When too many choices means no choice at all: how to stand out in the crowd
In today’s marketplace, there is an overwhelming amount of choice. Given the many options, consumers are often led by their inertia and may choose to buy nothing at all. How can any given product begin to make an impression among all the others? How can your product or service position itself to even be considered as a choice? Branding helps paralyzed consumers decide to make a choice rather than walk away.
In this paper, we’ll think about why more doesn’t necessarily mean better. We will consider how effective branding and storytelling can help your product distinguish itself as not just one passive option among many, but as a conscious choice among a very few. When a product has an effective story and a clear ethos, it doesn’t matter how many options there are. Brands that provide a clear basis for decision-making or help consumers and customers navigate the options will emerge as the ones between which they will choose. We will discuss strategies for helping consumers find the information they need about your products to make a decision, based on what is meaningful to them, as a way to overcome the challenges of too much choice.
Be a choice, not an option
It’s not enough just to be on the shelves, or part of the database, or on the list, challenging as even that may be in today’s competitive environment. That’s the necessary first step—availability—which both enables purchase and (importantly) showcases the brand’s ability to be present in the market. And that’s when the real work begins. Products that are lost among many may become the equivalent of not being there at all, invisible or indistinguishable among the mass. They become options, certainly, part of the lineup and amongst the multitude of opportunities for purchase. But they are not—not yet—choices. A choice is the conscious act of making a decision, of selecting a particular option. A choice is something that consumers deliberately opt in to making. A choice is an informed decision based on the criteria that matters and is known to the consumer.
Some choice is not only good but necessary. Homeware company Williams-Sonoma discovered that when it first introduced a breadmaker for sale for $275; sales were surprisingly low despite consumer research indicating interest in the product. The company responded by offering a significantly more expensive breadmaker that was slightly bigger and had some more functionality. Sales skyrocketed for the moderately priced original model. What happened? Consumers had no way to gauge the value of the breadmaker—a new product and concept—when there was only one option. With no options, consumers had no way of making decisions; the additional product offered a point of comparison that gave them a framework for evaluating the product and encouraged them to make a purchase.
Consumers make choices when they are able to access information about what they know and care about. Consumers turn to influencers they trust to help them decide what matters most to them.
Sometimes the effort required to get enough information to make a good purchasing decision is greater than the payoff from the purchase itself. While purchase panic and paralysis is an extreme scenario, consumers will often pick something reflexively rather than actively due to their inability to sort out the options. The fear of making the wrong choice, of misunderstanding the options, of using the wrong selection criteria or miscalculating the outcomes may lead to regret over the purchase and even the product itself. In short, some choice is good, but too much choice is not better.
It is the job of the brand, and the stories and ethos around the brand, to give consumers the tools to make choices. The effective communication of brand values distinguishes products and gives consumers the information they need by reducing complexity and bringing the relevant options to the fore. Branding simplifies the process, giving consumers meaningful and trustworthy information as a basis for decision-making.
Branding cuts through the options to allow consumers to make a choice.
Today’s consumers are particularly invested in authenticity and transparency, looking for purchases that are true to their own values and ethos. Products can use their branding to communicate these values as a way to get consumers to understand the product itself rather than to encourage them to make a quick decision that may not be reflective of their true needs and desires. Informed choices are based on criteria that matter to the consumer and that they understand are choices that they will not doubt or regret later. If they return to the product, they are likely satisfied by it, and their comfort with their purchase and overall positive experience may lead them to becoming a brand ambassador.
Products and services have to help consumers make confident choices by providing them with the kinds of information that reflect the particular customer’s needs and interests. Effective branding and marketing provides a set of criteria that aligns with the information the customer needs to make a decision.
Part of the curation process is educating the customer about the options that exist. American Standard recognized that for many consumers, the differences between toilets are not deeply meaningful, making the selection process burdensome and frustrating. The brand enhanced the consumer experience by designing universal Point-of-Purchase (POP) materials to be used throughout the category in a given store. The POPs display third-party performance ratings along with the various distinctions between toilets across brands. This helps consumers determine what matters to them amongst the various choices to be made. This kind of non-brand specific assistance reflected American Standard’s ethos of smart home improvement, giving consumers the tools they need to make the best decision for themselves. By curating the experience and educating the customer, American Standard streamlined the toilet purchase process while preserving customer choice, effectively communicating its own values and brand distinction.
Be different to be seen
How do products or services convert from being an option to a choice?
Brands must showcase what they have to offer. They must use their branding to communicate what makes them unique.
Ultimately, a brand might not appeal to a given customer, or may not offer what they want in the short term. But if the storytelling is clear, if the product is well branded, if the values are well-known and effectively communicated, then the brand has become a choice. It may not, in a given instance, be chosen, but it is part of the framework. It is no longer one among many options. It can be chosen, and, for a customer whose needs are matched by the brand, it will be chosen.
It is the brand’s job to curate the options for the customer to allow the customer to consciously choose the brand that is right for him or her. Within the brand itself, there are often numerous choices that can be equally overwhelming. A brand that offers consumers a streamlined and personally relevant way to sort through these options will be more inviting than one that overloads the customer with information that doesn’t matter to him or her. An effective customized sorting mechanism can help a company find the sweet spot between diluting its brand through too many line extensions and increasing its market share through additional options and features. Strong branding will bring consumers to the products; trustworthy and relevant advice and guidance will help simplify the process toward purchase.
The sorting process can also help build anticipation for the purchase itself. BMW allows purchasers to not only customize their purchase, but to track the process online as their car is being built, in some cases even to watch video of their actual car being built. Consumers become deeply invested in the process, taking pleasure in making decisions and awaiting delivery. A car is a big–and expensive–investment, and BMW recognizes the importance of the purchase by integrating options into the process in a way that is accessible and deeply enjoyable, inviting consumers to be partners in the brand-curated customization process.
The hair care industry has seemingly endless options even within a given brand. Herbal Essences offers a customized set of tools online that filters its product offerings as consumers specify different aspects of their hair features and needs. Consumers are offered three different menus detailing their hair thickness, hair type and the benefit they seek through the product. They can then narrow the product type, and filter the results based on what product range they are interested in. At each stage, the website displays results based on the selections; each subsequent set of results is a narrower selection drawn from the previous display. The brand walks consumers through these options, helping to highlight what matters when making a purchasing decision, simplifying the process while remaining attentive to the customer’s individual concerns. The brand controls the pathway, offering consumers the tools they both need and want to weigh the options and make a decision, and in so doing, helps consumers figure out what matters to them. The customized tool highlights the specific advantages of the Herbal Essences brand while at the same time addressing the concerns of the customer. By offering this tool, the brand emerges as a clear choice among many options; by making clear what the brand has to offer, the consumer can make an informed and confident decision based on what matters to him or her. These tools act as filters that narrow the results to manageable and relevant information, a technique that can be applied across industries.
Search engines also suffer from the challenge of too much choice, both within targeted websites and across the internet. Businesses can offer filters to organize results by price, chronology, brand and type, and can create sorting mechanisms and categories within the searches to help customize results.
Help your consumers decide what they need by giving them the details they want.
In the digital arena, consumers rely heavily on third-party reviews and recommendations to sort through the options and choices they have to make. The more expensive the purchase, the more difficult the decision and the greater possibility for paralysis and regret. To combat this, consumers turn to reviews, comparisons and product history to gather additional information. While brands have relatively little control over these third-party feedback sites, which are growing considerably in popularity and sophistication, they can play a role in guiding consumers toward the sorts of information they actually need. Rather than overload consumers with too many technical details or side-by-side product comparisons of features that they don’t care about, brands must offer consumers the facts that are relevant to them and their needs.
To do so, brands must know their target consumers. This can help customize search features online to bring up data that simplify choice and ease consumers through the purchase process. It is vital for brands to remain true to their ethos and values; rather than looking for a quick sale, they must be open about who they are and what they have to offer. This sense of authenticity—which includes giving consumers access to negative reviews and critical feedback—leaves consumers with a positive association with the brand and its products, and confidence in the reviews themselves. While a given product may not be right in the short term, openness and authenticity limit purchase regret and bring consumers back to the product in the future.
Not all reviews—and not all reviewers—are equally useful to a given customer. Influencers play a significant role in the research that people do and how they make their decisions. Bearing in mind the goal of creating simplicity and offering meaningful information, brands can create more customized feedback that speaks directly to the needs of the consumer. Disney Parks Mom’s Panel, for example, is a group of veteran Disney travelers who answer questions and offer trip planning guidance to fellow parents interested in a Disney vacation. The panel is organized by Disney but it allows its participants totally autonomy and independence in answering questions and giving advice. Like all influencers, the details that they communicate are often the ones that people really want and need. The moms are trustworthy advisors rather than brand ambassadors, offering customized suggestions and critiques that speak directly to the needs and criteria of other moms. This group simplifies the overwhelming process of planning a vacation, allowing Disney vacations to offer even more choices to its consumers while helping them make decisions rather than be paralyzed by the options available.
The concerns about buyer’s regret and poorly informed decision-making are equally high, if not higher, in B2B purchases, where purchases carry a high degree of potential risk for a large amount of people. Such purchases are often expensive and high impact, making the simplified navigation of choices of utmost importance in the B2B space. Acme Brick is a brick manufacturer that sells to the building trade. The company has realized that its customer base includes both architects and builders, and that they have different sets of technical concerns and considerations. Its website has a drop-down menu that caters to these different constituencies, providing builders with size options and guides to brick construction. Architects are offered software that deals with safety and compliance concerns, as well as details on masonry design. The brick choices remain the same, but the pathways speak to the unique concerns of these different business constituencies from the perspective of experts in these fields. Through these customized offerings, Acme has built a strong reputation that it enhances with a 100-year guarantee, differentiating itself from the industry standard of 3-5 years. While there are numerous choices of brick providers, Acme has used its brand strategy and choice simplification to differentiate itself, create value and emerge as the industry leader in its market.