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Digital Marketing

The Agony Of Choice - How To Make Customers Happy

Gareth Cartman

We're told that choice is a good thing, but overwhelmingly, research is informing us that it's a bad thing. It makes us unhappy, and it leaves us regretful at having made bad decisions. Marketing teams need to stop offering choice and develop brands that consumers trust - or they risk getting left behind.

the agony of choice- how to make customers happy

Like most men, I do what I’m told at home. So when my wife told me to go and get “the normal Colgate” from the supermarket, I didn’t question it.

Of course, there is no normal Colgate. There are 36 different types of Colgate, and none of them are normal. None are ‘just’ toothpaste. 

Simon Sinek mentioned Colgate in his recent book (Start With Why) and it reminded me of my paralysis in front of that ‘Wall of Colgate’. I stood there for what felt like forever, trying to find the toothpaste that was closest to normal, and I agonised over it. 

What did I do? I ended up buying Arm & Hammer who only have two or three different toothpastes. It was easier. 

Of course, that’s not what my wife wanted, but blame Colgate. 

We are constantly told that ‘choice’ is a good thing. For instance, we can choose our Gas and Electricity providers – which apparently is a good thing, except that the majority of people don’t bother. It’s too confusing, it takes up too much of our time, and most of us would rather pay a few extra pounds a year than have to wade through hundreds of different offers that we don’t understand. 

Choice is not always good. 

Choice can make us unhappy. It can leave us feeling stressed and tired. And worse, the more choice you have, the worse your decisions become. 

Barry Schwartz calls it ‘choice overload’. When Amazon sells 1,161 different kinds of toilet brush, which one do you choose? It was never meant to be this hard, and really – what’s the difference? 

I believe this is one reason why we default to brands we feel best with. Notwithstanding their hard work on defining themselves and winning our loyalty – the sheer amount of choice these days, especially for purchases that shouldn’t require so much brain effort, is enough to turn you back into the arms of a reliable, well-known brand. 

The pleasure of not having an alternative

The Hidden Brain podcast recently focused in on some research that showed we are incredibly bad at making decisions about our own future – and what’s more, we’re often quite unhappy about our decisions. The research showed that the more alternatives we have, the more unhappy we become. 

Whereas, if there is no alternative – or if other alternatives are taken away – we’re happier. 

For instance, if you buy a new top from your local clothes shop and you have the option to take it back – you are less likely to feel good in that top than if you had no option to take it back. The lack of an alternative – the irrevocability of your decision – has focused your mind on living with your decision.

The alternative being available, your mind is still working on the other possibilities. You’re wondering whether – if you take it back – you can get the money back, get a different colour, try a different style… you’re less happy with your purchase, even though it’s the same purchase. 

Perhaps now we understand why Mark Zuckerberg only ever wears the same clothes. 

Stop being another choice…

So marketers, we’re faced with this reality – the more you make people choose (and we’re doing this simply by marketing), the unhappier everyone becomes. 

What sort of social responsibility is this? 

We have to make decisions easier for our customers. The more they stop to analyse, the more we paralyse them and potentially drive them into the arms of competitors who are reducing choice and making things easy for people. 

Utility companies are the worst offenders here. Consumers don’t need a choice of tariffs. Banks don’t need to offer us a range of different bank accounts – it’s not the range of choice available that matters, it’s the dependability.

We already have to choose between different companies, why make us choose between different sub-sets of your company? 

Think of those B2B organisations who make us choose immediately between Solutions, Services and Products once we arrive on their site. 

Frankly, I could want one or all of these – the reality is that I’m after someone to solve my problem. When faced with a choice that I have to research, in order to understand what I want, I hit the back button and look for the next search result.

And as I keep saying, that’s not good SEO.

Too many businesses and far too many marketers believe that the consumer is interested in the many sub-brands or sub-categories that you provide when the reality is that they want to not have to make the choice. Very often, they don’t understand the difference between your services – and your having to explain that difference is a barrier to doing business with that customer. 

Let’s look at one industry where the removal of choice is working well – razor blades. 

Why Subscription Models Are Working 

This is just like Colgate. Try buying a razor blade from the supermarket for your wet shave. It’s a nightmare. 4 blades, 5 blades, vibrating blades, disposable blades, flexible blades, curved blades… aaaaarrrrrrggggghhhhh! 

And it’s even worse when you run out of blades because you cannot remember whether your razor blade is Ultimate, Ultimate 2.0, Ultimate Warrior, Mega Ultimate, Extra Ultimate or Extra Ultimate 2.0.

So you buy a new razor, and you feel cheated by the whole experience – not only were you forced into analysis paralysis, but decision fatigue means you made an inefficient, costly decision. 

Don’t start me on shaving creams/gels/etc.

Cornerstone (I have no disclaimer to make here) is a subscription model for shaving, and it’s very clever. There’s no blade madness, they just send you everything you need every 3 or 6 months – replacement blades, shaving gel, etc. and that’s it. 

Even if it costs a little more (in this case I don’t think it does), that doesn’t matter. By removing the uncertainty and hassle of shopping for shaving equipment, they’ve done consumers a favour. 

What’s more, there’s no alternative. It’s one type of blade, one type of gel, one type of aftershave. It’s irrevocable, and you will be happier for it. 

Subscription models are taking off everywhere. Food, toiletries, clothes - you name it, you can probably get it on subscription and never have to make a painful choice again. 

Apart from choosing between subscription services.

Even though they offer fewer products (often just one), they’re popular. Doesn’t that prove that offering 36 types of toothpaste or 10 undistinguishable types of razor blade is a dumb thing to do?

What You Can Do, Marketers 

In order to reduce your choice, I’ve cut it down to three things: 

  • Firstly, reduce your product ranges down to the absolute minimum. Less choice equals more certainty. And more happiness.
  • Secondly, develop your brand and convince people why they should buy from you or work with you. You’ll stand out from the choice-laden crowd by focusing on how much better life will be for your customers if they choose you.
  • Finally, focus on what’s important to your customers – not to your business internally. If those two things are not aligned, you’ll only end up making people unhappy – both customers AND employees.

Choice is A. Bad. Thing. Don’t believe people when they tell you that choice is empowering, it’s not – it bewilders consumers, it makes people unhappy, and it leaves you with regret at having made the wrong choice. And the more we foist choice upon our customers and prospective customers, the worse it gets, and the more we become a part of their decision fatigue and regret. 

That damages your brand.

If you’re going to do one thing today – find a way of helping your customers choose you because they trust you, not because you offer a slightly better product or a wider range of products.

They’ll probably pay more for the pleasure.