Abundance In the Land of Plenty: How choice kills decision

January 13, 2013 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

The Atlantic ran an excellent piece titled, The Irrational Consumer: Why Economics Is Dead Wrong About How We Make Choices.” If you have ten minutes, it’s worth reading, but I’ve summarized five key takeaways:

  1. Too much choice stops the decision-making process cold. It’s counterintuitive because people say they want abundant choice, but when presented with too many options, the research (which now includes conclusive fMRI brain scans) clearly shows that consumers simply don’t decide. In the fast food arena, In-N-Out Burger is a great example. The simplicity of the chain’s offerings speeds customer choice, reduces operational friction, and has helped make the brand wildly popular.


  1. People look for reassurance when making decisions. They rely on mental shortcuts, which include cues from friends and family; guarantees; and expert opinions to relieve themselves of the burden of the deep processing required for more involved decisions. When marketers use tactics that offer customers these kinds of shortcuts, they’re more successful.
  2. The “availability bias” is one of the keys for successful marketing. Based on all the media coverage of firearms recently, it’s easy to believe that every stranger we meet is packing heat. That’s a perfect example of the “availability bias.” The more pervasive and consistent a message is, the more credible we find it. Consistent promotion is critical for creating this effect for brands. The number of store locations, media weight, and amount of press coverage all contribute to making a marketer’s message “available” to consumers. Positive familiarity creates affinity and credibility for a brand, which leads to preference.
  3. Bargains are always appealing. This may seem obvious, but many marketers forget this basic tenant. JCPenney is a prime example. CEO Ron Jonson’s ill-informed decision not to move away from sales in favor of everyday low pricing was devastating for the company. In fact, Penney’s is one of the brands pundits say will disappear at the end of 2013 if the course is not changed. Packing promotions to preserve margin while leveraging the appeal of bargains is more art than science, but there’s no denying its effectiveness
  4. People don’t like to wait. Again, it seems obvious, but anything marketers can do to simply facilitate and speed access to the things customers want will improve results.

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If you’re interested in diving deeper into the subject, a great place to start is with the work of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his latest book,Thinking Fast, And Slow. For a quicker, more digestible look at these and related topics, check out, Brainfluence: 100 Ways To Persuade And Convince Consumers With Neuromarketing by Roger Dooley.


Mike Sullivan is president of LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. For more challenger insights subscribe to our blog, BARK! and read these recent posts:

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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