Take your pick. Why consumer choice is not always a good thing.


Social media is currently the marketing Holy Grail. Formerly sceptical clients are now convinced that, properly leveraged, Facebook and twitter will open up a treasure trove of commerce.

Against this backdrop, Dutch airline KLM is offering its passengers the chance to select the person they sit next to on a flight, based on their social media profile. Leaving aside the horror every good Englishman feels when faced with the prospect of making small talk with strangers, isn’t this all a bit unnecessary? Can we not be relied upon to simply ‘play nicely’ with our fellow travellers, without vetting them over the net? Don’t people just sleep and read on a flight anyway?
Clearly, this gimmick (and it is a gimmick; if KLM still offer this in a year’s time I’ll eat one of my many hats) is born of the most overrated concept of our time: choice.

Our beloved politicians constantly fall on the ‘c’ word to justify their unrelenting tinkering with education and the NHS. The misguided notion that our priority, when poorly, is to spend hours raking through hospital brochures to select the exact facility we’d like to remove our gall stones, is evergreen. Being politicians, they brush away our suggestions that we’d be perfectly content with our local hospital, clean and properly funded. ‘Nonsense’ they bellow, ‘you want choice - and lots of it!’

Marketing often falls into the same trap. Take mobile phones. Enter one of those brilliant white temples of telephony in any shopping centre and within minutes, you will be bombarded with pricing plans and talktime grids. Do you want 50,000 texts a month or all-you-can-eat data? Or a spare SIM and a new handset?  Of course, you don’t honestly know how many texts you send every four weeks and you’re pretty certain you don’t actually eat data. Nevertheless, you select a plan because you need a phone, but the fear you’ve lashed yourself to the wrong contract will haunt you for the duration. They’re offering you choice as though it were the sacred road to happiness, when it is nothing more than the shortcut to a migraine.

We live in a complicated world which constantly insists we make selections. There was a time when there was nothing more mundane than buying a cup of coffee, but now (as a thousand stand up routines have explained) the array of options leaves us bewildered. Is ‘tall’ the small one? Or is that ‘grande’? Why do they all sound massive? And how many ways can you really whisk some milk?

If you’ve ever visited the USA, you’ll know the Americans thrive on choice. The range of pizzas alone occupies three, road length aisles in a Wal Mart. Once, trying to decide what to have in my sandwich in a New York deli, the exasperated server asked me ‘Shall I just make you one you’ll like?’ It was a good job, I could have been there for days.

I’m sorry to say that the failure of Woolworths proves my point all too well. The beloved chain failed for many reasons, but its decline in popularity on the high street can be readily attributed to the problem of choice. There was a time when a shop selling mixed sweets and pop singles was just the ticket, but as other retail outlets began to streamline their brand positions, nobody knew what Woolies was for.  They offered a massive choice of goods, for sure. But that just served to baffle folk. A similar difficulty beset WH Smith in the nineties, so they acted quickly and returned to their core business of books and newspapers. FW Woolworth wasn’t quite so agile and paid heavily for it.

The superbrands of the next decade won’t be those offering the widest choice. They will be the outfits doing one thing brilliantly.

After all, you’re never asked which flavour Twitter you’d like, are you?


Magnus Shaw - writer, blogger and broadcaster




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