Biz Features

Do You Think Your Customers are Morons?: The Fine Line Between Simple and Dumbed Down

by . November 16th, 2012

Debenhams, a UK-based retail firm has recently stirred up some debate over their recent changes to their cafe menu. They didn’t change the items – rather they have declared war on confusing names.

You won’t find the words black, macchiato, cappuccino, mocha, or espresso at Debenhams’ cafes. Names such as “Simple Coffee (with or without milk)”, “Really, Really Milky Coffee”, “Frothy Coffee”, “Chocolate-flavored Coffee”, and “A Shot of Strong Coffee” are now deemed the way to sell our favorite caffeine delivery system.

via  The Daily Mail
You might think it’s the British penchant for tea and presumable unfamiliarity with coffee that has made this necessary – but you’d be wrong. The UK actually consumes more coffee per capita than many countries that actually export it, so they’re pretty familiar with it- and I bet not too long ago,the average urbanized American didn’t know the differences between a grande and a venti.

The reason is more obvious – not everyone knows the difference between a macchiato or a cappuccino. And god knows I’ve had to argue with someone who said black coffee always had sugar – she just couldn’t imagine anyone drinking coffee without it.

Even in places where there seems to be a Starbucks in every corner, there’s still a lot of confusion over terms many coffee drinkers take for granted. The fact that many of these terms are loanwords or have archaic origins just adds to the confusion.

So what do people do when they want coffee but encounter terms they don’t understand? Anyone can always ask- or Google. But a few might order the wrong thing entirely- possibly leading to a bad experience. Others might just opt not to get anything at all and go elsewhere  (“You know what? Screw this. Let’s go to Mickey D’s instead!”).

On the other hand, David Ogilvy, the legendary  “Original Mad Man,” and “The Father of Advertising,” pointed out:


“A consumer is not a moron. She’s your wife. Don’t insult her intelligence, and don’t shock her.”



Is this use of simplified language for coffee just another example of talking down to the audience – that would backfire by turning them off – or is it necessary to prevent confusion? Would simplification remove a cachet for drinking fancy coffee?

I don’t know if Debenhams did the right thing. I’ve never been to Britain and I can’t claim to know that market particularly well. It’s too early to tell what this move would mean for them. But the problem of clearly communicating ideas to customers without insulting their intelligence is something ALL businesses will have to struggle with. We struggle with it every day.

I work at an online printing firm. We certainly don’t think our customers are morons. The fact is, our top repeat customers in the graphic design industry know more about printing and our products than the average UPrinting employee. Some ideas important for people whose work depends on quality printing are simply impossible to simplify, and we keep many of our customers because we respect that.

On the other hand, close to 80% of our customers might only need to print something professionally once or twice in a year, and many of them will be people who might not care or need to know every single little thing about online printing that we could say. We need to think about them too.

You probably already encountered a situation where you had to explain a unique hobby to someone. A few people would get it, but most probably wouldn’t. The challenge is to understand different people well enough to connect with most of them.

It’s not about how many words you throw at someone – it’s about how well you get your point across.


Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.