The Art of Subtraction


Let’s start with a quick bit of mental arithmetic.


What is 400 + 237?


What about 400 – 237?


We expect (hope…) you got both answers right. We also expect that it took you longer to answer the second question than the first one. Not much longer. But enough to notice.


The first question was addition. You probably did it automatically. The second question was subtraction. You probably paused to think before answering.


When it comes to maths, we find it easier to add than subtract.


What is true for maths is true for life. Humans have a powerful instinct to add rather than subtract.


Recipe not right? Most people will add ingredients next time. Essay need more work? Most people will write more words. Presentation need to be better? Most people will add slides.


When we approach a problem, we tend to ask ourselves “what could I add?” We are much less likely to ask ourselves “what could I take away?”


Why are we talking about this? In our industry (as in the rest of life) we add more than we subtract.


We do it because it’s easier. Need to hit your sales number? Add a promotion.


We do it because it’s what we’re used to doing. Many companies are set up to launch new products. You launch this one. Then you’re onto the next one. Then the next one.


We do it because it feels safer. Adding messages helps us cover all the bases. It’s tasty. It’s healthy. It’s convenient. It’s sustainable. It’s good for the whole family. At any occasion. So many messages, that it becomes a game of benefit bingo.


Adding reassures us. Subtracting makes us nervous. But it’s the things that make us nervous that are usually the right things to do.


What if we did promote less? What if we did launch less NPD? What if we did say less in our communication?


What if we stopped adding and started subtracting?


Over the last 4 weeks we’ve been sharing the Insight Traction Lions (our awards for effective shopper communication) on LinkedIn. They celebrate the art of subtraction in shopper communication.


Saying less when you’re tempted to say more. Using short words when you’re tempted to use long words. Keeping things consistent when you’re tempted to change them.


They celebrate things like the Duracell display unit. A display so instantly recognisable that you’d recognise it before you recognised your own child.


Things like the Actimel “immunity support” message. A message so consistent, they were on it years before everyone else jumped on the immunity bandwagon. And will still be on it years after everyone else has fallen off the wagon.


Things like the “eat more fish” Sainsbury’s messaging. A message so simple that it will have hipster creatives waking up screaming in the middle of the night going, ”aarrgghh… only 3 words… only 3 syllables… only 11 letters… nooooo, life can’t be that simple?!”


As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “To gain knowledge, add things every day. To gain wisdom, subtract things every day”.


Subtraction is the path to wisdom.


It might also be the path to an Insight Traction Lion next year.


What could be more motivating than that?


If you want to see what you’re up against, you can see all the Insight Traction Lions winners here: https://www.insight-traction.com/insight-traction-lions-2021


Feel free to forward. Have a great weekend & Christmas. Speak to you in 2022..