Tuesday, 13 November 2012

What is the optimal level of consumer choice?

A recent TED talk by Tim Leberecht, Chief Marketing Officer of the global design and innovation firm called Frog, sparked up many thought provoking ideas around marketing practices. It begun by controversially suggesting companies never had control over their brands, at least outside the boundaries of their corporations, in the actual market place. He pointed out the recent digital technology advances actually enabled marketers to gain a slight degree of control by being able to join the conversation amongst members of the audience and put in place systems to deliver outcomes shaped by them. Letting go of the illusion of control in a controlled manner is, as suggested, a challenging concept.

Most of us are quite familiar with the concepts of increasing collaboration, co-creation and crowd sourcing initiatives popping up in numerous industries. From customizing every detail of a pair of shoes at the Shoes of Prey website to choosing the products you want to get price discounts in the Coles my5 rewards scheme, there is an explosion of choice facilitated by online platforms. However, the opposite strategy can be equally successful, and this is one of the fascinating points from the video.

Amidst so many options of products and services, people can find themselves overwhelmed and see the lack of choice as an attractive proposition. With the call for being pro-active, taking control and making so many immediate decisions in everyday work life, people have begun to value the opposite approach in their personal lives. Brands and companies, which are well recognized in their field, can offer customers less control allowing them to sit back and enjoy the element of surprise and amusement from having nearly no input in making decisions.

Similarly to the tourism company mentioned in the video, Nextpedition, which organizes mystery trips but does not tell the destination to the customer until the very last minute, other businesses have also opted to provide their customers with less and even no choice. Cafe Patricia in Melbourne is a cappuccino-free zone offering good coffee by simplifying the choice: black, white or filter. At the other end of the scale, the Parisian three-star Michelin restaurant, L'Astrance, offers no choice at all on its menu with different produce picked up from markets by the chef on the day. Less can indeed be more.

The same happens in people’s relationships. I recall a friend whose partner is a real foodie and very much enjoys trying out new dishes but, when presented with too many choices, can easily get overwhelmed and take a long time to make a decision. At the beginning of their relationship, he would courteously wait for her to examine each item on the menu. A few months later, he learned to give her only three options of everything and decisions were reached before he starved and the restaurant kitchens were closed. As the French saying goes: ‘trop de choix tue le choix’, meaning too much choice kills the choice.

Relationships between consumers and brands can also mirror relationships between two people as we explored in a consumer behavior case study about the relational role of brands. Just like in human interactions, people can have relationships with brands that resemble for example childhood friendships such as their favorite candy brand, arranged marriages like using a toothpaste brand just because their partner likes it, and even flings when for example drinking a beer brand only during the summer months.

The talk calls for authenticity of a brand in the same way we value this trait in people: ‘what is interesting about you is ‘you’. With this in mind, what degree of choice is ideal for your brand proposition – plenty of options, even customization, or a narrower approach?

And to wrap this up in the spirit of the talk (embracing the lack of control), we would love to know what is a topic you would like us to write about. What marketing related subjects fascinate you?

Adriana Heinzen
Current student in the Master of Marketing program at the University of Sydney Business School

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