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Consumer Behavior

Less Really Is More

Many marketers are responding to consumers’ interest in simplifying their lives.

“Well, less is more, Lucrezia,” went a line in Robert Browning’s 1855 poem Andrea del Sarto, and the rest, as they say, is history. Architect and designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe took the phrase and ran with it a century or so later, creating a new kind of modernist style predicated on simplicity and clarity. Flash forward to the 1990s when a fair number of Americans, weary of the continual quest for “more” and “better,” latched onto the rather radical idea that less could be somehow be more. “Stress” had become a defining characteristic of the American Way of Life after the consumerist binge of the 1980s, causing some to wonder if all the cars, vacations, and dinners in fancy restaurants were worth what they cost in emotional terms. Life seemed to be mostly about “stuff” and to-do lists, these folks were concluding, making them, more than anything else, caretakers of things. In short, these people felt they had little or no control over their lives, and that some kind of change was in order. The movement was quickly labeled “voluntary simplicity,” an acknowledgement that adherents were choosing austerity rather than having it thrust upon them.

Today, less-is-more has evolved into a worldwide movement based in conscious minimalism that is tied to social and environmental responsibility. The economic kerfuffle of 2008 was instrumental in making people differentiate between their needs and wants, and helped to further the belief that a more restrained form of consumerism could actually be psychically liberating. Two other mega-forces–the green movement and what could perhaps be called “global sensibility”–also blossomed over the past decade, creating an ideal cultural climate for the philosophy of less-is-more to thrive.

Less-is-More is also a response to a marketplace that has become literally overwhelming. The number and variety of choices in any given product category has become absurd, a result of companies trying to grab every little fraction of market share. (Check out Borat’s cruising of a modern supermarket’s cheese aisle in that titular film as prime- and hilarious- evidence of consumerism run amuck.) In the process of market hyper-segmentation, however, companies have made things more difficult for the shopper, precisely the opposite of what they should be doing. Colgate, for example, lists forty-seven different kinds of toothpaste on its website (not including different sizes), and the typical supermarket in the United States stocks more than 42,000 items– almost five times the number in 1975. In his 2004 The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz convincingly showed how more could be less, and that it was in marketers’ best interests to limit product selection.

Happily, many marketers now appear to be responding to consumers’ interest in simplifying their consumptive lives. “At a time when choices of all sorts are multiplying like weeds, simplicity is becoming a selling point, with more businesses trimming their product lines or otherwise making it easier to compare their wares,” noted Neil Howe on It is not a coincidence that Less-is-More marketing is becoming a go-to strategy just as millennials begin reaching their peak earning and spending years. Unlike baby boomers, for whom more was definitely more when they hit their stride as consumers during the Reagan era, millennials prefer a limited number of choices in everything as they seem to innately understand what Schwartz found in his research. “More than any other generation, millennials see scaled-back inventories as a way to make their lives easier,” Howe added, refreshing news that organizations should heed.

More from Lawrence R. Samuel Ph.D.
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