“Choice” is a loaded word.

For marketers, choosing is the ultimate litmus test.

Marketing is all about understanding customer needs, then delivering products and services to satisfy those demands.

Understanding how people choose is therefore critically important.

Is marketing doing a good job understanding how people choose?

Pretty sure the answer is no.

Let’s start the discussion by looking at a picture.

A picture of the typical grocery store (actually two photos).


Why a grocery store?

The grocery store is perhaps one of the most neurologically challenging environments in the world.

Typical grocery stores stock between 15,000 and 60,000 different products.

There is no way the brain can take in all those potential choices effectively.

Too much choice can confuse people…and confused people almost never buy.

Even when there are only two options, choosing is typically not as easy – or as funny – decision posed by British comedian Eddie Izard in his famous “Cake or Death” routine.



Perhaps a more realistic (but less funny) question:

How did you choose what you ate for lunch today?

Or, how did you make the decision of where to go to college?

Overcoming Overwhelming Choice

If this is the world we live in, how does marketing overcome the “Overwhelming Choice Effect”?

For new products – or even existing ones – how can brands stand out command attention and convey information?

The answer is simple and complex all at once.

The complex part of the answer is easy to say and hard to do.

Marketers must better understand human behavior to deliver better brands.

See, simple.

And, complex.

Doing this requires a deep understanding of the market (channels, category, competition, customers, and more), as well as human and cultural insights (need-states, occasions, buying and usage patterns plus more).

Discovering, validating and applying this knowledge leads to great opportunity.

But, the path to understanding is a murky one.

Consumers often tell marketers a very different story versus what they actually buy.

Recent data indicates that 36% of adults in the US are considered obese.

Yet, a recent NPR poll found that 75% of people said their diets were good, very good or excellent.

Some of this may be different definitions and understanding of what is truly “healthy”.

Much of this is that people say one thing and do another.

Fortunately today, there are many techniques that get beyond self-reported survey data to help understand actual consumer and shopper behavior.

These include eye-tracking studies, neuroscience studies, functional MRIs, galvanic skin response, biometric response and virtual reality.

Employing these tactics can help unearth previously unknowable insights.

Moving from Knowledge to Buying

When thinking about buying, knowledge is not enough.

The knowledge must be applied to better help.

Too many categories are merchandised (online or in store) with little but cursory thought as to how shoppers buy.

Curating multiple choices are important to be most effective.

Let’s go back to a classic example of CPG merchandising to prove the point.

This canned soup category began in the 19th century.  

Hundred of SKUs exist between the big branded players and private label.

Yet, they all look very similar.

In fact, it is a category that led to a term called ‘navigational disorientation’.

Early in the decade, Campbell’s Soup made drastic improvements to the canned soup category in store.

This resulted in improved sales.

But a follow-up study in the mid-2000’s found that even with major merchandising improvements, people still found the soup category confusing and frustrating to shop.

Too much choice confuses people…and confused people almost never buy

Working with partners in the retail and research world – and after validating via biometric response and virtual reality, Campbell’s made further improvements that led to improved shopper results.

Many times, e-commerce is no better.

Search is often made easier by allowing shoppers to select by brand, category, price or popularity.

But, it’s often done in a clunky many. And online stores still offer hundreds of choices to cull through.

There is a volume of tools available for online stores to do exactly what Campbell’s did in store (heat maps, click-stream testing, and many other optimization platforms).

The benefit that exists for online commerce is that AB Testing allows for constant modification and the ability to see results in real time.

This is something that can constantly be tweaked to become increasingly effective.

Choosing where to Choose

The key is not to just offer a great product, nor just a compelling Reason to Buy.

It is important that ‘how people choose’ be understood and used throughout the marketing cycle.