Andy Davidson
May 28, 2015

Trouble in paradise: Why 'on demand' can mean low demand

Andy Davidson, head of client strategy at Flamingo London, argues that giving customers what they want, when they want it might not always be such a good idea.

Andy Davidson
Andy Davidson

Not all that long ago people couldn’t have what they wanted when they wanted it.

They had to actually plan to be physically in front of a television at the right time if they wanted to watch a particular show.

They had to decide what genre of music they liked because, well, music cost quite a lot of money and they couldn't buy it all.

People had to plan their shopping around the opening hours of shops and even worse, had to eat fresh food in season. ‘What’s that? You want some asparagus? It’s October. Come back in May next year.’

This state of affairs has been so intolerable that giving people what they want when they want it has arguably been the catalyst fuelling all marketing activity of the past three decades.

Today, in the globalized world at least, we are entering an almost perfect ‘on demand’ world. We can shop, eat, buy, watch, and do what we want when we want. And, freed from the tyranny of being told what to do and when to do it, everything is brilliant. Isn’t it?

If it were, this would be a very short article.

As we enter our truly on-demand world for the first time, two problems are becoming apparent to marketers.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Firstly, in the absence of any sort of restriction on time or product availability it can be extremely difficult to get people to do anything at all.  

To draw a food analogy, in an on-demand world all products and services become canned goods, as fresh today as they will be in 10 years. Why open that tin of beans tonight when your fresh asparagus is getting close to its ‘best before’ date?

For an example of the benefits to be enjoyed in a world with restricted choice, look no further than Black Friday. A single day that happens but once a year. How else would you manage to get millions of otherwise reasonable people to begin punching one another in the face to get a discounted flat-screen TV? Tell them that for only one day in the entire year the product will be available until it runs out. Imposing a false limit on the demand forces consumers to behave in irrational ways.

The second issue for marketers in a perfectly on-demand world is that it exposes humans’ innate weaknesses when it comes to choosing and decision-making. 

Take the example of Spotify; the music streaming service has 4 million tracks that have never been played. Not even once. You can listen to them all here and give them some love.

Industry analysis shows that in a world of increased choice, music listeners are overwhelmingly listening to fewer, bigger artists than they did when there was less choice.

Choosing sucks up an individual’s valuable cognitive resource, and by presenting us with a vast increase in choice the on-demand world risks debilitating us with choice overload. 

Indeed, research shows that the more options we have, the less likely we are to be satisfied by the choices we make.

If the digital music example is anything to go by, this will not end well, particularly for smaller brands.

The obvious solution is to restrict the number of options available and reduce choice overload. But it isn’t that simple. We might not be good at choosing, but we love our choice. 

So what to do? One solution is to reduce the effort required to make a choice by anchoring your product or service to some sort of contextual factor, be it time, place, friends.

To this end, Spotify has just added the ‘now’ feature when browsing for music, the latest app update recommends music selected to suit the time you are searching, offering up choices that are anchored into the context of our lives, making it easier to choose.

Another option is the power of social recommendation. We like to have our choices validated by others, and knowing what friends or people like us have already chosen helps us outsource our decisions and feel more confident we have made the right ones. Net-A-Porter has just launched ‘The Net Set’, a social commerce site powered by users, helping the fashion retailer give would-be shoppers a better sense of the products that other customers are loving and choosing right now.

No one is ever going to say they don’t love the convenience and richness of our on-demand world, but marketers would be wise to wrestle some of that control back from us if they want us to do anything at all. While our ‘stuff’ might be increasingly on-demand, we are still living decidedly linear lives.

Andy Davidson is head of client strategy at Flamingo London


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