Monday, December 22, 2014

Brands and Choice

Freedom to choose is central to the American psyche.  And our choices have been expanding for decades. From the first production of Ford’s Model T in 1908 until now, automobile choices have expanded to 270 different models in the US alone. Between 350 and 420 types or sizes of toothpaste are sold at retail. Wegmans touts that each of its grocery stores has 300 specialty cheeses available for sale at any given time. In a recent brand equity study that we conducted, animal owners were aware of more than 360 different brands of animal feed.

At Hallmark, it was a commonly held belief that the more choices we could give our customers, the more satisfied they would be with the card (or other product) they eventually purchased.

However, my wife indicates how frustrating it can be to sort through all of the choices in any given category. Pantyhose, hosiery, leggings and tights are the latest categories she cited in this regard.

According to psychologist, Barry Schwartz, increased choice has not provided us with more freedom but rather has increasingly paralyzed us.  It has not made us happier, but rather has led to greater dissatisfaction. He cites several dimensions to this. One that is particularly interesting to me is that increased choice implies increased satisfaction. And if the number of choices is almost uncountable, our ultimate satisfaction should theoretically be complete. That is, choice has elevated our expectation that there should be a perfect fit between the product we choose and our needs. If this does not occur, we are dissatisfied.

You can read more about Barry Schwartz’s view of this in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.

Much has been said about brands simplifying product choice in today’s complicated world. If I love my brand, I am sticking with it so that I do not have to navigate the overly complicated world of increased product choice.  Sticking with my brand substantially simplifies my decision-making.

And yet, not only do different brands try to own different benefits. But often, to facilitate brand growth, each brand offers an increasingly larger number of SKUs, models or line extensions to meet virtually every conceivable need. This laundry detergent makes whites whiter. This one makes bright colors brighter. This one works well in cold water. This one gets the tough stains out. This one is gentle on sensitive fabrics. This one has no phosphates and is easy on the environment. This one is free of perfumes and clear of dyes. This one is more concentrated. This one offers three of these benefits. This one offers a different three of these benefits. This one focuses on a primary benefit but delivers two others as well.

Or how about toothpaste? This one is mint flavored. This one fights cavities. This one fights gingivitis. This one reduces plaque build-up. This one focuses on tartar control. This one has micro-cleaning crystals. This one kills germs. This one freshens your breath. This one whitens your teeth. This one has baking soda. This one has all natural ingredients. This one is fluoride free. This one creates squeaky-clean teeth. This one has SmartFoam that cleans tough to reach places.

As a brand manager, consider this - Are you making it simpler for people to shop the category and choose your brand or are you making it more complicated and frustrating for people to do so? What can you do to simplify your customers’ product choices?

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