Consider Red Bull, the energy drink synonymous with winged cartoon characters, Austrians who dive from space—and high-flying, muscular dunk machine Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers. When Red Bull cast the professional basketball player in a commercial in late 2013, the footage interspersed shots of the forward shooting around on a blacktop court with shots of Griffin describing how it feels when fans cheer him on, or explaining the work ethic instilled by his parents. Nowhere in that advertisement does Red Bull say its energy drink is superior to other energy drinks on the market. Indeed, Red Bull never even mentions its taste.

But constructing advertising for an energy drink based on what cartoons do or how celebrity athletes train could be pretty smart, mainly because it pushes people prone to thoroughly weighing options out of what is called the maximizing mind-set. “If you’re in this maximizing mind-set, no matter how good the product is, you’re going to be unsatisfied with it if it’s anything less than the most amazing thing ever,” says Neal J. Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management. “It’s a hidden danger that marketers need to be aware of.”

Roese’s research, conducted with Jingjing Ma (a doctoral candidate in marketing at the Kellogg School), shows that people disposed toward maximizing will turn sour on a product if they learn it was not their best available option. It goes beyond simple comparative analysis of different items on the market: Coca-Cola or Pepsi, Apple or Samsung, Red Bull or Amp. People in the maximizing mind-set compare products with the added, specific goal to get the most ideal outcome. Marketing managers keen on advertising their products as the best alternative should think twice, as the maximizing mind-set increases feelings of regret and dissatisfaction in people who believe they were taking the optimum deal only to be disappointed afterward. And if maximizing people are not convinced their purchase is second to none, they are liable to ditch, and then switch, brands and products.

Choose Wisely
Across seven experiments, Ma and Roese found that people in the maximizing mind-set make decisions by working harder and searching more widely and thoroughly to find the best outcome. What’s more, Ma and Roese determined that people in a maximizing mind-set are also likely to feel negative affect, such as regret or disappointment, about their decision if they learn they did not pick or receive the best item.

In one experiment, for instance, Ma and Roese primed several hundred participants to adopt either a maximizing mind-set (by answering questions about which someone or something is “the best”) or a satisficing mind-set (by answering questions about whether someone or something was “good enough”). A third subset of participants was not primed with questions at all. Then participants were presented with five products and told to choose one to potentially receive as a gift. (Twenty-five winners would be selected after the study.) The prices of the products were not given, although participants were told they could find more information about each product by clicking on the product names.

Once the participants had made their choices, the products’ market prices were revealed. Participants learned that, should they be selected as a winner, they would receive an Amazon gift card for the exact amount of the product they had chosen. (Because the majority of participants did not select the most expensive product, this should have elicited regret.) Finally, all participants were asked how satisfied they were with their decision.

The researchers found that participants assigned to the maximizing condition not only clicked on more product names to find more information—to thoroughly weigh their alternatives—but also felt “greater regret and lower satisfaction” about their choice than participants in the other group.

Keep It In Bounds
On the whole, maximizing mind-sets—and the promises that trigger them—are probably bad news for brands. But is there any way for advertisers to use such a disposition to their advantage? Another of Ma and Roese’s studies suggests a way for marketers: offer a large assortment of products, and make it easy and enjoyable for customers to find the one they will like best.

“If I’m starting off with a big product assortment, it might be OK or less dangerous for me to have some messaging that mentions maximizing,” Roese says. “I have more of a chance of hitting the right choice for that person.”

In this experiment, hundreds of participants were presented six types of popular U.S. snacks—Doritos chips, Cheetos, and the like—and told to pick the one they like most. Half were given their chosen snack; the other half were told their chosen snack had run out, and were then given another, randomly chosen snack. Participants then tasted the snack and were finally asked if they would trade in their snack for one of six similar snacks made by a Canadian brand. People in the maximizing mind-set who did not receive their chosen snack opted to switch more than two-thirds of the time. But maximizers who received the snack they wanted switched to a new snack less than half the time.

“If people were able to get the one thing they picked out of an assortment, to achieve what they really wanted in that situation, the effect of maximizing went away,” says Roese. With a smaller assortment of products, companies run the risk of raising buyers’ expectations and disappointing someone. “But if you can tap into people’s preferences and hit the sweet spot of what they really want, the issues of maximizing are going to go away for you,” he says.

A select few manufacturers do not even need to offer a large selection in order to hit customers’ “sweet spot.” The relevant example is Apple and its iPhone. While Ma and Roese observe that malfunctions in the iPhone will lead to popular outcry from its users, Apple nonetheless has positioned itself well by having a product of great quality. “They use a much smaller product assortment but really emphasize the quality,” says Roese. While hiccups with iPhone technology do happen, the phones rarely suffer defects, and buyers feel redeemed for purchasing an iPhone.

Making Memories
Perhaps the most practical application of Ma and Roese’s research, however, comes in the manner in which companies choose to tailor their advertising: whether companies emphasize their products as the best out there or connect with buyers through a different means. This is where such companies as Red Bull have done things correctly, Roese says.

What Red Bull advertises is an experience. It looks to create a memory for people watching its commercials and seeing its advertisements and then tries to connect any feelings evoked to its product.

“The more experiential you can make the product, the happier people are,” Roese says. “Experiential purchases push people out of a maximizing mind-set.”

Taking materialistic items and pushing them into the realm of experience will push buyers away from comparing with similar models and “give a brand a special glow,” he says. This is why Red Bull uses a star U.S. basketball player in its commercials. People buy the experience, literally and figuratively.

Unless a company has a gangbuster product, what advertising and marketing managers must do to mitigate the maximizing mind-set is shy away from overly boastful advertising. Talk up the assortment size of a particular type of product within an overall brand—perhaps a manufacturer of coffee brewers touts the number of brewers available for purchase, instead of claiming its brewers produce the finest tasting cups of coffee. Or connect with buyers by leaving them with a memory of what the product is and how they might use it themselves.

Roese sums up the findings for marketing professionals as simply this: “Don’t make broken promises.”

Artwork by Yevgenia Nayberg