The great brain freeze: the perils of too much ice cream… or choice

This happens to me a few times every week: I’m standing at a store or restaurant, this web getting customer service by phone, information pills or buying something online, and suddenly I’m faced with a dazzling, badly organized array of choices like this menu board at an Ottawa area Dairy Queen Brazier (no comment on that name for today). And how does it feel? Well, imagine shoving a whole Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Blizzard down your throat all at once…

The THARN Effect: for me, this DQ board was a Brain-Buster Parfait
The THARN Effect: for me, this DQ board was a Brain-Buster Parfait

Basic brain freeze

In the video below from the last Beg to Differ Brand Strategy Boot Camp, I describe what happened when I was faced with this menu board.

Basically, I had walked through the door having already made a number of choices: first I’d chosen between a dozen different food establishments in that neighbourhood; then I’d to choose to ignore my guilt about going with fast food at all; then I chose between ice cream – the product I normally associate with Dairy Queen – and hot food; and finally I had to choose whether to wait when I saw a significant lunch-rush line at the counter.

So by the time I got to the counter, after passing up several opportunities to walk away, you’d think DQ would try to make my life easier. But no, once I got inside the store, I faced a wall of giant posters with exclamation marks and starbursts all over them, and the menu board above that utterly failed to line up my choices in a clear way, filled with cleverly-named products that were all yelling, dancing, and fighting for my attention like a room-full of sugar-buzzed preschoolers whose Ritalin had run out.

Choice: the hidden “THARN”

Richard Adams, in his classic novel Watership Down, coined a great rabbit-language word that I like to use to describe the consumer’s mind-state when faced with too much choice:

THARN: (adj) the helpless, catatonic state a rabbit enters when it is caught in the headlights of a car.

Humans react the same way when you throw too many choices at them: they go “tharn”. Sounds a lot like the headache most people get when they swallow too much ice cream doesn’t it? Like ice cream, small, measured bites are a heavenly experience; too much too fast is physically painful.

But bright headlights & ice cream sundaes are good aren’t they?

Now, you may say, “but that’s just effective consumer marketing”, and perhaps the marketing sages at DQ know something I don’t about what sells sandwiches. Plus, as a 40-year old male, I suspect I’m not at the heart of their target demographic.

I also don’t want to imply that choice is bad, nor is it a bad thing to get your customers to slow down a bit and pay more attention to you while you have their attention.
But remember all the other choices they had to make to get to your “counter”: it’s a delicate balance between deepening their understanding by showing them more and overwhelming them with too much choice.

So ask yourself:

  • 1) Are you helping customers quickly scan their options by organizing clear “decision trees” of plainly labelled and named options?
  • 2) Are you making them feel confident about your brand – that is, their their end-to-end experience of it , and not just the individual sandwich they buy?
  • 3) Are your marketing tactics really deepening their understanding, or just adding to the wall of noise they already face and defeating the point of marketing (to help people decide to buy your products)?
  • 4) Are you managing your whole brand including your product portfolio, your decision-making interfaces, and your customer service to remove THARN moments or are you just turning on the high beams and shoving the ice cream down their throats?

The choice is yours. Well, actually, it’s theirs. And that’s the real point isn’t it?

3 thoughts on “The great brain freeze: the perils of too much ice cream… or choice”

  1. Do I ever identify with Tharn at fast food places! Would it be so difficult to have printed menus to grab while waiting in line?

    1. That might help. But the big problem is that they forgot what made them successful in the first place: LIMITING people’s choices to make their lives (and decisions) easier. I think fast food joints need to trim the fat in their product menus – as well as in their food.

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