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All that glitters is not gold: The quest for science in marketing

In this series of blog posts, researchers from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute share some major marketing science discoveries from the past fifty years.

The area of consumer choice is still largely an unchartered territory after years of research. Do consumers benefit from a wide array of options, or do they benefit from simpler selection?

For years, a paper by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper has been to claim that shoppers actually much prefer simplicity. It suggests that selecting a jam out of six varieties is much more desirable for shoppers than picking one out of 24. Iyengar’s book The Art of Choosing and her TED talk further popularise this concept within wider business circles and general audiences. But not many people know that other researchers could not arrive at the same finding when they repeated the study.

Furthermore, there are cases where shoppers actually do not mind much wider selections if they are properly classified – for instance, have you ever tried to buy paint? Although you are faced with a myriad of options, the categorisation helps you in picking the right product: wood, iron or concrete, and then the type of finish and colour that you want.

Having results that have undergone multiple research iterations under different conditions is important for science. It is through repeated replications that we can arrive at generalisable findings: know when similar results can be expected and where differences may occur. Unfortunately, many experts and researchers rush to publicise results based on single studies that may not replicate at all. Worse still, some did not even do any research to back their assertions.

In an article by professor Barry Schwartz, he makes a comment about how the path to science is often littered with hasty publications and popular adoptions where findings have not been tested and replicated. Prof Schwartz published a book in 2004, which is generally considered the seminal work in the area of consumer choice called The Paradox of Choice. He has now conceded that he was hasty, this is still an open area for exploration and testing – that having a smaller number of options is not necessarily preferred by consumers.

It may be easy for business professionals to then deride any scientific discoveries in marketing. However, it needs to be noted that this is how knowledge is formed: through research, testing past findings, and repeated replications. Through the process, we dismiss any incorrect assertions and improve our knowledge by incorporating any new lessons. This is also true in natural science – for example, now we know that water does not necessarily boil at 100C – this is true at sea level, however, the higher you move, the lower the temperature needed to reach boiling point. Scientists discovered this by repeating the process at various altitudes.

This is a far better system than taking untested opinions by marketing gurus and considering them as the truth. It is even more dangerous if you create your strategies based on such opinions. Attempts to validate these claims often face strong passionate resistance from supporters – even when a scientific alternative is presented. It is a contrast to the position taken by prof Schwartz in his article. He graciously concedes that it is the natural progression of science: past research findings may not be accurate in the light of further evidence.

As a community, it is better if we focus on robust scientific findings that have been tested and replicated and adopt a more questioning mind. All that glitters is not gold. There are too many self-styled gurus and modern-day peddlers with clever theories that sound sensible, but poorly researched (if ever).

Arry Tanusondjaja is a research associate at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute. He is currently researching the impact of product portfolio sizes on the overall brand penetration and market share. Are bigger portfolios always better for the brand?