Our need for choice is important as it gives us a feeling of freedom and personal responsibility, but too much choice can evoke negative emotions.
Globally, we are seeing a trend of choice overload as we are exposed to more information than ever before. Consumers’ lives are dominated by online marketplaces such as Amazon and Alibaba, where we expend mental energy making trade-offs and comparing the potential negative consequences of choosing one product over another.
A recent global report from digital assistant company Zoovu found that 54% of consumers have stopped purchasing products from a brand or retailer website, because choosing the right product was too difficult.
How people view and make choices is based on deep-rooted cultural values and shifting contextual factors. We recently carried out research in Germany, combining quantitative research with cultural contextualisation to explore how German people view choice and how they are navigating too much of it.
A culture of rational choosers
German culture places high value on rationality and certainty, with the belief that risk should be mitigated. ‘Good’ choices are typically viewed as ones that consider all of the potential outcomes with contingency plans in place – this is most clearly seen in the value that Germans place on insurance and savings.
Our quantitative survey of 1,000 Germans identified that when it comes to a perspective on choice, the overwhelming feeling is that of neutrality. This reflects the belief that a choice should be made through weighing up all of the information, rather than being led by emotion. Compared to another Western market like the US who view choice more emotionally – given the link to personal freedom – this is an interesting and unique characteristic of the German market, which we sought to explore in more depth.
This relationship with choice traces back to events in German history, including the rise of fascism and the mass surveillance that followed. This has left a lasting national mindset of vigilance, as many Germans seek to have increased control over their personal data and choices. Due to this, Germany has stricter data protection laws giving Germans greater protection over their personal data, and brands have to ask for the consent of consumers before collecting or storing it.
Linked to this, Germans tend to have a natural suspicion towards being ‘sold to’, often questioning product claims, instead preferring to trust expertise and quality. A well-known saying in Germany, reflecting this attitude, is ‘qualität vor quantität’ (quality over quantity). Many consumers look for the ‘Made in Germany’ seal of approval, as well as trusted sources to help them decide what to buy, e.g. Stiftung Warentest, an independent review site that objectively reviews products and services.
Making choices instinctively is not encouraged. It instead relies on filtering through information, as well as an assessment of risk. It is not surprising that the word most associated with choice in our research was ‘entscheidung’, meaning ‘decision’.
To understand more about how Germans navigate choice today, we enlisted the help of our ‘Illume Guides’ – in-market consumers who can give us an on-the-ground perspective.
The more options available in Germany, the greater the demand for convenience to help savvy consumers filter them.
There is an interesting tension here, as Germans have to balance control with this need for increased convenience. Traditional offline shopping practices like catalogue mail ordering are being replaced by online shopping, allowing consumers to easily compare products and choose from convenient delivery options. The German retailer REWE, for example, has recently invested in their fresh food e-commerce offer.
With this increased convenience comes the potential to lose control of ‘choice’ and many Germans, particularly the older generation, are worried about this. For example, Amazon Dash (the convenient one-click-ordering function) has been recently banned in Germany as it was deemed to take away control from the consumer.
Making better choices
Increasingly, Germans also need help with making ‘better’ choices in a more sustainable way. Germany is one of the most environmentally conscious countries in the world, and green initiatives are well practiced throughout society.
The German government is taking away the mental strain of having to make a better choice by enforcing ‘greener’ behaviours. For example the ‘5 point plastic plan’ includes large fees for companies who use environmentally unfriendly packaging such as single use plastic.
A less popular example is the potential introduction of an autobahn speed limit. Unrestricted driving is a German norm and citizens see it as reflective of their autonomy, nicely summed up in the German phrase “freie fahrt fur freie burger” (freedom to drive for free citizens). As a vehemently environmentally conscious nation, this regulation would seem like a no brainer, but it is also at odds with the culturally engrained freedom of choice.
Younger consumers, in particular, are demanding that they help them make the ‘right’ choice through providing transparent information about sustainability that helps put them in control of this decision.
The survey data suggests that Germans are neutral towards choice, but this does not mean they are apathetic to making choices, or dislike having options to choose from. The reality is that they need help to navigate what is available so they feel in control of what they are choosing, and can do it efficiently.
For brands looking to gain traction in Germany, it is about connecting with consumers on a rational level, putting them in the driving seat of making a choice.