“Too Many Minds”: How Consumer Electronics Companies Create Consumer Confusion

This is a re-publishing (with very slight updates) of an article I wrote for Digital Home Thoughts back in 2008. It’s just as true today as it was eight years ago.

There’s a scene in The Last Samurai where Tom Cruise’s character is learning the art of Japanese sword-fighting, and after getting soundly smacked around by his opponent for several minutes, one of the samurai says to him “Too many minds”. The idea is that he’s focusing on his opponent, his own stance, his sword, and the people watching – and that many “minds” is making him a less effective warrior. When I look at the digital camera industry (and many other consumer electronics categories, such as Synology’s insane product chaos) and the proliferation of same-brand point and shoot cameras, it’s hard not to see the similarities. Rapid release cycles – usually unwarranted in terms of actual improvement in features – coupled with out-of-control model proliferation and confusing model names leads to a “too many minds” scenario – and it’s usually the consumer the ends up losing out.

A perfect example of this problem, and indeed the spark for writing this article, came this morning when I visited the Panasonic Web site to check out their Lumix line of point and shoot digital cameras. I’ve always been intrigued by the Lumix line of cameras, and when I was reading an issue of Popular Photography and was reminded that they have a model with 10x optical zoom and 720p HD video, I figured I’d take a closer look. I’ve been a Canon point and shoot guy for a long time (though I had a brief fling with Casio’s Exilimline), but I’m disappointed at Canon’s inability to get decent optical zoom and 720p into their cameras. But I digress…

I was stunned when, after clicking into Panasonic’s “Lumix Digital Cameras” section, I was presented with a list of 34 cameras arranged in a three-across grid. 34 different Lumix models? 27 of them marked as “NEW”? I thought at first that there were so many listed because they were showing each colour option available, but a quick scan told me that, no, there were really 34 different models numbers. I was only interested in the10x optical zoom models, so I tried sorting by price to see their more “premium” models – after ignoring the first two results (which are their “baby DSLR” models), I was shown the DMC-TZ50S, a 10x optical zoommodel – but it also had WiFi, which for me is a wasted feature. The next model was the DMC-LX2K with 4x zoom. I stumbled around the list of 34 cameras and eventually found that the DMC-TZ5K was likely the model that most closely matched my needs – but it was a frustrating experience trying to get to that point.

Looking at the 34 different model numbers (30 if you remove the DSLR-type cameras) sorted by price, I realized that in fact they really were showing me different models numbers for identical cameras in different colours. The DMC-LS80K, DMC-LS80S, DMC-LS80P? All the same $149 camera – but Panasonic thinks it’s a good idea to display them as if they were different cameras when the only difference is colour. Amongst the 34 cameras that Panasonic offers in their Lumix line, there are 11 distinct price points represented, ten of which are between $149 and $549. Is there really a significant enough difference between the $149 camera the and $179 camera to warrant offering both models? “Too many minds” means a scattered, confusing presentation of Panasonic’s products to consumers. How could the average consumer possibly filter through that many options and arrive at the one they really want?

Let’s imagine another scenario, one where the consumer is put first: Panasonic offers four different small point and shoot models, starting at $149 and going up to $449. Each of the four models would have distinct sensor resolution and feature differences (optical zoom, HD video, etc.), and the $100 price gap between each model creates a fairly distinct “break point” for the consumer in terms of which model has the features they want, and how much they’re willing to spend. Once they’ve selected the model they want, they’d get the choice of a few different colours. Choosing between four different cameras sure seems a lot easier than trying to select from amongst 30, doesn’t it? I think having choice is a great thing, but too much choice becomes paralyzing – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in comparison Nikon offers nine DSLR models total, and in reality only five of those would be considered current generation hardware. Nikon’s slightly better thanPanasonic when it comes to P&S cameras, offering “only” 18 different cameras, but even that number is pretty ridiculous.

How did we get here? It’s similar to a nuclear arms race: Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony, and the others are all in a fierce race to dominate the point and shoot camera market, and each company tries to one-up the other not only in features, but also in product spectrum. Somehow they’re all convinced that the more models they offer, the better they’ll do. I don’t think that’s the case – all of these companies have a bad case of “too many minds” when it comes to their P&S digital camera products, and it shows. Here’s a radical idea: how about fewer product choices, released less often (say, only when there’s really been an improvement in the technology)? What about releasing new cameras that are actually significantly better than previous generations? It’s so crazy, it just might work.