Watson, IBM's artificial intelligence (AI) platform, helped one company save $11.2 million a year. A large winery used Watson to reduce its water use by 25 percent. For doctors, Watson can scan 5,000 new medical studies a day, leaving physicians more time to take care of patients.

By now you might have seen these and other examples in IBM's marketing campaign for the company's artificial intelligence suite of products and services. The ads are ubiquitous in newspapers, across websites and on television. Recently, I spoke to IBM's internal branding, advertising, and content marketing professionals about the campaign. As you might imagine, a lot of focus group research goes into such a campaign. In their research, IBM experts learned that product messages work best when they offer one specific takeaway.

The Power of One

You may have seen the IBM ad for KONE, the engineering company. A repairman shows up unexpectedly and the receptionist asks who sent him. "The new guy," the repairman responds, referring to Watson.The takeaway is simple: Watson enables the company to remotely monitor elevators and escalators that transport one billion people a day. Thirty seconds, one statistic, one message.

Most business professionals and decision makers are not experts in the extraordinarily complex area of cognitive computing. They simply want to know how the product will transform their business. Most business professionals are also barraged with marketing messages, data and statistics all day long. That's why IBM delivers one key message in each thirty second television spot or ad. Multiple messages in a 30-second ad would leave viewers confused and bewildered. Marketers have learned that one clear, simple message is the key to standing out and attracting attention.

In some cases, you might want to keep your clients private. IBM needs to do the same. The company identifies some clients by name--KONE, E&J Winery, Toronto Raptors--and identifies others only by industry. For example, in one ad, IBM's Watson helped one company's customer service agents "reduce call resolution times by 99%." There's no need to identify the client by name, but there is a need to give the customer just one message to take away.

Single-Minded Marketing

"Be single-minded," an IBM marketing and advertising expert told me. She used an analogy to explain. "If someone throws 10 tennis balls at you at once, you might be able to catch one before you duck to avoid the others. But if someone throws you one, and then another, you'll probably catch both. It's the same with marketing messages. Don't throw too many at once." 

In most cases, your customers will need more information than one message before making a final purchase decision. IBM ads are meant to hook a potential customer into learning more. Each ad is accompanied by a specific website address where customers can dig deeper into the case study, and get as technical as they want.

IBM's marketing approach relies on a fundamental principle of human psychology. Researchers say that if we see or hear too much information at once, it results in cognitive backlog. Think of it like piling one weights--as more weight is added, the mental load gets heavier and heavier. Eventually, we'll drop it all. Including too many statistics, data points or marketing messages at once--especially in a short amount of time--will cause your audience to tune out, leaving very little chance for you to take them to the next step of the purchase decision.

In his book Think Simple, former Apple advertising executive Ken Segall, says "Simplicity is arguably the most potent weapon in business--attracting customers, motivating employees, outthinking competitors, and creating new efficiencies. Yet rarely is it as simple as it looks."

Yes, creating simple messages is hard work. It's much easier to throw a bunch of product details at the customer than it is to craft one key message. As Apple and IBM have learned, simplicity is deceptively difficult, but it's worth the effort.