Brands Beware: More is Not More

By Emmanuel Probst and Jeremy A. Tucker

Triple, venti, soy, non-foam latte anyone? Or perhaps any of the hundreds of drink combinations available at your local Starbucks? On-menu or off-menu, the pursuit of customer satisfaction means if you want it, they’ll usually find a way to make it. If you find this overwhelming, your local market has surely figured out the trouble with choice in their finely curated aisles, right? Nope. The average supermarket has 35,372 different products. Of which the average consumer purchases a whopping 260. The entire year. (1) And if like most evolving consumers that find the real world just too overwhelming, think twice about seeking refuge in the freedoms of simplicity in online shopping: a search for ‘Popcorn’ on returns over 800 results.

In 2004, psychologist Barry Schwartz described this phenomenon as the paradox of choice, arguing that having too many options is detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being (2). We just don’t know what to do with all that input and freedom. Schwartz’s theory is even more relevant now than it was 13 years ago as options to buy, and where and how to buy them, have skyrocketed. Overwhelmed with choice, shoppers buy only 260 different items per year on average, out of 35,372 available; that’s less than 1%. On a quarterly basis, they purchase just 0.23% of those available (3). And when they can’t decide on what to buy, some people end up walking away empty-handed, a trend online retailers (with guidance from their therapists we presume) call ‘cart abandonment’.

But fear not modern brands, data, and a profound paradigm shift, can help.

The modern consumers’ life has been improving drastically, thanks to the expansion of advanced marketing analytics such as big data, predictive modeling and programmatic advertising. These approaches allow marketers to target their audiences based on life stages, needs states and interests. People will increasingly be exposed to products that are relevant to them at a particularly relevant point in time.

For example, if Tom bought moving supplies last month, it is fair to assume he will need furniture for his new home next month. Based on his life stage, he will more likely buy a convertible sofa bed if he is starting college, a sectional couch if he has a family or a recliner if he suffers from back pain. Tom doesn’t care about all furniture options at the supermarket, he cares expressly about what he cares about, when he cares about it. At max, he cares about 3 to 5 furniture options, not 300 to 500.

Which means marketers in the next era of seeking eyeballs and billfolds don’t need to harass their respective targets with so many different options like we had to do before data helped us focus the pitch. We may still have a vast variety of product on the warehouse shelves, but consumers don’t need to see them all to find what they want anymore. Or rather, what we the modern brand wants them to find.

“As apps like Snapchat, WeChat and WhatsApp show, we are quickly moving toward a reality in which everything happens in real time. From communication to coordination to purchase, marketers will need to react with the pace of consumers (think “right time, right message, right place” on steroids).” (4)

Big consumer-savvy brands figured this out at the very first glimpse of advanced analytics. Ever wonder why you may see a specific ad in your Facebook feed for a specific chair on a specific day? Hint: It’s not random. It’s not something everyone sees. It’s an ad served just for you, because guess what, Ikea knows what you want when you want it, and is just trying to throw you a bone.

Chipotle, In-N-Out, even the more modern McDonalds experiment ‘boutiques’ are now flagship brands for taking smart marketing a step further into the very core of their brand strategy by understanding that less is more with menus designed to make things easier through limitations, not freedoms. Where Cheesecake Factory and your local Diner menus reeked of (delicious) desperation, these simpler menu ‘experiences’ somehow smell like refined sophistication in their elegant simplicity. A confidently constrained expression of purity. Animal style.

And where there’s even the slightest whiff of elegance there’s the opportunity to charge more for the selective items that are highlighted, making up for the pickled tuna lasagna option rarely glimpsed on page 17 of the menu.

So to the bloated brand seeking modernity, we urge simplicity. To the modern brand struggling for engagement, we ironically recommend cutting the options to engage. Find the top sellers, get smart on how to read the analytics, take a shot of aged bourbon if needed (Innovation Protocol does not promote bourbon-informed decision making unless it’s really good bourbon, then, I mean, hello), and boldly trim where others have added. Don’t follow the brand masses to the supermarket excess of more upon more upon more because what you have already isn’t selling. Follow the frontrunners of fewer choice, and simply offer your focused strengths in simple, personalized ways. It’s what Tom really wants, after all.

Emmanuel Probst is a brand growth and advertising effectiveness strategist. He counsels advertisers on measuring and optimizing the effectiveness of their campaigns and teaches Consumer Market Research at UCLA. Emmanuel holds a Doctorate of Business Administration in Consumer Psychology from the University of Nottingham Trent.

Jeremy Tucker is Director of Brand Development at the Innovation Protocol New York office, and regularly teaches, speaks, and writes on brand strategy for dynamic modern brands.