Your Choice Of Paper Towels Shouldn't Cause An Existential Crisis

Studies show that too many choices intimidate consumers—so much so, that many are scared off. Can we make the purchasing process less painful?

I had an embarrassing moment last night. I was getting home late and just wanted to grab some easy pre-made food from the local supermarket. While there, I remembered that I needed a few things and navigated my way to the paper towel aisle, where I stood, transfixed, before 50 feet of options. I was tired and hungry and very suddenly annoyed.

All I wanted was to be able to clean my face after eating and now I was confronted with 50 feet of choice. Screw the mustachioed Brawny man, the quicker picker upper, and the boldly named Mardi Gras.

In the midst of my existential meltdown, I left the store without buying anything.

This morning, staring at my coffee, my actions from the night before scared me. Not because I fear I’m a burgeoning psychopath, but because I work in marketing. It’s my job to convince people that Mardi Gras paper towels are a party they want to be part of.

Being resourceful with my introspection, I looked into choice and learned that it is pretty well regarded as a double-edged sword. While most people agree that choice is good, there are some academics that believe that too much choice is bad.

Barry Schwartz, in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More, maintains that too much choice can lead to the paralysis of decision making. He cites a study where the more options employees had in choosing their 401k plan, the less likely they were to actually make a choice—often leaving up to $5,000 of free company matching on the table.

Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, conducted a study featuring free samples of jam in a supermarket. Every few hours, she would switch her offering of jam from 6 samples to 24. 60% of all visitors were drawn to the larger assortment of jams, but they were significantly less likely to actually purchase jam. Iyengar’s study found that only 3% of people who visited the larger assortment of jams bought a bottle—whereas 30% of visitors to the smaller assortment ended up making a purchase.

Schwartz goes on to paint an even bleaker picture for marketers. He holds that the abundance of choice causes us to dislike whatever it is we do end up choosing because of the opportunity cost associated with the other options. So, if we can break through the paralysis that too much choice presents us and actually buy something, there is a good chance we won’t like whatever it is we bought because we’ll be dreaming about how great the other options could have been?

What’s a marketer to do?

People are paralyzed at point of purchase and regretful afterwards. Sounds like we might as well kiss our hopes and dreams of creating brand evangelists and becoming the Steve Jobs of deodorant goodbye.

Or we can adapt by considering how we can make the decision to purchase easier for customers. It should start with brand strategy and go all the way through creative executions and media.

Brand strategy traditionally relies on product truths, category dogmas and consumer want to create a positioning that will stand out and appeal to people. But in the paralyzing world of paper towel choices, difference and appeal aren’t enough anymore. I already like homoerotic lumberjacks as much as the next guy. I need a reason to believe that one of those paper products is better for me than any of the others. Bounty’s "The quicker picker upper" comes close, except I can’t remember the last time I lamented how much my paper towels slowed me down. Seventh Generation has done a decent job of changing the paper-towel conversation from absorption to earth friendliness with its post-consumer recycled content. But green products, while still important to consumers, are banking on a selling point that’s become stale. What once differentiated them is now a baseline requirement.

The challenge to position brands as easy choices, especially for commodity categories like paper towels, isn’t a simple one. We have to find new—and true—selling points that resonate, developing more than a cursory understanding of what our target consumers wants. We need to do all we can to understand the drivers behind their daily lives and look for ways that our products can be relevant to them.

Our job is to make choice suck less. It should be less of a burden to consumers and not such a nightmare to marketers. More than promising a party, people need to know why Mardi Gras paper towels are best for them—and the answer better not include beads. So we can make decisions, instead of running from them.

Patrick Kayser is Director of Strategy at Roundhouse, a creative agency in Portland, OR, specializing in every realm of advertising, design and interactive.

[Paper Towel Mess: Jcjgphotography via Shutterstock]