Walk into almost any U.S. grocery store today and you can find at least a 10-foot wall of toothpaste with shelves from toe to eye level proffering hundreds of toothpaste options. A confounding, dizzying array of cavity-fighting, tooth-whitening, tartar-controlling, gum-disease-preventing, enamel-strengthening, breath-freshening formulations in various combinations further sorted by minty or sometimes fruity flavors, brand, organic, or all natural formulation in various sizes, product deliveries, or packaging. I am not the first one to make this head-scratching observation by any stretch.
In searching for an image to accompany this column I happened upon numerous studies, articles, and blogs using the abundance in the toothpaste aisle variously as a scholarly example to describe cognitive accessibility, as a visual shorthand for American excess, as a marketing case study of decision science and optimal SKUs, as a punch line for hygiene product marketing, and yes, even as a cautionary tale to demonstrate moralistic relativism.
My personal, human response to the choice overload in the toothpaste aisle was to ask myself what kind of society needs this many toothpaste options? The secondary effect for me was colored by my profession. I.e., how in the hell was a toothpaste marketer supposed to gain the attention and loyalty of toothpaste purchasers in such a cacophony? Finally, for me, the toothpaste aisle presented a metaphorical representation of the challenges of digital marketing. I.e., in a world with so much noise and choice, how have consumers adapted their behaviors to allow them to continue to function effectively and get satisfying results from their online activities?
After all, we can’t (and don’t) stand frozen in front of 1,000 toothpaste tubes for days at a time to examine each one carefully and compare them. We have adapted. We fly down that aisle and either reach for the one we always use because we know we have a need, scan the aisle for one that was recommended to you by your dentist or neighbor, or sometimes, but rarely I suspect, we go looking for something new we saw advertised that promised a solution to a problem we have. But most often we just fly down the aisle on our way to the body lotions or as a through-way to the meat counter and don’t notice or pick up toothpaste at all. Unless we have a need.
The metaphor is not subtle for anyone in the digital marketing trenches. Relevancy is the obvious answer. An omnichannel, customer-centric approach is the obvious requirement. But sometimes, we need to take a big step back from the detailed world of digital tactics in order to observe the larger phenomenon. And sometimes, a trip to the grocery store is just the thing to set your mind in that direction.
If digital marketers have a gazillion things to know and keep up with it is only because consumers are confronted with a very similar challenge. Consumers now research and buy differently, consume content differently, take buying cues differently across both digital and other realms with limitless information, perpetual connectedness, and numerous delivery and device choices across time-shifted consumption horizons. Unless we understand the consumer reaction to sorting and sifting through this abundance, we as marketers have no chance whatsoever to influence consumer behaviors online. It’s a huge task and one that can easily become obscured as we become distracted daily by the latest changes in Google’s algorithm, or a new Facebook ad type, or the latest app or social offering, browser version, or new device launch, and possibly all of the above.
The toothpaste aisle is a visual reminder of the cluttered, loud world that consumers navigate. Your digital strategy needs to apply big-picture thinking to all the detailed tactics at your disposal and in your plan to ensure that your resources are devoted to building the relevancy and relationships that lift your products or brand out of that chaos. Without that focus you are just creating more chaos and will become just another blur on that big shelf as they scurry past or reach for a competitor.
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