What will make consumers choose your brand?

Harish Bhat | Updated on May 18, 2018 Published on May 17, 2018

Mind-boggling array of choices

Understanding the factors affecting choice can help marketers make better decisions

Have you heard of Prof Sheena Iyengar, one of the world’s leading experts on choice? Iyengar is best known to marketers as the psychologist who designed and performed the famous “Jam Experiment”, which proved that people do not like too much choice. Here is the story.

The jam session

Nearly two decades ago, at a supermarket in San Francisco, Iyengar and her researchers set up a tasting booth at the entrance of a store, offering shoppers various flavours of jam. For a few hours, shoppers were offered the choice of tasting from a very wide range of 24 flavours. Thereafter, for the rest of the time, only six flavours were offered. What the researchers then discovered was very interesting. More people stopped by if there was a wider range of jams on offer. However, after the taste test, an amazing thing happened. Thirty per cent of the people who had seen the smaller assortment of six jams actually bought jam, compared to just 3 per cent of the people who had seen the much larger assortment. So, the larger array may have attracted more attention, but it was the smaller range which had triggered far greater purchase – by a big factor of ten times!

This now iconic study helped highlight, for the first time, a valuable aspect of consumer choice. A moderate range of options helps people decide exactly what to buy, particularly in many low-involvement product categories. A very wide range of options, though, confuses consumers, hampers their ability to choose and therefore generally makes them unhappy. As Sheena Iyengar herself says: “When people are given a moderate number of options (4 to 6) rather than a large number (20 to 30), they are more likely to make a choice, are more confident in their decisions, and are happier with what they choose.”

This is one of many fascinating insights relating to choice contained in Iyengar’s excellent book, The Art of Choosing. I have just completed reading this book, and recommend it strongly to anyone who aspires to be a successful marketer – because it asks all the right questions about choice, and also presents the answers to us with easily understandable yet deeply compelling logic. Indeed, the book goes well beyond consumer choice and marketing, and provides us a beautiful, thought-provoking guide to making choices in various aspects of our lives.

An interesting aspect of choice which the book discusses is the two systems of choosing that people employ.

Automatic and reflective choice

First, the automatic system, which makes us act even before we know what is really causing us to act, and which is anchored entirely in the present. This is the system that often triggers my impulse buying of a chunky chocolate bar near the supermarket check-out counter, or which led my wife to eat three additional rich jalebis for dessert at a wedding lunch last weekend. Even a deliberate choice, like buying a relatively pricey dress or an expensive painting, may be the result of this system, because the decision is based on a strong, sub-conscious attraction.

Second, the reflective system, where we make choices based not on temptation but on carefully considered logic and reason. This is the system where we consider the impact of our choice. Hence, the reflective system leads us to decide that we should eat just one jalebi and stop, or not eat one at all today, because we are committed to losing weight this month. This system also makes us carefully read all the ingredients on a pack of snacks before we decide to eventually put it into our shopping basket.

Marketers can appeal very effectively to both the automatic and the reflective system of consumer choices. By placing the chocolate (or similar low-involvement, high-temptation products) near the check-out counter, or by visually emphasising the sensual attraction of the pricey dress, retailers can successfully trigger the automatic system. On the other hand, by highlighting the advantages of various scientific ingredients of a nourishing shampoo in a very easy-to-read manner, or listing the technological features of a television set, brands can cater to the reflective system of choosing.

What however struck me as most insightful is that people tend to feel happiest when their automatic and reflective systems are fully in alignment with each other – in other words, they would have arrived at the same choice through both these systems. Hence, it would be very useful for marketers to help consumers get to this happy point of alignment, because such happiness is often a good step towards strong brand loyalty. For instance, a marketer of ice-cream could do this by emphasising both the mouth-watering delicious taste of the product (which would trigger the automatic system) as well as the healthy fresh cow’s milk and probiotic ingredients which it contains (which would cater to the reflective system). The consumer is then totally happy, because eating that ice-cream now becomes both an automatic and reflective choice.

Hard choices

The book goes on to discuss difficult choices. A choice may sometimes be difficult (though not terribly important at all) because there is no meaningful difference between two low-involvement products. For instance, choosing between two brands of soft drinks virtually similar in taste. In such a case, marketers could use several priming techniques, to influence choice – including celebrity brand ambassadors, or appealing words and images, leading us to using our automatic system.

However, a choice may also be difficult because it is an important or high-involvement decision, such as deciding which home property or life insurance policy to buy, or whether to opt for a potentially risky surgery. In such cases, consumers prefer to exercise such choice with outside expert help. Therefore, the marketer (or doctor, in the case of the surgery) has to serve as a genuine source of expertise, who guides consumers with care, and helps them decide using their reflective system of choice.

And then, sometimes, there are unpleasant choices, where all the available options are disagreeable, though perhaps to varying degrees. In such cases, consumers may actually prefer others to make the choice for them, because making the choice yourself always leaves a bad taste in the mouth. You may think such situations are rare, but when you read this book, you will discover how common they can actually be. The intriguing question I will leave you with – in such cases, how best can marketers make the choice, on behalf of their consumers?

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar is a refreshing exploration of choice, an important subject not just for marketers, but for everyone. I think you will find this book a good choice, too.

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. These are his personal views.

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Published on May 17, 2018
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