanding rapidly in the U.S. “With more than 9,000 stores worldwide and a brand that ‘focuses on the essentials, no matter what city,’ ALDI has made the most of its good-value-for-the-money reputation with both recession-strapped customers and shoppers just looking to spend less,” the study explained. Among other simple strategies, Aldi stores have fewer items for shoppers to choose from, and an everyday low pricing scheme is used rather than nonstop promotions and coupons. In fact, coupons aren’t accepted at all.

(MORE: How Two German-Owned Sister Supermarket Brands Became Hot Trendsetters in the U.S.)

Mind you, for consumers, low cost does not necessarily equate to simplicity. At the other end of the simplicity scale from Amazon and Aldi is the world’s leading low-cost airline, Ryanair. The carrier’s business model, which traditionally features cheap upfront fares followed by a flood of unreasonable, often surprising fees, is described in the study as “no-frills but seen as intentionally deceitful in its promises and pricing.”

On the other hand, Southwest Airlines, another low-cost travel operator, fared particularly well in the study, ranking #9 of the 125 brands included in the U.S. section. (Health care providers, including Cigna and Humana, and pay TV providers Comcast and Time Warner Cable dominated the bottom of the index as the least simple brands in the U.S.)

While airlines largely failed to impress consumers in terms of simplicity, the rental car market was deemed even more frustrating and confusing. Of the 25 industries considered, rental cars ranked 23rd overall in terms of simplicity, with consumers giving particularly low scores—meaning they’re seriously confusing—to two aspects of the transaction: “understanding what is included in the price” and “understanding the contract and insurance options.”

To some extent, confusing customers helps these businesses to be profitable, so no one should expect health care providers or cable companies or rental car businesses to simplify on a large scale anytime soon. But maybe, just maybe, companies are coming to understand the simple, sensible lesson that it’s bad business to make customers angry via trickery and aggressive, confrontational policies.

(MORE: Could 2013 Be the Year that Customer Service Actually Gets Better?)

At the end of September, Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, the world’s least simple global brand according to Siegel + Gale, went public with a proclamation that the company should “try to “eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off.” Ryanair has since announced a series of customer service improvements that will takes steps such as lowering certain baggage fees and allowing passengers to correct mistakes to names, dates, and routes within 24 hours of booking. The changes came after a period when Ryanair actively sought feedback from passengers. In other words, the company listened to its customers, and tweaked policies based on what they said. How simple.