A profanity called ‘choice’

Photo courtesy: Ng Wei Jiang

We have too much choice for everything. A simple search of ‘Coke’ on the Tesco online grocery webpage leads to results that are spread over 41 pages (a combination of varieties, SKUs and bundles). Levi’s Original 501 jeans is available in 40 varieties (a combination of colours, cuts and types). The Walkers brand is now available in 12 varieties (with multiple flavours in each variety). Pizza Hut sells more than 20 different types of pizzas. Head & Shoulders shampoo is sold in 16 different variants (a combination of SKUs within the range).

The abundance of choice is a very democratic experience for customers and prevents them from getting the perception that they are being closeted. In the age of customisation, it has become an important brand differentiator to be able to cater to “each and every form of need”.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his book Why More is Less, has suggested that the abundance of choices does not make us any efficient. On the contrary, it paralyses us as we procrastinate about the decisions we need to take. Does the fact that you have delayed buying that critical home and contents insurance after being presented with 70 options online sound familiar?

Unbridled innovation is a strong factor that adds to choices, makes them complex to navigate and ends up confusing the consumer. The iconic Malibu Rum’s sluggish growth in 2014–2015 was attributed to too many innovations to add to its range. This profanity called “choice” has now started impeding progress on other aspects of the marketing and brand building functions. Consider the following dilemmas (quite a few of them adapted from my real life experiences):

  • 15% of media investments on a brand for the next year need to be on social media platforms, but there are 10 of them to choose from
  • I have been given £100k to spend on media this year, but my brand has 7 variants and I need to push all of them
  • 80% of the sales of a brand comes from 2–3 variants but we cannot discontinue the weaker variants as they have seasonal peaks and troughs
  • I have just launched a 900ml SKU across the brand portfolio; this would be the 6th SKU across 8 flavours; 900ml is the ideal size to carry (neither too heavy nor to less in quantity) and also the most economical to manufacture
  • There is a need to refresh the brand’s lineup; we are going to invest in rolling out 4 new flavours that are aligned with flavour trends across cuisines

Moving on from brand choices and media choices, it is important to understand the strategic ramifications, which is in portfolio sizes. When a brand has a bulging portfolio, it has made a choice to have a bulging portfolio.

In this 2005 MIT Sloan Management Review article, the authors argue that optimum portfolio size and management can be achieved by looking at two critical things — ‘contribution of each brand to the overall portfolio revenue’ and ‘each brand’s current status and future potential.’

The “choice” beast raises its head across the whole brand management life cycle:

  • Seeking information and making a decision: Too many choices that make the purchase funnel even more disruptive and non-linear
  • Making a purchase: Too many choices leading to last minute postponement, confused purchase decisions or even the abandonment of the whole purchase
  • Customer service: Too many experimental channels combined with traditional ones leading to a confused mix of platforms from where customer service can be conducted
  • Recommendation / loyalty loop: Too many platforms to leave feedback on, shower praise, give strong recommendations, different dimensions of loyalty or signs of it (likes, mentions, retweets, reviews etc.)

From a professional point of view, there is a lot of ‘brand manager bashing’ that is going on in social media, expert forums, thought pieces and the conference circuit. Having worked with brilliant brand managers (both directly and indirectly) as clients, I want to come to their stoic defence.

In any modern marketing function, regardless of whether the organisation is big or small and regardless of the sector, a brand manager has to confront the “profanity called choice” almost everyday. It manifests itself in two dimensions, which push and pull each other constantly:

Abundance of choices to buy (buy side): This is the proverbial ‘fragmentation of choices’ disease that has befallen multiple product categories (examples and scientific validation of which I have mentioned above). There are four factors that feed this malaise:

  • Unbridled innovation = Spewing out range extensions, SKUs at a fast rate
  • Copycat strategies = Competitors copying the same strategies without thinking any further
  • Mistaking a ‘crumb’ for a ‘loaf’ = Growth opportunities need to be fleshed out from under the surface; they don’t lie around in front of everyone
  • Mistaken belief that any form of range extension is a surefire way of increasing market share = The biggest misconception that has enveloped the marketing industry

Abundance of platforms for marketing message delivery (sell side): After negotiating the arduous fragmentation of choices to build a brand that has a meaningful positioning / niche image / radical way of solving a problem, a brand manager has to navigate a minefield of choices around media spend allocation. Consider this dichotomy that does not seem to resonate at all with the sellers of marketing platforms:

MAGNA, IPG Mediabrands research arm predicts global ad spend to slowdown significantly in 2017:

….while the number of digital advertising terminologies / platforms / formats / distribution mediums / targeting strategies that a brand manager now needs to know has grown exponentially (below is a taster):

Efficiency always tries to find efficiency. To avoid the profanity called choice, we need to think about brand building and media planning from an efficiency perspective. This is not a bad word, as it is about making smart and intelligence choices. There is also a strong driver behind this — the fact that consumers are increasingly making efficient choices.

It is an interesting circuitous story that digital advertising should influence consumers to take efficient decisions, but identifying and investing in the right mix of digital platforms is in itself not an efficient process. At a broader level, influencing consumer choice-making is increasingly becoming a complex and challenging endeavour. At the same time, the complexity of understanding and navigating digital marketing platforms is off-puting. So it is a “double whammy” for a brand manager.

“Knowledge is powerful, but if applying that knowledge is like navigating a complex and confusing maze, then that knowledge is useless”

Digital marketing platforms are continually innovating and evolving. A platform that was born with 1–2 functionalities of social engagement, now has around 9–10. This AdWeek article beautifully summarises the war between Snapchat and Instagram / Facebook to dominate online advertising by rolling out features for brands.

So:

Abundance of Choice X 3 (Consumers + Marketing Platforms + Formats of Marketing Platforms) = Fragmented Media Allocation and Spend + Inconsistent delivery + Inconsistent brand presence + Dilution of brand equity

The most apt ending for this article is the visual below from HBR, which is quite self-explanatory in terms of the crisis brand manager’s face:

This article was originally published on LinkedIn Publishing on 24th March, 2017

Strategy Consultant