Behavioural Science
The Paradox Of Choice

There was a day not too long ago, when a free sachet of shampoo banded with the bottle would bring a joyful glee on our faces. And, now, we look for the free sachet before we decide to buy the shampoo. It seems like copycat marketers (and agencies!) have coached us to not see any real difference between one brand of shampoo and another, except for the free sachet, of course!

In his book, The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less, American psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that increased choice leads to more anxiety and less happiness for consumers. Could it also be that this increased choice forces less informed decision making, as a coping mechanism? In, other words, does this portend an increase in the dreaded “buying shorthand’, that disproportionately rewards the dominant players in the market?

How should the intelligent strategist get on top of this ‘auto-pilot’ trend? How does he prepare the brand to win in a world of whimsical consumers?

I see three possible solutions.

The first possibility: To hold pole position on some desirable attribute of the category and continually improve it by investing behind its R and D. Call this the Apple strategy, if you will. Another brand that does this well is Gillette, which keeps adding a blade every two years, and makes the shaving male feel inadequate without it. Deep inside, this approach hopes to ring fence a loyal tribe of consumers who will be willing to pay an irrational premium for the attribute in question. The risk is that, sooner or later, some paradigm busting technology will make the proposition, attribute and category irrelevant.

The second possibility: To cultivate a club of independent opinion leaders whose word is taken as gospel by the information-stressed average consumer. In knowledgeable circles, this is fashionably called ‘Advocacy’. Look at how Whole Foods has conquered the American health trend completely. Or, how increasingly, cosmetics communication is owned by the indie beauty blogger. This strategy hopes for a significant number of mainstream followers to ignorantly follow the opinion leader into consumption heaven. That is until the independent opinion maker demands to be paid for it, in which case, the brand owner adopts possibility number 3!

The third and truly unsexy possibility: To be ‘just good enough’ in all the 4Ps of marketing while being truly entertaining and engaging at the point of purchase. The only brands that seem to do this well are the house brands of retail chains, given that they have little else to reach out to consumers. They tap into the powerful insight that today’s consumer is not looking for the smartest deal or the cheapest deal, but for the most delightful deal. It is called ‘retail therapy’ for a reason.

When increased choice makes every category a commoditized minefield, where would you put your money to create some tangible and positive behavioural change among your ungrateful consumers?

In summary, it is not about story telling (branding) or story re-telling (advocacy) any more. Consumers want to act out and be the hero in your story, every day! The era of participatory marketing is here.

p.s. I know what you are thinking – some may opt for the safe ‘all-of-the-above’ solution. But, seriously, does any one have that kind of money to invest into marketing today?

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