The Need for Simplification Marketing

There’s a problem with the theory of the long-tail: people want choice, but they don’t want too many choices.

supermarket silhouette


Photo Credit:Andrei Zmievski

There’s a problem with the theory of the long-tail: people want choice, but they don’t want too many choices. People DO want options so they can indulge their individuality but then 90% or more of the irrelevant options fade away, becoming “out of sight, out of mind”. The most dramatic example of what cognitive psychologists call “inattentional blindness” is the gorilla video. The audience is asked to concentrate on how many times six teenagers pass and bounce two basketballs. Shockingly but true, almost no one sees the person in a gorilla suit walking through the video. You are blinded by your attention to counting (try it on your friends).

A typical supermarket carries 40,000 items, but a typical shopper buys 15 to 20 things on a given shopping trip and only 400 in a year. The average number of TV channels people have access to increased from 10 to 106 in 25 years, yet on average, people only watch 14 channels in a week.

People want choice but not too many choices–or the mind will just simplify the task by becoming blind to them.

The new wave of economists, called BEHAVIORAL economists, studies how people actually make decisions and it is very different from what most marketers and researchers think. People use simple heuristics. Some think we are “predictably irrational” (Ariely); some believe these “fast and frugal” heuristics lead to BETTER decisions (Gigerenzer), but all agree we use them.

Students in Germany were asked which city had a bigger population, San Diego or San Antonio. Not knowing too much about many U.S. cities was an advantage! All they had to go on was recognition and they were more accurate in their guesses than U.S. students who “knew too much.” By the way, the U.S. students beat the German students when the test was about two cities in Germany. With recognition heuristics, marketers should think “brand familiarity.”


As the long-tail gets longer on purchase choices, media viewing, social networking…basically everything…the need for simplification will become even more acute. Enter the opportunity for simplification marketing.

We’re seeing simplification via small format, 10,000-foot stores with fewer brand choices, digital wish lists, and targeted recommendations. It is also a main reason that advertising still works. It makes brands familiar to you, which takes risk out, and orients you to a manageable number of choices. Many simplify navigating the Web by typing domains into Google. I use automated pay whenever I can. Most of my morning until 10 a.m. is ritualized–I don’t want to think until my third cup of coffee. There is a reason the magazine Real Simple is a success.

Marketers should work with their research teams to study opportunities to simplify people’s lives. Use innovation to find a way to offer simplification rather than more choices…that would be a real “value-add”.

Read more of Joel Rubinson’s Brave New Marketing blog

Joel Rubinson

Joel Rubinson is Chief Research Officer at The ARF, where he directs the organization’s priorities and initiatives on behalf of 400+ advertisers, advertising agencies, associations, research firms, and media companies. Joel is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and an active blogger. He holds an MBA in statistics and economics from the University of Chicago and a BS from NYU and never leaves home without his harmonica. Follow him on Twitter: @joelrubinson.


About the author

President and Founder, Rubinson Partners, Inc., marketing and research consulting for a brave new world and also on the faculty of NYU Stern School of Business, teaching social media strategy. Formerly the Chief Research Officer at the Advertising Research Foundation