November 30, 2006

How not to shop: judges and competitors need to take more chances

[Originally published as an Editorial]

Professional marketers know that, essentially, there are two psychological approaches to shopping for products:

  1. By using the “process of rejection.”
  2. By using the “process of selection.”

The vast majority of shoppers purchase products by using the process of rejection. In effect, this a negative approach to buying. One looks at what’s available and then chooses the familiar. The toothpaste rack at the drugstore/chemist may have a hundred different products from which to choose, but Procter & Gamble understands that Crest’s strong brand recognition makes the choice a safe and familiar one for consumers.

There are dozens of options, each with something different, but chances are those products will be rejected in favour of the familiar. Conversely, a minority of shoppers use the process of selection. They are bored with the familiar and want to try new things. They’re interested in variety, in being different, in standing out, in giving the underdog a chance.

These shoppers are the trend-setters, and that’s why companies bring out different products – so that trends can be established by the risk-takers, and new, quality products can eventually rise to the top and become the variety of choice for those who buy using the process of rejection. Process of rejection: familiar wins. Process of selection: different wins. And those two basic approaches would appear to be true in the judging of pipers, drummers and, especially, pipe bands.

With only occasional exceptions, the musically predictable and familiar is chosen by judges. When three or four competitors at the top are essentially tied on technical merit (i.e., tone, tuning, technique), the placings are generally made on musical grounds. Most judges don’t want to be criticized for sticking their neck out and going with a musically different performance, so they keep with the safe. They choose Crest or, on occasion, Colgate. This is why bands tend to play familiar music, or at least enough familiar content that they are seen to adhere to a familiar pattern.

This is why pipe band medleys often seem so repetitively structured, with the hornpipe to open, the jigs, the air, the strathspey, and the reels to finish (the position of the jigs and reels can be swapped). It’s a proven competitively successful pattern. Like most shoppers, judges also tend to look at the figurative rack of performances. They use their process of rejection and weed out the options that are different, and then pull from the shelf the comfortable choice – the selection that will not make them regret their decision because they know it’s essentially safe. This is also a reason why it is so difficult to break a gridlock of perennial prize-winners. Too many competitors think that playing what’s musically familiar will bring success. Most likely, it won’t.

But there are enough judges out there who “shop” for prize-winners by using the process of selection to make being different worthwhile over time. Just like Procter & Gamble comes out with different brand extensions to their selection of toothpastes so that new trends can be established, so too can pipers, drummers and bands use that marketing strategy to their advantage. Unfortunately, most bands think that imitating Field Marshal, SFU or Shotts will bring success.

The truth is they are more likely to be invisible on the figurative pipe band toothpaste rack. Meanwhile, the competitors who take musical risks will stand out. They won’t win, but at least they will be remembered, and one judge may stick his neck out and cause the judges who use the process of rejection to doubt him- or her-self. And the next time out they might be picked by more judges. Most judges judge the way most people shop, by using the process of rejection.

But there are enough judges who look for something different and inspiring, and reward accordingly. If more competitors understood this psychology, we would have a much more interesting competition scene and our art would flourish faster.


  1. Interesting editorial. So, what band is Crest? SFU? FMM? And I’d say Dysart is the crazy lemon flavoured toothpaste that one or two people might buy. Food for thought!



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