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Following our Global Trends Briefing in 2018, we asked our attendees to ‘choose’ a global trend for us to explore in 2019, and ‘choice’ was the winner.

Choice won the vote because of its relevancy and complexity in today’s consumer landscape. With so much NPD and ease of access to new products and services, ‘choice’ is both a celebration and a burden for consumers. As a response, we are seeing the likes of Google, Alexa, influencers and algorithms offering curated and personalised options to solve the paradox of choice. However, for brands this poses a challenge: how do we stay in consumers’ increasingly discerning consideration sets?

To answer this, we set off to explore what choice means at a universal level, to understand why having too much choice is affecting us in a negative way, before then exploring how choice and ‘choice overload’ is viewed in the UK, as well as four other key markets.

Exploring how choice overload is manifesting both globally and locally is key for brands to understand if they want to engage with consumers in a meaningful way and ultimately help them navigate their way through the noise.

We are going to be presenting our trend report with full findings, as well as exploring the implications for global brands in more detail in London on the 15th May and Manchester on the 22nd May 2019. Click here find out more about the event and book your place.

The Paradox of Choice 

Our need for choice is inherently important as it gives us a feeling of freedom and personal responsibility, and from this perspective, choice seems like it is fundamental to our happiness.

However, too much choice can evoke negative emotions and many studies exist which illustrate the damaging effects of choice on human happiness. This is the phenomenon of ‘choice overload.’ For example, according to Barry Schwartz, a leading American psychologist, having lots of choice increases our pressure to weigh up all the options in detail in order to choose the ‘perfect’ one – which often does not exist. This leads to dissatisfaction and self-doubt over our final decision. Furthermore, too much choice can lead to ‘behavioural paralyses’ – a term coined for people so overwhelmed by options they fail to make a decision all together.

Another thought-leader in this area, Sheena Iyengar, drew similar findings in her seminal study on jams. In the study, consumers were presented with either 24 or six types of jam at a food market. Whilst more consumers were initially attracted to the larger display of jams, only 3% made a purchase here, in contrast to 30% from the smaller selection.

Both of these studies highlight the damaging effects of excessive choice. It either produces ‘choice paralyses’ – preventing us from making a decision, or it reduces our satisfaction when we do make a decision, making us question whether we made the right choice.


An Increasing Issue

Whilst brands and marketers have understood ‘the paradox of choice’ for some time, now, it’s arguably more of a problem than ever before. We live in a world dominated by the likes of Amazon and Alibaba, where consumers are accustomed to scrolling through lists of products – making trade-offs, comparisons, and weighing up the potential negative consequences and risks associated with choosing one product over another. We are expending a mass of mental energy on these decisions, and it can be counter-intuitive. As more brands, options and NPD become available to us, the risk of choice overload is becoming more immediate.

Worryingly, a recent global report found that 54% of consumers have stopped purchasing products from a brand or retailer website because choosing the right product was too difficult. Similarly, 42% admitted to abandoning their cart altogether.


Understanding Changing Consumer Needs

Beyond the sheer volume of choices that we are faced with on a daily basis, the context of what is happening around us is further influencing how we feel about, and react to choice overload.

Take the UK for example – our research shows that UK respondents were the most frustrated when it comes to choice and this isn’t surprising given that a looming Brexit is creating uncertain times in the UK. As a result, British people are becoming increasingly negative towards choice as people grapple with big life decisions and concerns mount over the social and economic implications of leaving the EU.

This is having an effect on how people in the UK view consumer choice. Consumers are tired of feeling tied into experiences that restrict our ability to choose what we want to do. At the same time, consumers are primed to expect brands to make each choice extremely easy, and don’t want to waste their limited time and energy sifting through options.


The Brand Challenge 

For brands, this poses a huge challenge: ‘how do we provide our consumers with the options they crave, whilst preventing the negative consequences of ‘choice overload?’ This is even more pertinent in the context of shifting consumer needs.

To navigate this problem, some brands are taking action with relative success. For example, P&G famously reduced their Head & Shoulders range from 26 variations to just 15 – increasing sales by 10%.

However, the learning here is not simply to offer fewer products, but instead to understand where ‘choice overload’ occurs in our purchase journey, and help consumers navigate it. Going back to the UK example, disruptor brands like Thread, giffgaff and Bulb are leading the way here offering simple, flexible solutions for the consumer. While established brands are innovating to help consumers navigate choice more easily, e.g. AutoSergei by Compare the Market, and the BBC Tellybox app

Consumers are also demanding advice, filters and helpful dialogue from brands to help them make a better decision. In a recent global report, 68% of shoppers said they want their favourite brands or retailers to provide them with honest and personal advice, while 44% expect proactive product recommendations and tips when shopping online. An example here is subscription service Mubi. With brands like Netflix featuring hundreds of films, Mubi cut through by offering only a small selection of critically-acclaimed films, as well as featuring a ‘film of the day’ to help consumers make an easier, more informed choice.

This need for advice is becoming even more necessary as issues like health and sustainability increasingly influence decision-making. In our current climate, more consumers are thinking about the impact of their choices on wider society. The latest figures from a survey in the US and UK suggest that 88% of consumers want brands to help them make this kind of ethical choice. One example of how brands are responding to this emerging attitude is apps such as Giki and Think Dirty– they rate products not on price, but on whether a product fits with what you care about, e.g. cruelty-free, carbon-neutral, natural ingredients.

With choice overload becoming a global issue that consumers are having to contend with, it is key for brands to understand not only the complexity of choices that consumers are faced with, but the changing context that is influencing their needs when it comes to making choices. Our study demonstrates the value of putting culture and context back into international research projects to understand where the opportunities lie for brands to help consumers navigate this global phenomenon.