June 28, 2012

Are Brands Overwhelming Consumers with Choice and Communication?

Last weekend, I was given the duty of visiting our local Wal-Mart to purchase household necessities.  A list was provided, and out the door I went, believing this would not be a problem.  One of the first things on my list was “toothpaste,” so I visited that aisle, which is where my problems started.  There appeared to be hundreds of choices – from mint, gel, blue, green, whitening, extra-whitening, tartar control and on and on.

That said, my list simply read “toothpaste.”

Needless to say, I was dumbfounded not only by the amount of the choices, but by which one I was supposed to purchase.  After several minutes of consideration and indecisiveness I almost gave up, but finally grabbed one that looked right and went on my way.  Naturally, this process (sans toothpaste) was repeated several times over during my trip.

Later in the day, I came across several articles in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) discussing this same type of situation and the number of brands that are inundating consumers with a vast amount of choices. In many cases, this is considered “choice overload.” The HBR conducted a survey of 7,000 consumers and found that a large majority of them had abandoned the traditional “purchase funnel” altogether, embarking on new types of purchase paths.  One of the main reasons for this is a “cognitive overload” due, in large part, to marketer’s overwhelming efforts to engage with them.

Most consumers today are shying away from the over-abundance of choices and instead are looking for simplicity and ease of decision-making.  With the hectic life most consumers lead, the last thing they want to do is spend multiple minutes on each product choice (in my case, spending fifteen minutes in a toothpaste aisle to make a choice was ridiculous).

This same type of over-engagement is happening on a local level and in the social sphere.  According to the Harvard study, most marketers still believe that the best way to keep customers is by engaging them, interacting as much as possible in order to create relationships.  However, this is rarely the case, especially with social media.  The study found that contrary to popular belief, the majority of consumers (77%) do not want to have a “relationship” with a brand.  Relationships are reserved for family and friends, not businesses.  Of those who did say they had a brand relationship, the main reason was because of shared values (64%), infrequent engagement or interaction.  For example, consumers may share the value with Pedigree that all dogs deserve a loving home and identify with Pedigree for that reason, not because Pedigree sends multiple emails or has several lines of “touch points” with the consumer.  What consumers really want from brands, especially when engaging them on a social site, is to get coupons and discounts, not posts and messages.

The over-engagement by brands and the increasing level of choices and options may very well be doing more damage than help to a brand.  Does this mean brands should immediately cut the quantity of communications with consumers?  Not necessarily, but following are nuggets all brands should consider:

  • What percent of consumers are “relationship-oriented” and which are not?  Each group should be marketed to differently based on these parameters.
  • What shared value might consumers have?  Many brands (like Pedigree and Southwest) market heavily upon these shared values, helping make their consumers more loyal.
  • Is current social engagement beneficial?  Posting on social sites should be more than just talking.
    Both types of consumers should be engaged by posting shared values and giving monetary rewards to fans and friends.

In the end, it is not the brand with the most communication that will win with consumers, but the brand that communicates smartly and effectively by knowing who they are talking to and what that person wants to hear.

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