Can a Product be too Convenient?

Posted by Eric Lomax

In the 1950s, Betty Crocker created a cake mix that only required water: no flour, eggs, butter, or sugar. It was so simple that a child could bake a delicious cake. But customers hated it. One of business’s fundamental goals is to ease customers’ burdens and every tool, home appliance, and gizmo promises to make customers’ lives easier. Why did the easiest cake mix imaginable fail?

Functions and Symbols

Different customers view the same product differently. At one extreme, the item merely serves a function and convenience provides distinction. Power tools are preferred over manual ones because they require less effort and longer-lasting batteries garner more appeal than ones with shorter lives. For these customers, convenience increases the item’s functionality.

At the other extreme, items are symbolic. The doctor’s lab coat represents her years of intense study. The 50-year-old man’s sports car attempts to reclaim youth. The “Ford Tough” pickup truck exemplifies the working-class ideals of hard work and durability. These items convey traits about the owners that they subconsciously communicate to others and themselves. At this end of the spectrum, convenience is undesirable because it diminishes the product’s symbolic meaning. Betty Crocker’s bakers viewed the mix’s simplicity as a way to cheat their families.

Customers pay for symbolic items with other types of currency — risk, sacrifice, or pain. They pay with effort. Would a diploma be valuable if it could be earned in weeks, not years? Would military service be as meaningful without the risk and sacrifice? Would the tattoo be as cool if it was temporary and painless? Each is acquired through perseverance and is bought with more than money.

Offer Levels

Does your product provide bragging rights or is it a status symbol? If either answer is or should be “yes,” the correct approach is counter-intuitive. Making it too easy to use or acquire devalues it. Anything that is easy to acquire is easy to discard. It’s a throwaway because it can be effortlessly regained. Instead, make the product more challenging. If this barrier is too great then offer progressively difficult stages. Runners challenge themselves with 5Ks and half-marathons before attempting a marathon. Students matriculate through primary, secondary, and undergraduate before completing graduate school. Stages allow the customer to progress while aspiring to the final goal.

Legos, video games, and the New York Times Crossword Puzzle have millions of followers because they are challenging, not convenient. Each encompasses increasing levels of complexity where intricate Lego sets include more pieces, video games offer multiple levels and the NYT Crossword Puzzle increases difficulty throughout the week. Nothing valuable is effortless. Nothing exclusive is easy and all successful niches are valuable and exclusive. It seems like backward thinking but making products more challenging increases their value and exclusivity. Challenge your customers to be smarter, better informed, and more focused. They’ll reward you with their appreciation and their patronage.

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