Shoppers today are overwhelmed with choice. Wherever they go they are overloaded with information, forced to choose between competing offers at almost every hour of the day.

Neuroscientists believe that increasing the comparisons available may actually reduce happiness

But if vendors are offering all this extra choice to increase buyer satisfaction, they might well be making a mistake. Neuroscientists believe that increasing the comparisons available may actually reduce happiness, for the simple reason that people tend to regret the decision they made because of the additional options they couldn’t pick.

Imagine yourself walking down an aisle in a supermarket. It would be fair, I think, to assume that most of you are in ‘autopilot mode’, just there to pick up items necessary for you and your family in the shortest possible time. Yet everywhere you look you are bombarded by countless similar offers, all of them trying to catch your attention, all of them trying to persuade you to buy them by telling you how much better they are than the competition.

The problem is that almost all market categories are saturated with similar propositions presenting themselves to customers with almost identical ‘touchpoints’ (the term designers use to refer to the points of contact between a customer and a product or service).

However from time to time a company will emerge who introduces a product with an innovative, disruptive proposition, combined with unique and compelling touchpoints for customers. If it’s successful, the way that product presents itself will become the new standard for others to follow.

Companies and brands are constantly battling to claim the leadership in their category. But even though every brand wants to lead, most end up creating touchpoints that are very similar to their competitors. This results in the marketplace perception of many products with similar propositions – and the feeling of supermarket aisle overload.

So are brands just playing it safe by choosing a similar approach to their competitors, or is there something else behind this strategy?

To understand what’s going on, it helps to look at what’s happening from the point of view of cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

Rules of thumb

When choosing a product people tend to make decisions based on intuition and then rationalise those decisions afterwards. They do so because the human brain favours speed: people want to decide as quickly as possible.

This is why we believe it’s so important for all businesses to understand the intuitive rules of thumb people use to choose one product over another.

Follow the code

Let’s go back to the example of walking down a supermarket aisle. There you are, being bombarded with an enormous amount of information by product after product. Each and every one of them is trying to grab your attention and persuade you to buy them by telling you how much better their propositions is than the others. However, because most of us find a visit to the supermarket more of a chore than a pleasure, you don’t want to spend your time evaluating every single piece of information each product offers. The decisions you make are going to be fast and unconscious.

Supermarket shopping relies on a large number of fast unconscious decisions

This is why, in nearly every retail environment, products and their packaging need to attract and persuade potential buyers as fast as possible. They have to, if they are to seize the lead in their category.

With that in mind, the following three points are vital for a product’s success.

Stand out: does it grab your audiences’ attention?
Encourage purchase: does it describe a unique proposition with a relevant and meaningful claim in the minimum amount of time?
Fit with brand positioning: have you remained authentic to your brand values and beliefs?

So how can rules of thumb help you achieve these three goals?

When picking a product the human brain tries to speed up its decision making process by applying its existing knowledge of a product’s category (designers often call this the ‘category code’). Let’s take cooking oil as an example. Because you can’t take in the details of every bottle of oil on the shelves, your brain brings your knowledge of the cooking oil category code into play. You look for the familiar bottle shape, type of photograph and application of a specific colour. And since you are only looking for cooking oil, you won’t pay much attention to other items – your knowledge of the cooking oil category code will determine what you take note of.

If you want your propositions to be identified, recognized and seriously considered by people looking to purchase a product in your category, then following the category code is vital.

Breaking the code

However from time to time a company introduces a product with a disruptive proposition, one that if successful may go to set a new standard for its category. So does this mean there are benefits to breaking the code?

By breaking the category code, you obviously run the risk of losing customers: they may not recognize your product any more, much less consider buying it. That said, if you have something different to say, a story to tell that will grab people’s attention, then you may well want to change the appearance of your touchpoints in just such a way.

To do this successfully, your propositions should come with revolutionary new benefits – prompted by new technology, new regulations, new infrastructure – they can’t just be evolutionary upgrades. And if they are to grab people’s attention, then those benefits must be perceived as radically different from all other current market offers. This is where an idea called ‘cognitive dissonance’ comes in. It is is a state of psychological tension caused by experiencing a disparity between what one expected to see and what one actually sees.

Let me offer one example from a well-established category. James Dyson is responsible for the current category code of the bagless vacuum cleaner.

Dyson’s iconic product design was – and, with the addition of new benefits such as continuous suction, remains – provocative and aggressive. It emphasises the company’s unique cyclone technology – which when it launched was unlike anything that had been seen before – the ‘cognitive dissonance’ that the product created in the marketplace made it extremely hard to ignore.

As a result, Dyson as a company managed to draw attention not only to its proposition, but also to the entire vacuum cleaner category. Before its appearance, hardly anyone would have considered the design of vacuum cleaners as something to get excited about.

If your product is successful in the market, then the new category code you have created will become the code other brands will copy and start to apply. If you manage your code, and brand, correctly, then people will see you – and more importantly remember you – as the leader of the category. I do not have to tell you how considerable a business advantage you will gain from this.

Use the code to break the code

As long you have a clear knowledge and understanding of the key codes in your targeted categories this can be a very successful strategy for businesses today. But is this strategy future proof?


New technologies will help companies shift their internal set up from mass-production to customisable-production

But this is beginning to change. New technologies – the internet, mobile applications and 3D printers, for example – are emerging and altering the current paradigm. These technologies will, I believe, help some companies shift their internal set up from mass-production to ‘customisable-production’ on a small (or perhaps even mass) scale.

What this new landscape will require is for companies and brands to shift their mindset away from the production of end products to the delivery of solutions. And by doing that, it will add new layers and challenges to design. It will force designers away from the category code and into whole new areas.

A new challenge for brands (and designers)

As for the designers, their role will change yet again to meet the demands of this shift. Over the past several decades, we have seen them transformed from a ‘team of people styling touchpoints by following a category code’, to a ‘team of people able to contribute to the creation of a disruptive, innovative proposition and by so doing develop unique, iconic touchpoints’. Now, with the emergence of this new paradigm, the transformation will continue.

I see them becoming trusted leaders in cross-industry collaboration, and the delivery of joint solutions. As with brands and consumers, so will it be with designers. Collaboration will become the key word.