From Part I: The Buying and Selling Environment in the Digital Age
Chapter 1: Too Much Choice
In the three short decades between now and the twenty-first century, millions of ordinary, psychologically normal people will face an abrupt collision with the future.
-- Alvin Toffler, opening statement, Future Shock, 1970
Developed economies were largely built on proliferation of choices. The notion of "more is better" became genetic code among twentieth-century consumers growing up in these economies. Now, with each passing day, more and more of these same consumers find that they have run headlong into a wall. The wall is their manageable threshold for the sheer number of decisions they are being asked to make, and they are throwing their hands up in despair. But in this frustration is a win-win opportunity to de-stress customers and, in so doing, to build brand equity and shareholder value.
How did we get to a consumer world of 40,000 products in a supermarket, hundreds of long distance and cellular calling plans, 52 versions of Crest toothpaste, magazine ads that show 37 available configurations of a Dodge Caravan on a single page, and the distribution of a thousand coupons per human being each year in the United States? How did we get to a business world confronted by more than 200 different brands of conference room chairs, 225 different models of mobile phone handsets, and 100-plus brands of desktop and laptop computers -- all marketing for mindshare above the daily din of the purchasing manager's voice mail and e-mail messages? Can the human brain sustain its ability to cope with such overwhelming choice in an age of a networked economy, higher productivity expectations, and shrinking leisure time? Is the resulting level of customer stress really such a big deal?
You bet it is.
Digital-Age Stress: A Day in the Life
To glimpse how radically purchase decisions have changed since publication of Alvin Toffler's seminal Future Shock in 1970, one only needs to peer into the digital-age lives of two people who could be your customers. Meet John Braxton and Lucy Chavez. John is a middle manager in a Fortune 500 company, the father of first- and fourth-grade children, and the husband of a real estate broker who works long hours. (John's wife is among the ranks of 75% of U.S. wives under age 65 who work -- compared to less than 40% in 1970.) Lucy is a thirty-something superstar director of information systems at one of the world's largest banks; her career has been all-consuming, and she hasn't yet had time for marriage or family (though lately she's been all too aware of the ticking of her biological clock).
Note that neither John nor Lucy, though technologically savvy, are bleeding-edge early adopters of new technologies in their personal lives. Like so many readers of this book, they are users of mainstream digital-age technologies like voice mail, cell phones, e-mail, and the Internet, but have not yet plunged deeply into the post-PC world of information appliances. So as you read about their day, remember that still awaiting them in the short-term future is the prospect of learning about and sorting through the burgeoning milieu of home computer networks, digital VCRs, portable Internet music players, wireless Web tablets, wristwatch phones, "smart" picture frames, networked washing machines, personal portable bar code scanners, and the next generation of handheld organizers. Forgetting for a moment that the post-PC world will bring even more clutter and confusion into the picture, let's first look in on John's day.
Before leaving to drive the kids to school on the way to his office, John has only a few minutes to glance at the morning paper while standing at the kitchen counter to wolf down some breakfast cereal. Seeing the business section reminds him that he really ought to invest that $7,000 bonus check he received over the holidays. He doesn't have time to evaluate individual stocks or bonds, so he's been thinking about mutual funds as a simpler approach. Today's newspaper happens to have an article on mutual funds, reporting on the fact that there are now more than 13,000 funds worldwide to choose from. Thirteen thousand! John had no idea, and suddenly what he thought would be an easy way out seemed formidable. What he had hoped could reduce his anxiety had just produced more. (Mutual funds, originally known as investment trusts, have been around for more than a century in the United Kingdom and nearly 80 years in the United States. Yet as recently as 1970, even with all that evolution, there were still only about 500 open-end funds to choose from compared to today's 13,000-plus.)
At the office, John overhears his assistant making airline reservations for his trip to London next month for a trade show. He rushes out from behind his desk to say, "Wait! Let me check my frequent flier miles before you commit to an airline. I think I'm close to a free ticket to Hawaii with either Delta or United, but I can't remember which. And one of them is having that big bonus miles promotion right now on overseas flights. You'll have to call them back after I log onto the Web and check my mileage plan account balances. (When Future Shock was published, there were no frequent flier programs. American Airlines launched the first in 1980.)
At lunch, John and a colleague only have enough time to run across the street to McDonald's. The menu board fills the wall with Value Meals, Chicken McNuggets with a choice of four sauces, Arch Deluxe with or without bacon, Happy Meals with action toys, two kinds of fish filet sandwiches and two kinds of chicken, fat-free Apple bran muffins, multiple salads with multiple dressings, and a host of additional menu variations. The number of choices is sufficiently incomprehensible that John hears himself ordering a number 2 Value Meal even though he doesn't really want or need the large order of fries that comes with it. (When Future Shock was published, "fast" food also implied "uncomplicated." McDonald's 1970 menu board was certainly uncomplicated compared with its nearly 60 different items in 1999 -- not counting nine Value Meal combinations. In contrast, the thriving and popular regional Los Angeles-based In-N-Out Burger chain still had the same menu in 1999 as in 1988; just burgers, cheeseburgers, fries, drinks, and shakes -- not that different from McDonald's 1970 menu.)
After lunch, John's assistant reminds him that today is the enrollment deadline for choosing an HMO in the company health plan, now that Human Resources has added more options for next year with different coverages and different levels of co-payment. (When Future Shock was published, John's company was simply telling employees, "Here is your health benefits package. Your coverage is with ABC Insurance." No HMOs, no co-payments.)
Before leaving the office, John picks up a voice message from his wife asking him to stop at the supermarket to pick up a few simple items to get the family through to the weekend: orange juice, bagels, Philadelphia cream cheese, Crest toothpaste, Coke, and some fresh lettuce for salads. John enters a Safeway supermarket on his way home; it contains about 37,000 different products with distinct SKUs (stockkeeping units). Inside the store, his little 2-inch Post-It Note-size shopping list becomes a 25-minute obstacle course as it explodes into more than 250 choices for only those six items on his list. (In 1970, the same six items combined offered just over 50 choices. The average supermarket contained only about 8,000 SKUs; the approximate number of new grocery product introductions in the United States was 800 in 1970, compared to more than 11,000 in 1998.) Table 1.1 shows a comparison of what John sees this evening, compared to what might have been a typical 1970 selection.
(including tubes and pumps of gel, paste, tartar control, baking soda, glitter for kids, mint or original flavor)
(mint or original, one formula in tubes only)
(six brands; from concentrate or not from concentrate, No Pulp, Some Pulp, Lots of Pulp, Double Vitamin C, Calcium-Fortified, frozen or fresh or fresh squeezed in the store; cartons or plastic bottles or 16-oz. glass bottles or single-serving six-packs or frozen tins; 70 SKUs is orange juice only, not counting blends like orange-pineapple, orange-tangerine, orange-mango, etc.)
(two or three brands plus private label; mostly from concentrate in frozen tins or cartons)
35 varieties, in the adjacent bagel shop (ranging from sugar-free sesame to whole wheat cranberry-orange)
4 varieties (plain, egg, onion, poppy seed)
Philadelphia Cream Cheese
(block or soft or whipped; regular or light; 15 flavors, ranging from Roasted Garlic to Apple Cinnamon to Jalapeno)
(three sizes of one flavor in one foil-wrapped block cheese form)
(5 sizes: 12-OZ. cans or bottles, plus 16.9-oz., 1-liter, 20-OZ., or 2-liter plastic bottles; regular, cherry, diet, diet cherry, caffeine-free diet, caffeine-free regular, etc.)
(just classic Coke in cans or glass bottles; Diet Coke, cherry and caffeine-free versions were not introduced till the 1980s)
9 varieties of whole lettuce plus 40 SKUs of packaged, fresh pre-cut lettuce/salad (among 433 total items in the fresh produce section)
4 varieties of whole lettuce; no packaged, pre-cut product (only about 100 total items in the fresh produce section)
John finally gets to the checkout counter, only to be asked, "Do you have your Safeway Club card? Do you want paper or plastic bags this evening? Credit card or debit card?"
Home at last, John is putting the groceries on the counter next to a large bowl of fresh fruit when he notices the stickers on the bananas are carrying button-size micro-ads for ABC Television. The phone rings. MCI WorldCom is calling to tell him about a new long distance calling plan that is only available to customers of John's bank. With his and his wife's combined income and credit history, they qualify for a Platinum Visa card. The telemarketing rep tells John that if he moves his long distance service from Sprint to MCI and fills out an application for the Platinum Visa before a certain date, he will qualify for a preferred-customer lower APR on his Visa and for MCI's special Platinum calling plan. He responds, "Sorry, I can't deal with this now." (In 1970 there was only one class of BankAmericard before it later became Visa, one class of Master Charge before it later became MasterCard, and one class of American Express until it launched an exclusive Platinum card in 1983). For consumers at the end of the '90s, cards were regular, Gold, and Platinum Visa and MasterCard, branded not only by banks but co-branded as well, plus a Titanium Visa, plus American Express's 20+ options (green, gold, platinum, Optima, Optima Grace, etc.). Together they accounted for the lion's share of nearly 4 billion mail and phone credit card solicitations a year in the U.S. Visa estimates that in the U.S. alone, beyond single-bank cards there were co-branded Visa cards bearing more than 6,000 different brand names by 1999. (And relative to the call John just answered, in 1970 there was only one long distance provider -- AT&T -- and no packaged calling plans; today there are nine brands of long distance service available in his area, each with its own spin on calling plan options and pricing.)
One reason John couldn't deal with that call was because he had just spent two grueling hours the previous evening trying to figure out the best solution for upgrading his wireless phone service from his old analog cellular to digital PCS -- until the formidable tangle of handset features and battery types, pricing plans, calling areas, and special promotions from six different wireless carriers in his area finally led him to conclude, "I'll just keep what I have." (According to a 1998 Wirthlin Worldwide/Ameritech survey, 86% of consumers interested in wireless phone service said they were confused by the choices.)
After dinner, John quickly shuffles through the stack of today's 13 pieces of mail on the table. He notices a Gateway Computer ad on the back cover of PC World magazine. This single page ad contains five logos: Gateway's, the Intel Inside logo, the PC Magazine Editor's Choice seal, Pentium III, and Microsoft Windows. (The clutter of "ingredient branding" barely existed in consumer markets in 1970 beyond Dolby in stereo and DuPont's pioneering ingredient brands like Teflon and Lycra. But after NutraSweet and Intel in the '80s, the floodgates opened and today we have countless ingredient brands splattering their logos on the advertising, packaging, and promotional materials of countless host brands. Sometimes we now see even three layers of branding on the same product. One new personal TV receiver, for example, carries the Philips brand name alongside both the TiVo brand name (the company that licenses its personal TV service and technology to Philips) and the Quantum QuickView brand name (the branded enabling storage technology). The consumer buys a box with three brands emblazoned on it, all vying for mindshare even as they endorse each other.)
On his way to the trash can to throw away the plastic bag that the evening paper came wrapped in, John puts the discardable mail in the paper recycling container and the empty bottles from dinner in the glass recycling container. Later he'll put yesterday's newspaper in the separate newspaper recycling container. (In 1970, in the house that John grew up in, his parents didn't think about recycling -- much less using separate containers for sorting different materials every day -- so everything John just now did would have been one simple trip to the trash can. Today's scenario is certainly progress, but like many other forms of progress has mental clutter consequences.) John then remembers that tomorrow evening he needs to get some new tennis shoes before this weekend's tournament, so he reaches for the Yellow Pages -- only to be faced with a choice between the GTE Everything Pages and the Pacific Bell SMART Yellow Pages. (In 1970, there was only one Yellow Pages brand per market in most U.S. markets. Some now have four different brands distributed to the same household.)
When the kids are finally in bed, John and his wife decide to unwind by vegging out in front of the TV for a little while. John flips on the remote to see the TV Guide Channel's scrolling list of what's on -- on the nearly 300 channels they now get via digital cable. After using up 10 minutes of TV watching time just to sort through some of the choices, John sees that the year's first Monday night football game is on. But his wife thinks that the 1,050 hours of football programming available on ESPN alone this season (not counting the previously broadcast games on ESPN Classic) should provide enough choices for John without her having to watch a game on a work night. (After all, the traditional fall football "season" we faintly recall from 1970 now stretches to six months from early-August preseason opener to the early-February Pro Bowl, overlapping with the extended seasons and expanding leagues of other professional sports to create exponentially more event choices in any given week than ever before.) So John's wife opts instead for a CBS special on stress reduction. During that hour of prime time, 47 commercial/nonprogram messages run -- not including a one-second commercial for Master Locks -- the broadcast equivalent of the banana sticker micro-ads mentioned earlier. (In 1970, there were four TV channels in the average U.S. market. Today's fragmentation of programming explains why Seinfeld, the top-rated sitcom of the '90s, drew only one-third the audience of The Beverly Hillbillies, a top-rated sitcom of the '60s. The average number of commercials in a 1970 prime time hour was 16, less than half of today's number.) Forty minutes later, John has fallen asleep sitting up.
The next morning, in another city on the opposite U.S. coast, Lucy Chavez wakes at 5:15. She feels behind if she's not at the office by 7 A.M. sharp. On days when there's no immediate fire raging, she gives herself the first hour at the office to answer e-mail, check voice mail, skim The Wall Street Journal and 2 or 3 of the 23 trade publications she regularly receives (not counting newsletters). She then jumps on the Internet to scan her customized daily news summary and 3 or 4 of the online information technology magazines out of the 30 or so such sites that she will visit during the course of the week. Since she used her cell phone while driving home from work last night to answer most of the 47 voice messages she received yesterday, there are only 6 new messages so far this morning. But there are 61 new e-mails because she hasn't checked e-mail since 2 p.m. yesterday on her way to a four-hour meeting. (By 1998, the average U.S. office worker received more than 160 messages a day via e-mail, fax, voice mail, and conventional mail, according to a study conducted for Pitney Bowes and The Institute for the Future. Similar statistics were reported in the United Kingdom and Canada. In 1970, fax machines barely even existed -- the successors to the first commercial fax introduced in 1964 at $29,500 were still unaffordable for most companies.)
Tasting the sludge-like remains at the bottom of the office coffeepot, Lucy asks her assistant if he would mind getting her a tall decaf vanilla latte from the espresso cart in the lobby. He queries back, "Nonfat, 1%, 2%, or regular?" When it arrives, Lucy takes it with her to her 9 A.M. briefing of the CIO staff, where she delivers her piece of the updated global status report on how the bank is stretching systems and human resources to simultaneously cope with conversion to the euro and post-Y2K deferred infrastructure upgrades. After her presentation and a brief discussion about how they are doing with merging the organizations and data centers of another sizable bank they recently acquired, she races back to her office, 10 minutes behind schedule, to apologetically begin her 10:30 meeting with an outsourcing consultant. Lucy passes her business card across the desk. In addition to her mailing address, the card shows her company's main phone number, her direct line, fax number, cell phone number, pager number, e-mail address, and Web site URL. (In total, it contained nearly a hundred more alphanumeric characters -- including 40 more digits -- than would have appeared on the business card of one of the same bank's managers in 1970.)
We will spare you the rest of Lucy's day, which is not yet even one-third over. You get the idea without suffering the details of her hectic afternoon and her late evening return to her high-tech condominium. After all, her day probably wasn't that much different than yours.
Toffler's Prescient Prediction
The world of John and Lucy was foreshadowed three decades ago by Alvin Toffler, who we believe coined the term overchoice in the 1960s. There had been mounting fear then that the super-industrial revolution would result in people progressively losing their freedom of choice, as mighty corporations became ever more powerful and the Orwellian vision of Big Brother took hold. Yet, counter to the conventional wisdom of the time, Toffler wrote:
Ironically, the people of the future may suffer not from an absence of choice, but from a paralyzing surfeit of it. They may turn out to be the victims of that peculiar super-industrial dilemma: overchoice.
Only now is it clear how right he was, though there were early clues. Even then Toffler cited the findings of the President's Commission on Mental Health that, by the late '60s, one-quarter of all Americans were suffering from some form of severe emotional stress. And this was before the digital age divorce rates, traffic congestion, and the percentage of people addicted to dangerous drugs all roughly doubled from 1970 levels. It was also well before the corporate downsizing of the 1980s and 1990s that caused so much stress in the many families that lost jobs and in the families of survivors who kept their jobs but had more work to do than ever before. It was also before the average American couple spent less than 6 minutes a day playing with the kids and only 12 minutes a day talking to each other. So imagine today's stress level compared to the level reported in 1970. (Oops -- we don't have to imagine it; we're living it!)
Just how bad is it? In the world's most advanced economies, stress levels ushering in the millennium are staggering. Studies in the '90s showed that 65 to 90% of all American visits to physicians are stress-related. Is it really that much worse now than just 30 years ago? During the first two decades of Monitor, the ongoing consumer research study by Yankelovich Partners that is the longest-running annual survey of American psychographics (launched, coincidentally, in 1970), stress was an also-ran on the list of American preoccupations and concerns. But by the '90s, it was at the top -- dubbed "the number one ?thorn' that consumers are trying to remove" in a recent Yankelovich report. Around the same time, chair massages started popping up everywhere from airports to outdoor festivals.
Meanwhile, the day-to-day complications of customers' lives were occurring against an increasingly dynamic backdrop, where not just technology was spiraling ahead at a dizzying pace, but the very fundamentals that define the world around us were destabilizing. Even maps of the world changed dramatically since 1970 as the number of nations in the United Nations mushroomed from 144 to 185 by 1998. By today's standards, in 1970 telemarketing calls interrupting dinner were rare; by 1999, more than 20 million telemarketing sales calls poured into U.S. homes each day, and the average U.S. household was receiving about 150 pieces of mail a month (far more in affluent Zip codes) to add to the 18 pieces already received at the office each day by the average worker. For homeowners, those calls and mail are coming into houses averaging 2,000 square feet that are almost twice as large as in 1970 (and twice as much to take care of and fill up with stuff).
During the '90s, the simplicity movement in general and the voluntary simplicity movement in particular became a groundswell of determination to reverse the direction of "more is better." An increasing number of middle- and upper-middle-class people began to look at moderating consumption and reducing both physical and emotional clutter as strategies for relieving stress and improving quality of life. The first week of August became Simplify Your Life Week and, by 1995, surveys were showing that 60 to 80% of working people would take a pay cut to be able to work fewer hours. A spate of similarly themed books suddenly crowded the shelves, ironically even pushing the threshold of overchoice on simplicity books (consider Larry Roth's The Simple Life, Deborah Deford's The Simpler Life, and Elaine St. James' Living the Simple Life and Simplify Your Life -- all published or rereleased within the one-year period ending July 1998, and all selling in spite of the confusion because people were sufficiently desperate for relief).
Customers certainly don't have to be actively involved in the simplicity movement for stress to manifest in their shopping behavior. Just look at "cross-shopping" -- the phenomenon of more and more upscale consumers shopping at discount stores such as Target. In spite of a strong economy and negligible inflation, a 1998 survey by WSL Strategic Retail found that 90% of U.S. shoppers with household incomes exceeding $70,000 shop in discount stores -- twice as many as five years before. In reporting on this survey, The New York Times cited the Vanilla Candle Syndrome: "Tired overworked shoppers prefer to save their paychecks for bigger thrills like vacations and massages than to spend them on baby clothes and placemats; and if they cannot afford the vacation or the massage, they go for a scented candle instead."
Meanwhile, the enormous popularity of video games -- an industry whose revenue surpassed that of movie theater box offices during the '90s -- is increasingly due to the need for stress relief. In recent consumer research asking men why they play video games, gamers in their 20s and 30s cited key reasons as "relieving the stress of my workday" and "it relaxes me and helps me unwind."
Time: Mortal Enemy of People and Commerce Alike
Why did we subject you to John's and Lucy's daily war? In a word, empathy. Can you honestly say as a marketer that you have fully taken into account such scenarios -- even though you're likely living some variation of them yourself -- when planning the next battery of customer choices that you will thrust into the marketplace? If so, congratulations! You're in the minority, as many marketers either haven't heard customers' cries for help or have underreacted in adjusting their product development and marketing philosophies.
A key building block of empathy with the customer is fully tapping into time issues. In reporting on the voluntary simplicity movement's growing head of steam in 1997, National Public Radio reporter David Molpus used the phrase "time famine" to introduce the relevance of the subject matter. Time famine. Looking beyond the commercial realm, psychotherapist and author Dr. David Kundtz summed up the stress-producing relationship we have with time in his recent bestseller, Stopping:
Most of us in this hurry-up, e-mail world of instant response are feeling the same sense of overload....Indeed, the primary challenge of successful human life in the postmodern millennial world is the challenge of too much: too much to do; too much to cope with; too much distraction; too much noise; too much demanding our attention; or, for many of us, too many opportunities and too many choices. Too much of everything for the time and energy available.
We all have been feeling, at least on a subliminal level, the choices, demands and complexities of life increase with every passing year. We have more to be, more to do, more places to go, and more things we want or need to accomplish. But the day remains twenty-four hours; the year, the same twelve months. The amount of activity constantly increases, but both the amount of time into which it must fit and the human energy with which it must be met, at best, remain the same.
Commerce is just one contributor to these feelings -- and to the cluttered, burdened psyches to which you are trying to market. Too much choice in commerce is compounded by proliferating choice in noncommercial arenas. Consider just two cornerstones of life in an evolved democracy: schools and elections. In the United States only about 4% of parents sent their kids to private schools in 1970. Usually, the neighborhood school (or a designated school across town where forced busing programs were in effect) was the obvious and only choice. No decision was involved. Today, parents are nearly four times more likely to send their kids to private schools, choosing among as many as two dozen different schools in a metropolitan area -- and first having to decide between secular versus religious, co-ed versus not, how far they are willing to commute, and whether to choose a primary school that goes all the way through high school (or at least middle school) versus only through fifth grade. Meanwhile, even those in the public school system may have to decide whether to apply to an "alternative" public school, get on the waiting list for one of the better public schools outside the neighborhood, or apply for an accelerated program school for a smarter child.
Elections were generally held every two years, with a ballot that could be digested quickly, and perhaps there would be a very occasional special election. But like items in the supermarket, local elections and special referenda have fragmented and proliferated. The November 2000 U.S. presidential election may be the 25th time since the prior presidential election in 1996 that a voter in a large U.S. city has been asked to go to the polls -- and often for a ballot laden with so many arcane measures that the election pamphlet mailed to the home is more than a hundred pages of fine print that many conscientious voters feel obligated to study. (In another National Public Radio report, registered voters in post-election surveys cited "time crunch" as the number one reason for not voting in the 1996 presidential election.)
If it were just the once-in-a-while noncommercial choices like schools and elections adding to the commercial clutter, we would probably be managing better -- but it's also the countless little day-to-day things. More than 300 million Western Europeans must muddle through the unsettling daily challenge of putting aside the currencies they grew up with, adjusting to living and working with, and thinking in terms of, a new monetary unit. As the most developed economies attract more and more language-dependent immigrants, ever larger sectors of the consumer populations in countries like the United States face the daily stress of transactions and buying decisions outside the comfort of their native languages. Meanwhile, it appears that within the next dozen years the United States will run out of 10-digit telephone numbers -- resulting in the need to change all numbers to perhaps 14 digits (e.g., a 5-digit area code and 9-digit number) and, along with that, structurally as well as numerically change countless databases and software applications that involve the use of phone numbers. With such mind-numbing data intake woven into the fabric of each day, it's almost unspeakable to contemplate the 15,000 channels that may become available to a single TV set via satellite technology.
So it isn't just commerce that's stealing time. But the noncommercial clutter certainly makes conducting commerce all the more challenging for customer and marketer alike. No wonder so many Baby Boomers find themselves pining for the simplicity of their parents' lives. When of child-rearing age, their parents not only didn't have to choose a long distance company or a brand of electricity and gas or choose one of those 37 different models of Dodge Caravan but also may have never had to choose an elementary school, sort out myriad child care issues and options, or even live through a single area code split. We won't even think about the contrast of their grandparents' lives, when Coke was available in only one variety and one size (before 1955), and when the prospect of 2-liter plastic bottles of Caffeine-Free Diet Cherry Coke adding more visual clutter to the task of navigating supermarket aisles would have been questioned as perhaps unnecessary.
Time is not a solitary enemy; rather, it is the alchemical stew of time and confusion -- both from commercial and noncommercial overchoice -- that simmers to produce the stressful bewilderment which new marketing strategies must address. This is further compounded by sleep deprivation since, when Americans need more time, nearly half take it out of sleep. The catalysts that convert time into stress, exacerbated by 4 out of 10 Americans admitting they are so sleepy during the day that it interferes with their activities, will be further explored in Chapter 2 as additional clues to what marketers can do to be heroes rather than villains.
On one hand, more and more customers are addicted to speed and insistent on immediacy; on the other, they are desperately searching for ways to slow down or even step off the treadmill. No one likes to acknowledge their own limitations. But with the futility and frustration that would come from trying to stuff the Internet through an old 2,400 baud modem, we try to stuff ever-expanding options into a nonexpanding brain that simply wasn't bioengineered for this. Computer processor speed doubles every 18 months but, as Nobel laureate Arno Penzias points out, "Even Albert Einstein could take only 300 bits per second. No human being can take in more." Natural complexity will continue to increase with the tide of innovation, technology, and infrastructure. Without help from marketers, customers will increasingly find themselves swimming upstream.
The growing gap between what we are able to take in and what we are confronted with taking in has not only emotional and physical costs but a dollar cost as well. The stress epidemic is levying a hefty stress tax on all of us -- costing industry more than $300 billion annually, or nearly $8,000 per worker, in increased health insurance outlays, absenteeism, reduced productivity, burnout, costly mistakes and accidents in the workplace, high employee turnover, poor morale, and problems in the family and with alcohol and drugs.
It's the Number of Decisions, Not Just the Number of Products
Overchoice backlash, of course, is not only propelled by proliferation of products and line extensions but also by any other choices offered elsewhere in the marketing mix that require incremental decision making. As we saw with John and Lucy, the increasing number of product categories -- and options within each category -- not only represent more decisions that customers are being asked to make; they also drive exponential increases in outbound telemarketing calls, direct mail, Web marketing, traditional media advertising, and point-of-sale promotions that all ask customers to react, respond, or make incremental "sub-decisions" in some way. And it's not just decisions on purchase options or whether to enter a sweepstakes. It's also monitoring the decisions already made. (Uh-oh, have I reached the number-of-stays threshold to keep my Swissotel Club Swiss Gold card for next year? Have I exceeded my home office Internet service provider's fixed 50-hour monthly maximum before I start incurring the variable per-additional-hour charge for the rest of this month? If I write this check, will my checking account balance be high enough to avoid those pesky per-check charges and keep my free safe deposit box? The tracking requirements are endless.)
This does not imply that when a customer contact presents a well-targeted offer of real value, it is not a valuable and welcomed service to the customer. But even valuable offers and splintering of options still contribute to the noise that in turn contributes to customer stress and overchoice. And, tragically, sometimes even life-simplifying products come along, only to sabotage themselves with complex pricing schemes, arcane short-term promotions, and less-than-clear advertising. All of this in the aggregate can add insult to injury for overstressed customers -- even for the most passionate champions of capitalism.
The message for marketers is clear: Human capacity for choice is not an infinitely expandable commodity. This is as true for the purchasing vice president of a large corporation as for a housewife or househusband. But empathy for the customer's plight is still lacking. Choice must be proactively managed in the twenty-first century, and this puts contemporary marketing at a crossroads. Those who succeed will increasingly have to market new products and services as replacements for, or consolidators of, existing choices rather than merely as something new.
Whole Life Context
One key to excavating stress-reducing customer solutions is the concept of a whole life context; that is, placing more emphasis on how a marketer's product category interacts with other product categories in the customer's life, and less emphasis on analyzing the category in a silo. Ostensibly, in most categories, customers continue to demand an abundance of choices. Different needs and lifestyles have naturally led to the call for products and services tailored to the individual, with more and more customization. But customers' lives are a complex quilt of hundreds of product categories that they use or are solicited about. And customers' minds are not neatly segregated into separate compartments the way marketers compartmentalize their definitions of product and service categories, sales channels, and communications vehicles. What may be good and desirable in one category compounds over many categories to create dysfunctionality for the individual customer.
A central cause of this is that customers are generally interrogated by market researchers about their preferences within the confines of a single product or service category. But the customer's real life is not so neatly segregated. So while customers continue to demand choice and customization when asked about preferences within that single category, it is the exponential impact of choice in multiple categories that produces most ongoing overchoice stress. Unfortunately, the brand marketer conjures up the inevitable outcome: If you tell me you want more choice in my product category, and then you also tell my peers you want more choice in their categories, we will collectively flood you with an avalanche of decisions. The result is stress-compounding reverse synergy, where more is less as the customer tries to cope.
What Can Be Done
The good news is that there are nearly endless possibilities for creative ways to reduce customer stress.
The Role of Brands
Brands can play a core role in stress reduction, especially when brand managers understand and fully leverage brands as time savers and simplifiers.
Overchoice backlash explains why Yankelovich Partners, based on the findings of Monitor, talked during the '90s about the emerging importance of brands as "one-think shopping." In the context of too much choice, brand becomes the shortest, most efficient path to potential satisfaction and tension release. Monitor found that brands were playing a bigger role as the exasperated consumer's simplified shortcut to a purchase decision; in essence, the prevailing thought was, "I've hit my threshold for comparing all these features; this is the company (brand) I want to do business with (based on my brand perceptions), so let's just get on with it!" Hence, one-think shopping -- the safest way to cut corners in making choices.
This attitude coincided with the consumer losing faith in support systems and thus having to be more self-reliant. As Monitor continued to show waning consumer confidence in everything from travel agents to doctors to advertising, this put more pressure on making choices for one's self. So the one-think shopping that a strong brand can offer has become even more appealing as choices pile up with less reliance on third-party assessment of those choices. More than ever, strong brands are simplifiers. Weaker brands promotionally shouting for attention are not.
The Streamlining Wake-Up Call
Beyond ongoing strengthening of their brands, some leading marketers have already acted on the simplicity imperative. The mid-1990s marked the first wave of blue-chip marketers not only questioning their long-standing more-is-better momentum, but actually beginning to do something about it. IBM's PC Division was struggling in 1994, building an almost incomprehensible number of different models, racking up a billion-dollar operating loss in one year, and getting leapfrogged by Compaq for market leadership. But during the next three years, IBM slashed its number of models from 3,400 to 150, options from 750 to 350, and number of different parts in inventory from 56,000 to 15,000. By 1997, IBM's PC business was growing faster than the industry for the first time since the 1980s.
Meanwhile, Procter & Gamble (P&G) had already turned to simplification to begin reversing its long history of unbridled line extension and product proliferation. When P&G cut its marketing staff by 30% between 1993 and 1995, it did so as the first major packaged goods marketer to commit to weeding out unnecessary variations of products and packaging around the world. Among the first categories in which P&G decided to reduce customer choice was hair care products. Starting from a place where there were more than 30 varieties of Head & Shoulders shampoo alone, P&G reduced formulas and packaging variations until the company's total number of hair care SKUs were cut by half. Less choice for consumers, yet P&G market share has increased steadily every year since. So what may have begun as a cost-cutting measure at P&G became a win-win for consumer and marketer alike. (See Chapter 10 for a more comprehensive look at P&G's Efficient Consumer Response initiative and its impact on shareholder value.) When fewer than 10% of household and personal care products account for more than 80% of sales, that's a pretty strong clue that shoppers' (and retailers') lives are unnecessarily cluttered with product variations few people really care much about.
While P&G was passing out marketing staff pink slips, Burger King eliminated 27 menu items in one year. Refocusing on core products and a simpler menu ended a series of marketing missteps and was considered a key driver of the reversal of Burger King's fortunes, generating double-digit revenue growth internationally by 1997. Also during the mid-1990s, companies as diverse as Sunoco, Nabisco, and General Motors had begun reducing product variations in significant parts of their businesses, and in 1999 Unilever announced a five-year plan to slash its brand portfolio from 1,600 to 100.
Still, as P&G, IBM, Wal-Mart, and Burger King led the way on simplifying, most marketers continued to crank out an unprecedented number of new products, line extensions, and complex promotions. This is somewhat understandable in rapidly evolving technology categories where product cycles are short, obsolescence is quick, and many new brands are vying for market entry, but less understandable in established, more stable categories where sophisticated brand marketers have ruled. Yet Kraft introduced 38 new cheese products in 1997 alone.
It's easy to overemphasize product proliferation as the culprit, when in fact much of the stress issue relates to customer service at least as much as to products. While one company's customer care policies and selling tactics may not change a customer's life that much, many companies -- one company at a time -- can. Telecosm author George Gilder comments on the digital age's state of affairs, and the impending backlash:
The entire economy is riddled with time-wasting routines and regimes that squander much of the time of the average customer. Suffice it to say that the concept of the customer's life span as a crucially scarce resource, indeed the most precious resource of the information economy, has not penetrated to many of the business and governmental institutions....The customer who is well fed, sheltered, and capable of purchasing most of the material boons of life, the customer who grasps the possibilities of the new technologies of the speed of light, is no longer going to put up with standing in unnecessary lines, filling out gratuitous forms, (or) telling telemarketers whether he has had a nice day.
This certainly pertains to after-sale service as well. As a member of United Airlines' Mileage Plus program, this author recently received an account statement in the mail that was accompanied by a 12-page newsletter, a fine-print insert about blackout dates, and no fewer than 13 separate special-offer promotional pieces from MCI, rental car companies, hotels, credit cards, and real estate services -- each with their own special restrictions and instructions. I am a member of several frequent flier programs; what if I received such a formidable, mind-numbing package every month from each of them? In the whole life context of anyone busy enough to be a frequent flier, this "loyal customer" mailing made me feel worse -- not better -- about my relationship with the United brand.
A Stress-Relief Framework: Simplicity Marketing
It seems increasingly clear that simplifying customer decision making can help you survive the inevitable overchoice shakeout that will occur in materially rich but time-starved societies. But there are at least two good reasons why most marketers haven't been more responsive to the customer's plight. One is that, as long as there are shareholder expectations for revenue growth -- which there most always will be -- it seems antithetical to eliminate products and risk that competitors will be left to offer something that some customers may still be interested in buying. But the other reason is that reducing customer stress is a tough, complex job without much of a road map. There have been theoretical frameworks for years on how to strategically extend a product line, but how many road maps have you seen for customer stress reduction?
The remainder of this book provides that road map and dissects Simplicity Marketing as a framework for effective stress relief. Chapter 2 begins by offering fundamental concepts that help you assess the degree to which you're part of the problem or part of the solution, and lays the foundation for the specific Simplicity Marketing strategies that follow.
In this chapter we have brought into focus how more choices in the marketplace, against a backdrop of new technologies and rapid change, can cause a backlash of customer confusion and frustration. We looked into the daily lives of two intelligent, capable people and saw some of the challenges that overchoice can present to them as customers -- and to you as marketers. We explored how the ever-increasing flow of required decisions in choosing and using products can create stress, even for products designed to make life easier. We discussed the aggregate impact of marketing across the many product categories and brands in any one customer's life, and why sensitivity to stress in a whole life context is increasingly important to any brand trying to sell or service that customer. Finally, we glimpsed power in the simplifying role of brands as anchors in the customer's chaotic life, and described how streamlining product lines can improve business performance while bringing more clarity to the customer's world.
Copyright © 2000 by Steven Cristol and Peter Sealey