Do We Have Too Many Choices?

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An article in the Indy Star a week or so ago caught my attention. The headline reads: Gum may not stick around. My first thought was, “What are they talking about? I love gum.” Well, hold on. The main thrust of the article is that gumball machines are falling out of favor. While I was surprised to discover that only 27% of gumball machines dispense gumballs any more, it does make sense. Those huge gumballs are not really a great experience – they are huge and sometimes hard to bite into. When you do bite one, you sometimes discover that it was kind of stale. But even worse, you get a big, immediate shot of sugar that quickly disappears. Instead, you are left with a flavorless bit that’s often difficult to chew. So, I do get why we are not chewing too many gumballs any more.

But, the end of the article suggests that total gum sales are down in 2011. So, this data also made me pause. How is it that Americans are chewing less gum than they used to? So, I set my undergraduate marketing degree students to figure out what’s going on. We started by brainstorming what needs chewing gum fulfills, that is what job do people hire gum to do? Here’s what we came up with:

  • Freshen your breath
  • Remove food from your teeth after eating
  • Give you something to do when you are bored
  • Stave off hunger so you can avoid calories
  • Keep your mouth wet when you are thirsty
  • Help you quit smoking
  • Get your vitamins

Then, we started thinking about all of the alternatives to meet these needs. It turns out that there are lot so alternatives. Think about some of the new choices we have:

  • Mints and Mouthwashes – there are plenty of new choices here including all kinds of long lasting ones. They’ve innovated functional features too.
  • Anyone hear of Wisps, the baby on-the-go tooth brushes?
  • iPhone and other smartphone apps – I don’t know about you but I am almost never bored when I have my iPhone.
  • Low cal snacks – hey the snack people discovered people were worried about their health and we have an explosion of 100 calorie, baked and other better for you options.
  • Waters – what kind of water do you like: tap (on the go Brita filter bottles), flavors (any, and I do mean any flavor can be found), and even vitamin-enhanced

This is one of the ongoing challenges for marketers. Part of getting your marketing degree is learning how to figure out who your real competition is. Your real competition is always changing. It’s not just the alternatives in your own product category you have to think about. You also have to monitor all those options that can substitute for your category and do the same job you do. The customer is hiring a product after all, not a product category. So, think more broadly – what other choices are preventing your brand from being chosen?