Imagine that you are standing in the middle of the cereal section of your local supermarket. Your job is to select a cereal you’ve never tried before, ideally one you’ll end up enjoying. How would you go about doing it?
If you happen to be someone who has eaten cereal on a fairly regular basis throughout your life, the task is actually not that hard. In all likelihood, you’d simply walk down the aisle, mentally eliminating entire batches of cereals at once—say, all of the children’s cereals … or anything that looked too sugary. You’d then winnow your selections further by applying a secondary set of filters—for example, anything with granola … or anything high fiber. After you’d narrowed the aisle down to a small subset of cereals—maybe six or seven brands—you’d layer on a few additional criteria—perhaps dismissing anything containing raisins or anything in an ugly box—until, boom, you’d made your selection.
The whole exercise would probably be over in a matter of minutes, unless of course you happen to be the type of person who is really persnickety about your breakfast fare, in which case it might take a bit longer. Regardless, what would be impressive about your performance, irrespective of the outcome, would be the intelligence of your approach. Somehow, you have learned to deconstruct the product category the way a product marketer would: as a cascading set of subcategories and mini-sub-categories.
Somehow, you have learned to segment the product array across a range of dimensions, and somehow, you have learned to make distinctions between brands that come down to the most minute of details. In other words, you may not have realized it, but somewhere along the way, you became a category expert, a cereal connoisseur.
Now imagine a martian standing in the same aisle, faced with the same task. What was easy for you would be completely daunting for him. Even assuming his superior intelligence, parsing the variation among products would take hour upon hour. For this poor creature, all of those cereal boxes would look bewilderingly the same.
Why? Because where a connoisseur sees the differences, a novice sees the similarities. Where a connoisseur can discern subtle shades of distinction based on nu-anced asymmetries, a novice lacks the necessary filters to canvas, to organize, to sift an assortment in a meaningful way. Where a connoisseur can navigate a category with effortless intuition, a novice will struggle to find beginning, middle, or end. Shopping in this regard can be beyond experiential; it can be phenomenological.
You could repeat this same exercise again and again, across product after product, with similar results. Try explaining to a foreigner the difference between Crest and Colgate. Try explaining to a child the difference between a Honda and a Toyota. When I visit a Foot Locker with my husband, he will cruise the store like an oenophile seeking a rare varietal. I, on the other hand, am a category outsider. So while he roams, I will park myself in a corner of the store and feel overcome by the sameness.
There is perhaps no better way to get a glimpse into the mass consumption values of a culture than to visit the place where the inhabitants of that culture purchase the stuff of daily living—soap, food, shoes. If aliens were to visit a grocery store or a drugstore in this country, they would have to conclude that we are a people hooked on the pleasures of picking needles out of haystacks—of selecting a cereal among an ocean of cereal boxes, of selecting a bar of soap among an ocean of soap bars. And in many ways, they would be right. We take for granted how frequently we thrust ourselves into the position of having to make purchase decisions in the face of overflowing product profusion.
This is particularly true in mature product categories. When a product category is nascent, it tends to be dominated by a much smaller set of products, or even a single product. The original PowerBar. The original Walkman. Coke and Pepsi. As the category evolves, however, the number of product alternatives within the category tends to grow exponentially.
Today, PowerBar alone produces more than forty different varieties of its energy bar, and the energy bar category has grown to include more than sixty assorted brands. Today, Sony produces more than two dozen variations of its Walkman, and the personal stereo category consists of more than a hundred options. In fact, one quick way to gauge the maturity of a category is to simply track the number of product variants in it.
And yet it would be a mistake to assume that product proliferation begets product diversity. On the contrary, as the number of products within a category multiplies, the differences between them start to become increasingly trivial, almost to the point of preposterousness. Try it. Pick a random product category such as soap, or cereal, or shoes, and make a list of what is different among the products within the category.
The list will probably be long, but an overwhelming number of these differences will almost certainly be trifling. Put another way, the category has reached the point where it is possible for product heterogeneity to be experienced as product homogeneity. Which is not to say that the distinctions between products are not real; it is simply to say that they are real only in the same way that synonyms have discrete connotations. Blue is dissimilar to red in a different way than teal is dissimilar to navy.
For a business, this is when competing in the category can become problematic. Because this is when it can require a category expert—a connoisseur—to negotiate the category with any kind of ease….
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