As brands become more responsive to their customers, will this mean that they become boring?    

In 1908, Henry Ford could offer you a model T in any colour, as long as it was black. Nowadays, you can buy your Ford Focus online and choose from 7 colours and a number of options. Technology has made "mass customisation" a reality, and it seems that companies who offer the most customer choice are those set to win out in the end. But does pandering to customer needs mean survival of the best, or just survival of the blandest?

The financial services industry is one of several where the explosion of customer choice has led to boring brands, boring product literature, agonizing decisions, and dissatisfaction among customers who feel they have made the wrong choice or been sold the wrong product. In this field, brands such as Virgin are making headway with a back-to-basics approach. Rather than offering dozens of tailored products, they act as a trustmark, selling one or two simple packages on the basis that they know and care about what is best for you.

Dell computers is often cited as the champion of choice. Customers can specify the PC they want to meet their exact requirements. There are thousands of possibilities on offer. But despite the many variations, like Mr Ford's model T the range of colours is severely restricted (grey for desktops, black for laptops). Compare this to Apple's iMac - which have a very limited range of configuration options but some wonderful colours, see-through cases and other innovative design features. These weren't the results of customer choice, but were dictated by Apple to provide the consumer with a sense of choice. If Apple hadn't built an orange computer, we might never have known what we were missing out on.

One issue with Dell's version of choice is that it requires the customer to answer a set number of questions. Customer choice becomes limited by customer knowledge (or lack of) and by the questions asked. Ask too few questions and your choice is limited. Ask too many and, as with financial products, the customer gets bored, confused or angry. Unless Dell ask me whether I'd like a see-through box with one half orange, I'm still just going to going to end up with a boring grey box.

Modern lifestyles exacerbate the problem. Work merges with home merges with play... there's not a lot of time left to sift through the forests of product literature posted, handed and emailed out. Cash-rich time-poor consumers want to spend their time enjoying your product or service, not trying to figure out the relative pros and cons of you and your competitor. As the pace of change increases, any research the customer does do is likely to become obsolete. By the time they have the relevant information to hand, the market has moved on and paradigms have shifted.

A brand which understands and leads its own market can offer consumers reassurance that their decision can be safely entrusted to the market experts. This does not mean being blind to consumer demands, but weighing them up alongside other factors such as competitor activity, new technologies and predictive data. On the other hand, brands who struggle to keep up with trends, like Marks & Spencer or the Church of England, might just catch the tail-end of the mainstream but risk being seen as having no identity of their own.

Of course it is right for customers to communicate with brands, and for those brands to respond appropriately. But brands have to know when to follow and when to lead. A submissive brand means government by committee, where every computer is grey and every car is silver, but a visionary brand can create demand by showing people things they never imagined they needed.

© Dan Sumption, January 2001

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