The Dangers of Overthinking


How many of you have heard of ‘The Centipede’s Dilemma’?


It’s a short poem attributed to Katherine Craster that was first published in 1871. This is how it goes…


A centipede was happy – quite!

Until a toad in fun

Said “Pray, which leg moves after which?”

This raised her doubts to such a pitch

She fell exhausted in the ditch

Not knowing how to run.


The poem has lent its name to a psychological condition called ‘The Centipede Effect’. It occurs when a normally automatic or unconscious activity is disrupted by thinking about it.


Typing is a good example. If you were asked to type your name on a keyboard you could do it easily. If you were asked to think about where each letter was on the keyboard as you typed, you would really struggle.


Often the more we think about things, the harder they become.


Why are we talking about this? It is easy to overthink things. You can overthink your strategy. Thinking about all the different growth opportunities that you miss the most important ones. You can overthink your proposition. Adapting it so much that you lose sight of what you really stand for.


It is natural to overthink things. You spend 5 days a week (maybe more…) thinking about your category or brand. You might have worked on an innovation project for the last 12 months. You might have spent 3-4 months developing a strategy. You are paid to think and care.


But shoppers aren’t. They spend very little time thinking about a category or brand. They care much less than you do. Your category is one of 30-40 they might encounter on a shopping trip. They don’t have the time or energy to think through every purchase decision they make.


They are the centipede walking. Whilst you are often the centipede trying to explain how you walk.


So, where are some of the dangers of overthinking?


Overthinking Visions. You start with a simple vision for your category or brand. Something that is really well anchored in the role the category plays for consumers. Something that really differentiates your brand. Then you think. Is there more you can say? Can you add more purpose? So, you go higher. Then higher still. Maslow needs to add another level to his hierarchy of needs. Before you know it you are trying to save the world rather than trying to sell more deodorant.


Instead, think less. Keep it simple. Keep it focused. And, most importantly, remember what you’re selling.


Overthinking Targeting. You start with a simple shopper target. Something that is focused enough to direct activity but is broad enough to drive scale. Then you think. We need to segment. So, you do. Now you’ve got 6 segments. You pick one target segment. Then you think we need to overlay demographics. So, you do. You’re now targeting millennials (it’s always millennials, right…?). Now you’ve got a segment within a segment. Even if you changed the target behaviour of everyone in the target group, there aren’t enough of them to shift the needle on penetration, frequency or spend.


Instead, think less. Focus on the things that are most important to the greatest number of shoppers. The shoppers who go into stores not the ones who only exist on mood boards.


Overthinking Merchandising. You start by thinking you need to understand shopper decision trees. You commission a purchase decision hierarchy study. You get back a flow chart with about 40 boxes on it. You think this is great. Until you take a step back and wonder “so, how do I translate this into a 3-bay layout?”. Then realise the answer. You can’t.


Instead, think less. Remember that the No 1 job of any shelf layout (or online taxonomy) is to make it simple and intuitive for shoppers. Then design the layout that best does this. No shopper decision tree ever said merchandise Herbs & Spices by letter. But it’s the simplest and most intuitive way of doing it.


Overthinking Communication. You start with a clear idea of what you want to say. Then someone says, “what about X?”. Then someone else says “have we thought about Y?”. Then someone else says “don’t we need to say Z?” Before you know it, you’ve got 5 different messages on your pack, POS or 6 sheet. What the shopper will see and take out is anybody’s guess.


Instead think less. Know what the single most important thing you want to communicate is. Say it in the clearest and most compelling way. Don’t say anything else.


We’re not saying don’t think. Of course you need to think. But we are saying don’t overthink.


Be the centipede walking casually across the garden. Not the one figuring out which leg to move next.


Feel free to forward. Have good weekend. Speak to you in a fortnight.