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?

Announcing: Ottawa Brand Strategy Boot Camp – August 27

Registration has just opened for the August edition of our successful Beg to DIFFER Brand Strategy Boot Camp – brought to you by the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI) and Brandvelope Consulting.

Wide angle - brighter
Dennis fields questions at the last OCRI Beg to DIFFER Brand Strategy Bootcamp in May 2009.

generic Helvetica, information pills sans-serif; FONT-SIZE: +3″>Register here at the OCRI Web site.

This  boot camp is for all managers and executives with marketing, PR, or communication responsibility–whether in technology, government, not-for-profit, or other industries.  Basically, if you manage a brand and want to learn how to manage it for maximum connection and value (for your customers and for yourself) this boot camp is for you.


Thursday August 27, 2009


Nepean Sailing Club 3259 Carling Avenue

Two Options:

OPTION 1: Half-Day Bootcamp – morning only

  • 8:30 a.m. – 9:00 a.m. – Registration and Coffee
  • 9:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. – Seminar 

OPTION 2: Full-Day Bootcamp

  • Morning seminar (as above), plus:
  • 12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. – Lunch
  • 1:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. – Hands-on Workshop

Why you should attend:

Reason 1: morning session

Dennis at front -square
Morning Session provides theory, practical case studies, & tips

This seminar provides a great overview of three important topic areas for all Brand Managers:

  • What is a brand, and why is it important? You’re being branded one way or the other; we’ll help you take control.
  • The building blocks of brands. How to analyze, develop, and leverage the different facets of corporate strategy to ensure that your brands are making the right promises, and following through.
  • Brand management. How to use the brand elements and marketing tools at your disposal to manage your image in the minds of consumers. How to be a brand stickler without being seen as a “brand cop”. How to get your colleagues to live the brand.
  • Reason 2: afternoon workshop (only for full-day participants)

    Afternoon workshop (available only to full-day bootcampers) is more interactive, and involves hands-on critique of your brand.

    In this smaller-group setting, you’ll get a chance to apply the theory from the morning to your brand and get help from other participants and the workshop leaders.  The workshop will allow you to do a point-by-point inspection all the aspects of your brand. But note that the afternoon is for active participants only; be ready to give and take constructive feedback.

    Reason 3: Take-aways

    All participants will receive 1) Beg to DIFFER Brand Strategy Workbook  plus, full-day participants will also get 2) a personalized assesment of your brand strengths and challenges.

    Reason 4: Beautiful setting

    Nepean Sailing club is at 3259 Carling Avenue, just West of Andrew Haydon Park – only a short drive from downtown and Kanata. This venue offers stunning scenery and a relaxed atmosphere – we took the photo below from just outside the conference room. It’s the perfect place to spend a late August day gearing your brand up for the fall. Google Map here.

    Back deck
    Boot Camp will be held at the beautiful Nepean Sailing Club - 3259 Carling Avenue on Lac Deschênes near Andrew Haydon Park

    Reason 5: don’t take our word for it

    “I thoroughly enjoyed the day and want to thank you and your colleagues for your efforts. I believe this seminar is a definite requirement in the Ottawa area and you have already put in place many of the cornerstones to build on to make this a truly awesome and interactive event for new and seasoned brand management professionals.”

    Dan Chaput
    Director, Marketing Communications
    March Networks

    Register here at the OCRI Web site.

    Government abbreviations in one word: NOMO!

    As an Ottawa naming and brand strategy consultant, order I once thought the technology industry was the world’s biggest offender in the realm of unhelpful abbreviations. But then I started working with the Canadian federal government…. alphabet soup everywhere. My answer in one word: NOMO!


    The problem with acronyms / abbreviations / initialisms / alphabet soup

    So there it was: “Governments MIA when it comes to good acronyms” – one of my biggest PPPs (Personal Pet Peeves) being addressed right on the front page of yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen. The article is a useful introduction to the importance of, doctor and hair-pulling frustration involved with, sick unhelpful abbreviations and insider short-hand in government.

    The article even shows awareness at the political level from the same party that once called itself CCRAP. But it doesn’t go far enough.

    As a taxpayer, I’ve had enough trouble navigating my way through the small range of government services I actually use. But as a consultant whose job it is to help fix brand communication problems, I’ve been right in the middle of the tangled thicket of jargon and shorthand.

    Client: Your CV is impressive: PMRA, TBS, PWGSC…
    Me: Great! so we can work together?
    Client: Maybe, but the DG and the ADM might RFP, so PMO, PCO, and TBS are Cc-ed. CRA, DND, and PHAC as well…
    Me: Uh, right.
    Client: So as an SME SP without SC…
    Me: I’m SOL?

    And that’s before we actually get to work. Once I do, my consulting task is usually to explain existing services and programs in plain language, as I’ve done with Public Works and Government Services Canada (TPSGC-PWGSC), Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS-SCT),  Health Canada Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA-ARLA), and others. But I can’t do that until I’ve gone through the lengthy process of myself figuring out the thing I’m supposed to be explaining, (so the PMBB isn’t the same as the NMAO?) and then making sure that my clients can in turn understand and explain it in the simplest possible terms – without shorthand.

    At other times, I’ve actually had the joyous opportunity to name, or better yet un-name or re-name, a government entity. For example, a few years ago, I helped Industry Canada launch a new coast-to-coast service for business, which we called simply “Canada Business”. A boring name perhaps, but the intent couldn’t be plainer, and even better, doesn’t need to be abbreviated (“CanBiz” and “CB” were rejected early in the process).

    Why the terms don’t help

    But in trying to talk about this problem, the word “acronym” itself is one of the problems. So is“initialism”. So is “abbreviation”. I’ve tried sorting through this with a glossary at But I apologize if it’s still confusing.

    And to technically-minded bureaucrats, these words have such specific definitions, and are so widely abused, that the debate always gets gleefully sidetracked into the debate over which term applies to which unhelpful short-form. Is FINTRAC an initialism? Is PHAC an acronym? Should we name our new program CANPAPHTHPT?

    The average citizen says: “WTHC” (Who The Heck Cares)?

    My modest proposal:

    So I say we short-circuit the debate with one new word that describes the whole range of unwieldy shortenings:

    NOMONYM: (NOUN) any unhelpful short-form, nickname, abbreviation, acronym, initialism, jargon, or insider buzz-term.

    I created the word by (helpfully) abbreviating the phrase “NO More Obscure Nomenclature!” Although “NO-MOre-NYMs” works just as well.

    In common usage, I recommend that this term be further shortened to “NOMO” and shouted loudly at government seminars, workshops, and brainstorming sessions.

    Usage examples for “NOMO”:

    • Scenario 1: CRA needs a TTB from the WTH before you get an XYZ.
    • Response: all the people shout “NOMO!”
    • Scenario 2: government announces BPH moves RPHCAN to TLA.
    • Response: all the people shout “NOMO!”
    • Scenario 3: the DND/CF CEFCOM JTF-Afg and TFK BGen of ISAF, launches Operation ROOB, UNYIP, JANOOBI (I’m not making that up)
    • Response: all the people shout “NOMO!”

    Use NOMO as a noun, a verb, an adjective, whatever you like. But shout it loudly, so it is heard throughout government boardrooms, corridors, brainstorming sessions – anywhere a NOMO might rear its ugly head.

    And as the movement spreads, we go through the whole portfolio of government agencies, services, and terminology, weeding out NOMOs wherever we find them.

    Perhaps then government can do the one thing that citizens need most:


    The whole NOMO series:

    A modest proposal for General Motors and the new boss

    So with all the kerfuffle around the GM bankruptcy (and the gajillions of dollars we’ll all be shelling out to save its butt from the fire), troche the one thing that gets forgotten as always is the brand strategy angle: 60-90 days from now, GM will be re-emerging from bankruptcy under a new coporate banner. Now, that could be a simple mechanical switch, but we at Brandvelope started thinking: what if the new boss has something to say about that?

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