Self-driving consumers – making choices, not decisions

Making choices, but not decisions

Every time the consumers buy a brand, they exercise a choice, but do they necessarily make a brand decision?

Marketing prides itself on the mastery of theories and strategies to persuade consumers to choose their brands. Marketers conjure up visions of consumers engaged in huge mental tussles of decisions about which brand to buy. Marketer’s visualization of the consumer is the one where the consumer action is being tightly controlled and driven by the conscious consumer mind.  Marketing Managers see their job as to convince the consumers that they should decide on their brand rather than any other. Towards this end they enumerate the numerous unique qualities of their brand, and areas of superiority over the competition.

Do consumers really go through a decision-making process, every time they reach out to buy a soft drink, a bottle of beer, or even a pair of sports shoes? Are they engaged in mental battles, where different contenders are fighting for their favorable evaluation, and the consumer patiently tallies the pros and cons of all the choices and make the optimal choice?

More an autonomous car

Unfortunately marketers have got it wrong – the consumer is more like a self-driven vehicle on auto-pilot than an expert driver negotiating the labyrinth of the brand choices. “Most of the choices we make each day may feel like they are the products of well-considered decision-making, but they’re not. They are habits,” says Charles Duhigg in  “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change”.

Research from behavioral psychology and neuroscience suggests that most consumer choices are made quickly and intuitively – after all the consumer does not want to spend all her time making the decision, she wants to spend the time enjoying the product! The consumer choices are often habitual and subconscious, based on associations and thoughts which rapidly and fluently come to the mind at the appropriate moment. Often it is merely recognition and familiarity rather than a perception of superiority which does the trick. Consumer makes choices (just as a self-driving car makes choices and arrives at its destination) but not necessarily take active decisions.

Making decisions is effortful!

The key reason consumers do not make a “decision” at every purchase is that decision-making is difficult! It requires effort, energy, and time and is a drain on the scarce resources of the consumers. Making decisions, examining all the information available, and processing it to come to a choice involves engaging the lazy system 2,. In the context that often past consumer experience with the range of brands is acceptable, the consumer sees no reason for the wasteful effort at every purchase opportunity.

Hence for a lot of products, when marketers try to convince the consumers that their brand is the best, they are mostly frittering away their resources. Their money will be better spent on ensuring that the brand has adequate visibility and wide availability. Making the brand easy to buy through appropriate choice architecture, is likely to have a better impact on the sale than an effort to convince the consumer of its superiority.