Why Consumers Prefer the Extremes


A favourite topics is innovation. Everyone talks about it. Few actually practice it. That’s one of the reasons some brands fade faster while others weather the transition to immense popularity. The obvious ones that continuously reinvent themselves are Apple and Blackberry. Others such as Crocs, Lululemon have faltered in early stages of innovation.


Consumers get bored with brands. Or look for reasons to find new and improved products. But in increasingly commoditized and price driven categories like clothing, cars and personal care, it’s not clear that one model is necessarily better than another. And such products fall in and out of style with such swiftness that boredom hardly seems to be the issue. So what’s going on here?


In a recent paper, Stanford researchers found that consumers may abandon products as soon as chic goes mainstream. When similar people buy the same brand, it translates into social meaning. But when the wrong kind of people start buying it that object loses its meaning, these early adopters start seeking new identity markers. In their research, Berger and Chip Heath, Stanford Business School professor of organizational behavior, found that product categories that are more utilitarian are less likely to be used to communicate identity and hence less likely to try to separate themselves from specific social groups.


Alignment of options is a key factor. In a study of different sets of shoppers (Harvard Business School working paper, May 17, 2007), John T. Gourville and Dilip Soman tested whether avoiding extremes depends on the menu of choices. They say, “In a sense, you are buying none, a little, more, or a lot of a feature.” So when options are nonaligned, consumers tend to like extremes. Ironically, consumers prefer compromises when the options are aligned. Consumers can’t decide, so they simplify their choice. They tend to say “give me the basic version or give me everything”. The last thing they want to do is pick some of the options but not all of them, and find out after the fact the ones they picked weren’t the right options. Consumers reflexively eliminate the middling options so they won’t kick themselves later.


According to Gourville and Soman, sometimes choices are not so neatly aligned, and consumers face tradeoffs when they make their decision. If you have a complex, nonaligned assortment, you really have two alternatives: to simplify that assortment — reduce the number of options to decrease the difficulty of making any one choice — or to help people along on the [decision-making] process. So hand in hand with adding more non-aligned choices, marketers could offer tools or advice to help consumers make their choice. For example, a car dealer might offer a sporty SUV with four-wheel drive, or a luxury SUV with leather seats and a sunroof (but no four-wheel drive). When those nonaligned choices multiply and the tradeoffs become complicated, consumers tend toward a stripped-down or a fully loaded model instead.


What does this mean for marketers? A deeper interpretation of the context of product features and benefits can have a substantial impact on a brand’s credibility. Go back to basics. Keep a close tab on where Product and Brand positioning intersect. An emotive brand promise is important. But it’s no substitute for a persuasive product story. I can think of over 20 marketing campaigns launched in the past 6 months that have a disconnect between product and brand promises, one of the reasons consumers prefer the extremes.