So many choices, too many decisions

Thanks for choosing to read this. Or perhaps you have parked it in an inbox for later. Or maybe you are waiting for a few more lines before deciding whether to read to the end? If so, you are not alone in finding it hard to make a decision – nearly half of consumers feel overwhelmed by the choices facing them.

According to a survey carried out by University of Bristol, supported by Confused.com, among nearly 6,000 consumers, 47 per cent felt unable to make decisions in everyday life. The explosion of new technology, product options and even technology is becoming a barrier, rather than an enabler. Predictive texting, smart/casual dress options, flat-pack furniture? You’ve just lost half the population. Politics and bankers? Two-thirds are now getting that headachey feeling.

The researchers have coined a term for this group – “indeciders”. It is tempting to see a link between this bafflement with the modern world and the “affluenza” spotted by Oliver James in the pre-crash consumer society. It is no longer enough to just be part of the connected society, for example, you also need to be constantly tweeting, updating your Facebook profile and writing your bog. That’s assuming you have managed to buy the right type of smart phone, of course.

The result is that consumers feel overloaded, rather than empowered. The options available leave them feeling anxious, rather than fulfilled. Eventually, some of them stop making decisions altogether and either buy what is cheapest or easiest to get hold of – or perhaps stop buying altogether.

Marketing has been a major contributor to this confusion. Sometimes it is deliberate, as when services are bundled together to disguise price or commoditised offers. At other times, it is just that there is so little of real interest to say about a product. When a white cover for a mobile phone is described as “exclusive”, because just one network has it on offer, it is little wonder that many consumers feel bemused.

The concept of choice has been at the heart of many marketing strategies, from line extensions to product features. In communicating these choices, marketers have crowded the marketplace. You often hear how consumers are exposed to 3,500 marketing messages everyday. While marketers may complain of clutter and the need to cut through, you often sense they are quite proud of this fact.

All of which seems very pre-September 2007. In the current era of austerity, the focus should be on core propositions – identifying what is truly essential, different and valuable in what the brand has to offer. Measuring how well customers actually understand what they are being offered – and whether marketing has made it easier or harder to choose – should be a key metric for our times.

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