I have to admit that while I love that video Malcolm Gladwell discussing the origins of the endless varieties of products in our supermarket shelves, I'm extremely uneasy about the overall thesis: i.e. that lots of product options are a good thing and make us happy. Maybe in the supermarket product variations really are a good thing. I personally have never bought Prego or Ragu, and the brands of pasta sauces I prefer don't come in dozens of varieties. To me the bigger question is at what point do product variations become product spam? Read on for more on this...
It's not as simple as making a lot of products
The biggest issue I have with the prevalence of product variations on store shelves is that it's caused some companies to wrongly conclude that simply creating lots of products is an effective product development strategy. After all, when browsing the aisles of the supermarket it's easy to assume that the all those pasta sauces are just a result of what's easy to manufacturer or part of a clever marketing scheme. But as Gladwell discusses, the origins of product variations came from exhaustive research. So the strategy isn't just making a lot of products, it's using research to make new products that address previously unknown consumer desires. I think some companies, particularly in consumer technology, have missed this point and are just creating a lot of products with little or no research and analysis. This is one way that product variations become product spam, and it's an approach that only serves to demonstrate the company has no clue what people want.
Then there are the "me too" products. This is when a company enters a large or growing product segment just to glean whatever sales they can, despite not having anything original to contribute. More often then not the company who's brand name is on the product had nothing to do with it's creation and outsourced it's creation or rebranded someone else's product. These are the worst types of product spam because they often just distract customers from quality products. Also, it's not uncommon for the company to have little to no commitment to the products and consequently offer little customer support.
Will it ever stop?
The big downside to product spam, is that I don't see it going away anytime soon. While product spam isn't effective at creating interesting or meaningful products, it does seem to be effective at boosting sales. A company with a lot of products and product variations can cause its competitor's products to get lost on the store shelves (or search results), which yield more sales. Also, just by creating a lot of products, the company can present an image of having expertise in that product area, whether or not the products are any good or not. Companies can also use a big selection of products to influence the buyers for retail chains. Invariably some buyers will be too busy to properly research the products (or just conclude that they don't know what customers want either) and just purchase some of everything, again yielding a larger order for the manufacturer. Even those me too products will generate a lot of sales when placed in the right retailers.