Give Consumers Something More by Offering Fewer Choices

Jonathan Salem Baskin on Marketing and Leadership

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Word has it that retailers are cutting back on the variety they offer in various categories: 14% fewer pain-reliever choices at Rite Aid; less than half the super-glue options at Walgreen's; Kroger contemplating axing almost a third of its cereals. Overall choices could be down 15% by this time next year, according to The Wall Street Journal.

So it's going to be harder to get various permutations of your brands on shelf and less likely that comparisons to competitors will drive purchase decisions (what good is a contrast to a product that might not even appear at the point of sale?).

And I think it's a good thing.

Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin is the author of "Branding Only Works on Cattle" and blogs about marketing at Dim Bulb.
An entire theology exists for such brand propagation -- Al Ries has brilliantly captured the madness of megabranding on these very pages -- and consultants, advertising agencies, and digital marketers are happy to spend your money trying to make it matter. This has led to lots of brands getting somewhat introspective, if not just a little self-possessed. I know extensions and adaptations have been directed at ever-finer slices of consumer segments, but wasn't the real driver of this strategy a need to come up with something new to talk about? Lining up more labels on a shelf didn't hurt, either. I'm just not sure it ever mattered the way it was supposed to or that it works much at all anymore.

It's surprising that even in 2009, a lot of branding is focused on consumer wants, not needs. There's never been a consumer outcry for 25 different versions of dental floss or razors that promised marginally closer shaves. The presumption is that adding or changing functional attributes is an excuse to promote the associative, emotional benefits that, according to our long-held beliefs, drive preference. So much of this year's marketing spend has been about "brands" and not about "reality."

Questions to ask about choice

DIFFERENTIATION: If it's not obvious and stated in plain English, is it real?

EXTENSION: When is segmenting your consumers needlessly dividing them?

CONFUSION: How can one brand do more than a few things well?

SUSTAINABILITY: Can you make a current product more relevant vs. inventing a new one?

And we're surprised when consumers reject paid media and value the social stuff as nothing more than free? Is it possible that we haven't been giving them any information they think is worth anything? Maybe retailers are telling us that "the message is the message," whether in marketing communications or in the ingredients and/or configurations of products.

Everything on shelf is either new, enhanced, improved or combined with something that does two things instead of one, and every brand is alternately creative, funny or otherwise doing whatever it takes to do battle within its category. Only we can win those battles and still lose the war, which is ultimately fought at the point of sale: Consumers pick something instead of something else. So brands need to compete for relevance to that prompt, not with each other.

Fewer choices could mean faster and more frequent purchase decisions, and getting on shelf could require that brands contribute clearly and directly to that behavior. That'll require changes to how we develop products and go about marketing, whether in technology, services or consumer package goods.

And I think it's a good thing.

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