Based in Sydney, Australia, Foundry is a blog by Rebecca Thao. Her posts explore modern architecture through photos and quotes by influential architects, engineers, and artists.

Chasing Novelty and Consumer Choice

Have you noticed how novelty and choice have completely taken over consumer markets recently? There's always a new kind of burger at the burger joint. It's the same burger, but now it has cream cheese... for a limited time of course. There is always a new kind of toothpaste with "new" features. Apparently I haven't really been cleaning my teeth with the old one. Even hitting up a new car lot these days will surprise you. We started with sedans, and then we got the truck, and then the SUV and the van, and then the crossover, and then the Hyrbid, and then... it just never ends. Anyone needing a hybrid crossover with flex fuel options? You want that in the ES, LS, LX, or sport package?

It appears that the more saturated and competitive a market becomes, the more novelty begins to become a factor. Before novelty, we chased price. Everyone wanted to be the low cost provider. This, of course, began leading to more and more "low cost guarantees", which economics tells us will actually increase prices across a given market. If anything, it stabilizes them. And with the loss of potency on price, we've turned to novelty. Blech.

The problem with novelty is it doesn't actually create any value. Consider the Hamburger Helper brand from Betty Crocker. A few years ago, sales where slipping on the iconic brand. A new product lead was brought in to fix the situation, and so she started with some marketing research. What she learned was that purchasers had become so confused by the amount of options and choices, they weren't buying the product. There was regular feedback like, "I only want one or two flavors and I can never find them". Carnegie Mellon research suggests a choice paralysis exists, in which too many choices cause us to simply not chose anything at all. Further, Psychology and consumer trends author Barry Schwartz wrote the following:

Early decision-making research by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed that people respond much more strongly to losses (of choice) than gains. Similarly, my co-workers and I believe that feelings of well-being initially rise as choice increases but then level off quickly. Meanwhile, although zero choice evokes virtually infinite unhappiness, bad feelings escalate as we go from having few choices to many. The net result is that, at some point, added choice only decreases happiness.  -B.S.

So there are three major issues with constantly chasing novelty and further consumer choice. First, it doesn't make people happier. A few choices increase happiness, but after that it's all down hill. Secondly, too many choices create decision paralysis and actually decreases the likeliness of any choice at all. That is, we will choose nothing. Finally, increasing choice also increases potential for disappointment. As the research shows, we are more likely to experience negative emotions when choices are removed. Throwing in the novelty of "specials", "limited time", and "surprises", will simply drive disappointment. I don't think any of us want to be in the business of disappointing people.

What we want are a few choices and a lot of value. Even if you can convince customers that your little upgraded "novelty" feature actually adds value to your product, they will learn quickly that it doesn't. We are so much better served by building authentic relationships over consistent products with exceptional value. A little surprise and delight is always a good thing, but generally, people like consistency.

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