Choices, choices
Supermarkets offer a lot of variety. Too much, perhaps. (photo via The Economist)

Our capitalist upbringings have taught us that choice is a good thing. We have choice of everything we buy and consume, from toothpaste, to coffee, to deodorant. And that’s just before getting dressed in the morning. Choice is what drives our brand-focused consumer economy. In fact, the story of brands is very much a tale of emerging choice — the general stores of the 19th century stocked commodity products like soap, cereal, and clothes, and over time we were introduced to Ivory, Kellogg’s, and Levi’s alongside the generic competitors.

Choices, choices
How many varieties of jam do we need? (photo via The Daily Mail)

But we have departed quite a bit from the scrappy innocence of Victorian free enterprise. These days, supermarket shelves are crammed with choices upon choices of similar brands in any given category. We give consumers too much choice, and in many cases they are unable to make an informed decision about which brands to buy be faithful to. This is called the Tyranny of Choice, the feeling being overwhelmed by the seemingly endless number of choices, so indistinguishable from one another that we consumers can’t help but feel as we’re on the sticky end of an elaborate scam. The concept isn’t new, having been discussed in Scientific American, The Economist, and the BBC, to cite a few media examples.

This is rather timely in my own life as I am the new owner of a cat. Choosing a brand of cat food might seem like a non-choice, but being a the cautious consumer, I had to do my own research. Next thing I know, I’m caught in a bizarre Möbius Strip of reviews and price comparison and rumours and recommendations. Do I go with a cheap supermarket brand or a niche pet store brand? Do I take the recommendation of science-focused vets or obsessive cat-lovers? And what about organic cat food, is it worth the money? Choices, choices, choices.

Choices, choices
An easy choice for the cat. (photo via Suite101)

This isn’t unique to cat food, of course. Coffee is a classic example; where once the choice was limited to your preferences of milk and sugar, we may now choose the nation or origin, the caffeine strength, the flavour intensity, the fineness of the grind, and if said coffee is organic or fair trade certified. Yikes. Cleaning products are another great example of over-choice. Every brand vaguely associated with cleaning now offers a full range of products from toilet cleaners to air freshners to disinfecting wipes. Since they all do pretty much the same thing, which is best for which purpose? Better ask somebody.

Trouble is, even in this Google-soaked era, it’s difficult to find insight on brands and products. Information, yes, but insight takes some digging. To solve my cat food conundrum I posted a question on in the cats category, and received dozens of comments within hours. Question-asking sites like Quora and Yahoo! Answers are gaining momentum by the minute. (Some say this form of ‘social search’ is the next billion-dollar industry, but let’s leave that for another article.) My first resource for finding recommendations and answers is usually Twitter, where among my 744 followers someone is sure to have been in my predicament and lived to tell the tale. Consumer Reports is an old standby for product reviews, and Amazon can be very useful for reading user reactions to a specific product or model.

How do we as brand stewards avoid the Tyranny of Choice for our consumers? One dramatic but obvious way is to limit the number of brand extensions. Do we really need 14 varieties of trigger-spray glass cleaner in one brand portfolio? Do we need to have 4 strengths of caffeine defining our coffee? Take the bold step of recommending to your client or brand team that you limit, not extend, the number of products and SKUs for any given brand. Focus instead on owning a category and asserting yours as the best brand. Be the best air freshner, fair trade coffee, or dry food for indoor cats. Single focus, reduced choice, happy consumers. Sic semper tyrannis.

This article also appears on The Next Big Design, the blog of the FUSE Conference discussing design, branding, and business.