Think of the following situation. You are addicted to Coke and it’s an integral part of your monthly grocery list. The status quo bias indicates that you are likely to keep buying it, as it is a part of your habit. In fact, brands spend significant sums of money to retain your loyalty for this very reason — to make themselves part of your habit.
However, every once in a while, your curiosity could be piqued about an alternate brand, or you could simply get bored of Coke, and you may try something new, say Pepsi, Fanta or even Heineken beer. And there is every chance that this change in status quo could suddenly make you switch brands permanently.
Every once in a while, your curiosity could be piqued about an alternate brand, or you could simply get bored of Coke, and you may try something new, say Pepsi, Fanta or even Heineken beer
We discussed the status quo bias a while ago in this column. Today, we will talk about its opposite — a phenomenon called variety seeking, which has inspired hundreds of research papers in marketing research.
If you remember, changes in status quo can cause initial discomfort, but the status quo can change very quickly. Hence, just as it is important for a brand to retain its customers, one of the other things it may want to do is attract people using its competitors. And for this, awareness of the human tendency of variety seeking is critical.
The saying “variety is the spice of life” is true for most of us. While we tend to be set in our ways to some extent, we also try out new things. For example, someone eating south Indian food every day may want to try out Japanese or Thai cuisine sometimes.
So, what really causes variety-seeking behaviour, and what are its consequences? One line of reasoning is that consumer choices are driven by the stimulation level of the brain. Certain products tend to stimulate us more than others, and as we increasingly use a product, the level of stimulation tends to decrease, leading to boredom, giving rise to the motivation to try something new.
This, of course is countered by the tendency to seek familiarity, arising from the status quo bias.
Menon and Kahn hypothesised that variety seeking in one product class is reduced if the consumer is provided high mental stimulation in another product class where she is simultaneously making a purchase
These two counteracting forces can lead to interesting choices. An important question is when you feel like trying something new, would you try something completely new, or something that is just slightly different from your habit? For example, if you’re a Coke drinker, would you try out Pepsi, which is similar to the drink, or go for something completely different, like Red Bull or Jaljeera, which fall in a different product category? This is the question research by Satya Menon and Barbara Kahn (paywall) set out to answer.
Menon and Kahn hypothesised that variety seeking in one product class is reduced if the consumer is provided high mental stimulation in another product class where she is simultaneously making a purchase. To put it simply, this means that if you are buying chips and soft drinks, your tendency to seek variety in chips will be less if you are offered more radically different choices in soft drinks (read on; marketing research can often be complicated)! To test this, they invited a group of people to participate in a four day-long shopping experiment, where three groups were randomly formed, and asked to choose a brand of chips and a soft drink on each day.
All three groups were offered a choice of four brands of chips (Lays, Frito, Doritos and Cheetos), while the variety in soft drink choices were varied across groups. Group 1 got a choice of Pepsi, Coke, Diet Pepsi and Diet Coke on all four days. Group 2 was offered the cola assortment on alternate days, and a choice between the Lemon-Lime drinks — Sprite, 7-Up, Diet Sprite and Diet 7-Up on the other two alternate days.
Group 3 was offered colas on the first and third days, and fruit juices — Snapple Mango Madness and Snapple Kiwi Strawberry Cocktail — on the second and fourth days. Group 1 was a control condition with no stimulation. Group 2 was a low stimulation condition while Group 3 was a high stimulation condition (the authors also painstakingly established that the lemon-lime drinks offered to Group 2 are perceived to be more similar to colas than the fruit cocktails offered to Group 3, leading to different levels of mental stimulation).
Brands’ suggestions to customers can be tailored keeping in mind variety-seeking tendencies, and the products that the seller is trying to push
True to their hypothesis, the subjects in Group 1 were more likely to change/switch chips brands (the target product category being observed by the researchers) across the four days than Group 2, who in turn sought more variety than Group 3, who were stimulated the most!
This somewhat complex study has important implications for retailers and brands. A retailer like Amazon or Flipkart often suggests additional products to consumers — buyers who bought X also bought Y. These suggestions can be tailored keeping in mind variety-seeking tendencies, and the products that the seller is trying to push. Supermarkets too, could vary their assortments in different categories, and change their layouts to take advantage of this. But, most importantly, it sheds light on a crucial aspect of the consumer decision-making process.
This column is intended to showcase interesting academic research in marketing. The technically oriented reader is encouraged to read the original research articles cited in the column.
Prithwiraj Mukherjee is Assistant Professor of Marketing, IIM Bangalore. Views are personal.
Lead visual: Angela Anthony Pereira
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