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]

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  • PDXBeth

    If I saw a commercial where Dexter runs out of plastic sheets and instead lines the walls of his kill room with a specific brand of paper towels. I would buy them.

  • SmokeyTownson

    A real stupid and worthless article!  I've better things to do than having my time wasted reading this trash!

  • Jeffrey Slater

    I do like the phrase "our job is to make the choice suck less". The fundamental issue is that products tend to blur into a category. They are packaged alike and they race to add similar features. They get stuck in a race of sameness. A wonderful book by Harvard Professor Youngme Moon articulates some really clear thinking on this topic. You can read a quick review of it here. http://momentslater.blogspot.c...

    I too get frozen by choice all the time int he grocery aisle. I work in the wine industry and this is a particularly fascinating marketing world where so few wines look different visually on shelf. I often describe buying wine like going into a book store (remember them) and every book has a white cover on it without a queue to help you purchase. 

  • Ashish Manjrekar

    So true. Ever increasing challenges for brands to differentiate themselves among the huge pile of other brands. Every successful point of distinction is ultimately going to be replicated by the competitor. So the best bet is to continuously innovate. R&D is the key to keep going on.

  • John Kottcamp, CSO/CMO

    Patrick has done a great job of outlining what is known as the tyranny of choice.  I agree fully with the assessment of the problem.  The solution though lies not in better creative or messaging, but in better targeting.  With the analytical data and modeling technology available to brands today, its possible to create nuances in the message that will make the difference for each target audience.  This goes well beyond traditional segmentation and from a design and content standpoint, requires creative agencies to begin thinking in terms of how can you create a matrix of re-usable content that can appeal to various different personas.  And the marketer needs to understand how to convert descriptive personas into digital profiles based on sourcable and collectable data. That is the solution to the tyranny of choice, reduce the non-relevant and present only that which matches the interests and context of the consumer.