We’ve finally stopped hearing about how the ‘consumer has won’. Admit it, you missed that battle cry. While I don’t believe the consumer has actually won anything, and never viewed it as a contest, choice has been unlocked. Which is why choice creates emotional challenge for brands. People get extremely frustrated when they lack choice and indifferent when overwhelmed with it.

The studies about the paradox of choice have been shared for years. More options in a category–especially more difficult to distinguish options–make consumers unhappy. This turns to emotional detachment and usually lowest price wins. Brands viewed as commodities fight desperately to create an emotional hook that will give people a reason to choose them.

Of course, defining products as a commodity is directly link to whether people are emotional about them or not. Someone who cooks a lot likely has a strong opinion about canned vegetables and thus not consider them a commodity. The next person at the shelf may have no opinion whatsoever about canned goods and therefore buy whatever product is a few cents cheaper.  

On one end of the spectrum, commodity renders people indifferent because of a glut of products with indiscernible differences. We’ve been given so many options that it’s hard to care about any of them. On the other end of the spectrum is lack of choice. Products and services (mostly) that people are forced to use. Things like utilities.  

People don’t like utility providers. We see literal utilities as devoid of drive, innovation and the motivation to please customers. The local electric company has no reason to try. We are forced to use them as a matter of unlucky geographic distribution and that makes us feel powerless. We don’t like feeling powerless. When things go wrong with a brand that we even view as a utility – we exercise the little power we have. Yelling at phone support or yes, tweeting.

This mindset applies to consumer brands that have utility status. It’s decided by stakes tied to cost or of circumstance. When we study airlines for example, we see that consumer sentiment is usually at a reasonable, predictable level until it isn’t. It rarely increases. If there is a spike in sentiment, it is almost always a sharp decline triggered by a specific event.

People pay a lot for travel and have a certain expectation for the experience. They aren’t very forgiving when it goes wrong. When travelers mention travel brands on social, we rarely thank them for doing the basics of the contract. Great job United! You left the gate at exactly 7:17 and got to Newark at 9:34 just like I paid you to do!  Needless to say, this does not happen. They do however, complain LOUDLY when anything in the entire trip goes sideways. Why?

But there we do have our choice of airlines, don’t we? Not exactly. The biggest asset and weakness leading someone to choose an airline for a given flight is whether or not it flies the route that is needed. I may be an A+ rewards member on Southwest, but if I need to go direct to New York, I’m not flying them. As it turns out, those assigned routes create some resentment. Live in Atlanta? You’re flying Delta, like it or not. Because choice is limited, the few providers of those routes categorized as a utility.

Looking at the comments people make on Twitter ads for brands illustrates how people treat brands like these. Companies like banks or oil companies. I honestly don’t know why they still run ads on social, the response is brutal. Every rah-rah corporate :06 brand video tweet gets ratiod in minutes. The negative comments vastly outweigh the likes, if there are any.

Brands spend endless time and twice as much money tracking consumer perception and attitudes toward their every decision. Knowing the potential reaction to any move we make relative to competitors positions our brand for growth. We assume that we’re getting closer or moving ahead of other brands in the minds of consumers.

When a customer complains about their iPhone, they’re usually hyperventilating over something relatively minor. A small bug, a UX flaw, their awful phone app. When someone complains about Shake Shack it’s usually couched – I love it here, but there was this one small problem.

When someone complains about their bank it’s often presented as if they have no choice. I’ve been on hold for 45 minutes and then you transferred me to the wrong person!!! ZOMG!! But these people rarely switch banks, even when they threaten to. They may say they’ll never fly United again, which they mean. Until the next time they need to fly from Raleigh to Newark at 7:17. They perceive that they are dealing with a utility, like they locked in based on some constraint. Or at least they represent that perception.

Engaging with a company when you have no choice is more often a confrontation than the fluffy moments on a typical customer journey. People approach every interaction with a credit card company like they’ve pulled up to a used car lot, bracing themselves for aggressive abuse.

The biggest mistake a brand can make is mistaking its place on the emotional spectrum. An oil company crowing about its potential investment in one form of alternative energy while consumers believe they have paid to squelch other forms is misguided. As we map out customer journeys, we make sure to include the emotional state of the consumer at the given time. More importantly, it’s critical to include the emotional context that defines the consumer’s posture walking into the potential transaction. Where they fall on the emotional spectrum will define how to frame communication and response.