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.



The Best Things in Branding Aren’t Things

By McNeal Maddox

Many brands struggle to capture the market share they think they should, especially in markets where price is perceived as the primary factor driving purchase decisions. Astute marketers recognize that brands are built in the minds of consumers. They also realize that rational, logical appeals can only take you so far in convincing consumers to trade their hard-earned money for whatever they’re selling. Any brand can list its components or its product bundles or its service levels or any of the other hundreds of attributes that make a product what it is. But people don’t want products. People want a helping hand. People want a willing ear. People want a meaningful connection to an organization that has their best interest at heart.

There’s an old saying in sales that “People don’t buy matches. They buy flames.” That fundamental truth is at the heart of any commercial exchange–the ends are always more valuable than the means. It’s a simple truth, but one that surprisingly still isn’t reflected in many sales and marketing teams’ approach to making meaningful connections with the audiences they value the most. Even with decades of marketing research indicating that consumers’ likelihood of purchase increases significantly when they can see the personal value in an exchange (rather than just monetary value), it hasn’t fundamentally changed the way many companies try to attract and retain customers. Consider the chart below from a survey of 3000 buyers of B2B services conducted by CEB. Not only were buyers nearly 48% more willing to purchase brands if they felt they provided personal value to them (personal value meaning a combination of professional, social, emotional, and self-image benefits), they were 60% more likely to pay a higher price for those same brands. Although branding is often (incorrectly) thought of as only relevant for B2C markets, these results show branding can have just as much if not more of a positive influence on B2B audiences.

I’d bet you my next paycheck that on millions of sales calls made today alone, millions of prospects on the other end of the phone will be sold the merits of a bunch of undifferentiated features instead of a reason to believe in the company selling them. It’s likely you don’t sell matches, so substitute any widget or tool or product or service and the same holds true. Creating differentiation means understanding what kind of helping hand you’re uniquely capable of offering people. And that means ensuring people always think of your brand as the solution to a specific need. That’s where branding comes in.

Instead of a laundry list of features and capabilities, a story built on a clear understanding of people’s needs can bundle multiple benefits into an idea with which people can identify. In effect, your brand represents a bundle of “goods”–both tangible and intangible–that people can personally relate to. Branding taps into people’s past experience and shared understanding to add a richer, more meaningful context to purely logical, rational appeals. One of my favorite examples of this is the case of the iPod versus the Zune. If you don’t remember the Zune, it’s not surprising. The Zune had all the features of an iPod and even some that the iPod didn’t: a bigger screen, a built-in FM tuner, and even the ability to share music and photos. But, unlike the iPod, the Zune didn’t tell a simple story about what it could offer that music lovers wanted most: “A thousand songs in your pocket.”

Think about your own marketing for a minute. Have you crafted a brand that can represent a clear, uniquely relevant, and differentiated idea in the minds of the people you’re trying to reach? Are you still selling matches or are you consistently, deliberately and strategically selling flames? If not, it might be time to replace a strategy based on selling more stuff with one based on getting people fired up about the personal value your brand represents in their lives.