Prasad Sangameshwaran
Feb 25, 2019

'Brainstorming is not a good thing': Sheena Iyengar, Columbia Business School

Sheena S Iyengar, the S T Lee professor of business at the Columbia Business School spoke to Prasad Sangameshwaran of Campaign India at the sidelines of the IAA World Congress, Kochi. Excerpts from the conversation:

'Brainstorming is not a good thing': Sheena Iyengar, Columbia Business School
At the IAA World Congress in Kochi, Sheena Iyengar, professor, Columbia Business School, who is acknowledged around the world for her seminal work on 'The Art of Making Choices' set the ball rolling by stating that no matter where you go in the globe, we have choices now that we never imagined. "More choice means better opportunity to choose what we want, but it also makes harder for us to choose," she said.
The consequences of exposing consumers with a lot of choices:
1. More choices they are less likely to make a choice.
2. Inconsistent with the choices.
3. Less customer satisfaction
More choices makes it cognitively complex for consumers to choose. Around 80 per cent of sales comes from 20 per cent of the options that marketers offer.
"We don't choose alone. Every act of choice is a communication. Every time we make a choice, we send a message that 'I'm unique but I'm not an outcaste, neither am I a part of the crowd'," she said. Every time people make a choice, they ask an existential question.
Techniques helpful while making choices (for brands):
1. Cut all the irrelevant options. Keep the choices manageable.
2. Categorisation. Show how the choice are different.
3. Create a condition that reduces complexity of choices 
AI can help us being better at picking and choosing. "We might not know what we want but AI can get our choices right and technology can also help us expand our capacity to imagine," she said in her address at the IAA World Congress.
Excerpts from her interview with Campaign India:
In India, the lament has often been that we don't have as much choice as the rest of the world. So is the paradox of choice still relevant in the Indian context?
The question is not about the Indian context. The question should be, is it relevant depending on your economic circumstances.
You say that too much of choice is confusing for customers. But from a marketers standpoint, it also is necessary to have variants to maximise their share of revenue. How do you solve the issue?
You have hit the nail on the head about the crux of the problem. They try to differentiate by giving products different cool names that actuall don't mean anything. Or they associate their products with superheroes. Anything to differentiate. But the reality is that you don't have as much real variation and they just put it out there in the hope that they can maximise sales. 
But you have to still keep in mind that if consumers don't have a way of differentiating them then it's not going to work.
In a world where consumers are increasingly aided by technology, is it easier to make choices even if the number of choices thrown at consumers is mind boggling?
It is both easier and harder. People use the same technology to create fake news. So it becomes even more harder for consumers today as they cannot separate the fake from the real. It's easier if technology could be used to tell us how are the two products any different. You could do that for consumers.
What's the next area of your focus in academic research?
I am looking at two areas. One is authenticity. The other one is innovation on whether we can provide companies with a method on how to solve complex problems. I teach a course called 'Think bigger'. The method that I teach how to grow bigger with innovation.
I tell that brainstorming is not a good thing. Simply imagining where the idea is, is not a good way to innovate. Quantity does not equal quality. So, instead the method they employ is in identifying the problem that they want to solve. 
Doesn't that go against the grain of how people have been innovating so far? And can't you go wrong in identifying the problem in the first place and derail the entire journey?
Yes, you have to allocate the bulk of your time in defining the problem. Einstein once famously said that "if I only had one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes in defining the problem and one minute in resolving it".
You are talking about the problem of plenty in products. But aided by technology there has also been an explosion in campaign messages. Are the same mistakes being repeated in communication as well?
I do think that everybody is fighting for every sliver of human cognition that they can find. That's why people are doing so much of repetition in the hope that you will find them or notice them. But I do think that consumers are generally confused. They don't know what's fake and real. 
I think there needs to be a company that tells people what's fake and what's real. We probably don't have a method yet. But that will actually sell a lot.  
This conference has been built around the premise of Brand Dharma (doing what is right)?
Yes, I would agree. There should be an organisation that dissects what's fake and what's real. 
But in developed markets, aren't consumers listening to what their peer-set or close circle of friends say in terms of buying decisions. Isn't that a case of refined choice already happening rather than rely purely on mass media?
Amazon and Netflix tells us what we like. Expedia and Travelocity knows where we might go on our next vacation. Then there are also our friends who influence us on what we but.
Aided by technology is the sales function getting more prominent at the cost of marketing?
That's an interesting question. I don't think so, because marketing has elevated itself to this purpose of corporate social responsibility. So you might rather have a Lyft app on your phone rather than Uber as the latter may be seen as anti-gay or something. 
Consumers are going to back brands depending on what charity it is involved in, giving it an identity.
It's really important to realise as marketers that they are here to make people feel confident and competent during the choosing process. That means it's not about showing them products but about teaching them about understanding their choices so that they feel empowered about what to choose. This message is more relevant in the newer industries where consumers are less informed, but is important for all industries.  
Campaign India

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