Consumer Behavior

views updated May 08 2018


While in medical school, Laura Trice's one major complaint about living a vegan lifestyle and following an animal-product-free diet was the lack of "great tasting sweets." Rather than sublimating her craving for junk food, she came up with a cookie recipe that she found satisfied her sweet tooth. After graduation from medical school, Trice found a business partner who had been a self-trained vegetarian chef for over twenty years and together they started Laura's Wholesome Junk Food in 2001 ( The concept was to provide snacks that tasted as great as junk foodsomething most people, especially the two founders, secretly lovedthat also used ingredients which were more wholesome than those used in regular products.

In July 2002 Laura's Wholesome Junk Food released their first line of energy bars priced and sized to compete with the energy bars then on the market. Their first orders were from two small stores, a vending machine company and a coffee chain. To provide samples to convince consumers that something with healthful ingredients could taste good, Laura's Wholesome Junk Foods handed out bite-sized samples packed in plastic resealable tubs, which they subsequently named and trademarked Bite-lettes. What happened next surprised both Trice and Howard Weinthal, director of product development. "Consumers loved the Bite-lettes and kept asking how they might buy them. So we stopped making bars after 4 months and shut down for 6 months to find a place that could make the Bite-lettes for us. We didn't know if it was going to work. We thought we might be out of business" (Trice, 2005).

Figuring out not only what they wanted, but who would buy it, why they would buy it, where they would buy it, and how often they would buy it, is the cornerstone of understanding consumer behavior. Consumer behavior is the study of people: how we buy, consume and dispose of products. There were approximately 295 million people in the United States alone in 2004. Each of us is a consumer of hundreds of products every day. As consumers, we can benefit from a better understanding of how we make our decisions so that we can make wiser ones. Marketers can benefit from an understanding of consumer behavior so that they can better predict what consumers want and how best to offer it to them. Trice and Weinthal listened to consumer requests, created a new portion-controlled concept, and scrapped the full-sized energy bar. In 2005 Laura's Wholesome Junk Food sold Bite-lettes to more than 180 stores nationwide.

There are two major forces that shape who we are and what we buy. Our personal motives, attitudes, and decision-making abilities guide our consumption behavior. At the same time, our families, cultural background, the ads we see on television, and the sites we visit on the Internet influence our thoughts and actions (see Figure 1).


Our consumption behavior is a function of who we are as individuals. Our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and patterns of behavior determine what we buy, when we buy it, and how we use it. Internal factors have a major impact on consumer behavior.

Consumer Motivation

A marketer's job is to figure out what needs and wants the consumer has, and what motivates the consumer to purchase. Motivation is the drive that initiates all our consumption behaviors, and consumers have multiple motives, or goals. Some of these are overt, such as a physiological thirst that motivates a consumer to purchase a soft drink or the need to purchase a new suit for an interview. Other motives are more obscure, such as a student's need to plug in to an iPod or wear designer clothes to gain social approval.

Most consumption activities are the result of several motives operating at the same time. Researchers specially trained in uncovering motives often use qualitative research techniques in which consumers are encouraged to reveal their thoughts (cognitions) and feelings (affect) through probing dialogue. Focus groups and in-depth interviews give consumers an opportunity to discuss products and express opinions about consumption activities. Trained moderators or interviewers are often able to tap into preconscious motives that might otherwise go undetected. Sentence completion tasks (e.g., Men who wear Old Spice are ) or variants of the thematic apperception tests, in which respondents are shown a picture and asked to tell a story surrounding it, are additional techniques that provide insight into underlying motives.

Consumer motives or goals can be represented by the values they hold. Values are people's broad life goals that symbolize a preferred mode of behaving (e.g., independent, compassionate, honest) or a preferred end-state of being (e.g., sense of accomplishment, love and affection, social recognition). Consumers buy products that will help them achieve desired values; they see product attributes as a means to an end. Understanding the means-end perspective can help marketers better position the product and create more effective advertising and promotion campaigns.

Consumer Information Processing

The consumer information-processing approach aids in understanding consumptive behavior by focusing on the sequence of mental activities that people use in interpreting and integrating their environment.

The sequence begins with human perception of external stimuli. Perception is the process of sensing, selecting, and interpreting stimuli in one's environment. We begin to perceive an external stimulus as it comes into contact with one of our sensory receptorseyes, ears, nose, mouth, or skin. Perception of external stimuli influences our behavior even without our conscious knowledge that it is doing so. Marketers and retailers understand this, and they create products and stores specifically designed to influence our behavior. Fast-food chains paint their walls in "hot" colors, such as red, to speed up customer turnover. Supermarkets steer entering customers directly into the produce section, where they can smell and touch the food, stimulating hunger. A hungry shopper spends more money.

Close your eyes and think for a moment about the hundreds of objects, noises, and smells surrounding you at this very moment. In order to function in this crowded environment, we choose to perceive certain stimuli while ignoring others. This process is called selectivity. Selectivity lets us focus our attention on the things that provide meaning for interpreting our environment or on the things that are relevant to us, while not wasting our limited information-processing resources on irrelevant items.

Did you even notice that after you decide on, say, Florida, for your vacation destination, there seems to be an abundance of ads for Florida resorts, airline promotions for Florida, and articles about Florida restaurants and attractions everywhere? Coincidence? Not really. There are just as many now as there were before, only now you are selectively attending to them, whereas you previously filtered them out. Marketers continuously struggle to break through the clutter and grab consumers' attention. Advertising and packaging is designed to grab our attention through a host of techniques, such as the use of contrast in colors and sound, repetition, and contextual placement.

Did you watch television last night? You may have paid attention to many of the ads you saw during the commercial breaks; you may even have laughed out loud at a few of them. But how many can you recall today? Consumers' ability to store, retain, and retrieve product information is critical to a brand's success. When information is processed, it is held for a very brief time (less than 1 minute) in working, or short-term, memory. If this information is rehearsed (mentally repeated), it is transferred to long-term memory; if not, the information is lost and forgotten. Once transferred to long-term memory, information is encoded or arranged in a way that provides meaning to the individual. Information in long-term memory is constantly reorganized, updated, and rearranged as new information comes in, or learning takes place.

Information-processing theorists represent the storage of information in long-term memory as a network consisting of nodes (word, idea, or concept) and links (relationships among them). Nodes are connected to each other depending on whether there is an association between concepts, with the length of the linkages representing the degree of the association. Figure 2 illustrates a network model of long-term memory. When Trice cofounded Laura's Wholesome Junk Food, part of her challenge was to change consumers' knowledge structures for the concept of a healthful treat, "Healthy foods and gourmet/comfort foods have often been thought of as separate entities. A person allows an occasional 'treat' of something with the assumption that the treat is a) not healthy, and b) needs to be severely limited. By opening up to the concept that being health conscious can also be

decadent, consumers have a new freedom to choose to incorporate treats and great tasting food for their families, their activities and for entertaining" (Trice, 2005).

The complete network brought to mind when a product is activated is called the product schema. Knowing the set of associations that consumers retrieve from long-term memory about a particular product or category is critical to a successful marketing strategy. For new products or services, marketers must first select the set of associations they want consumers to have. This is called positioning the product, or selecting the brand image. Trice's unique positioning as a "wholesome junk food" was accomplished by establishing a link between the concepts healthful and decadent treat. The brand position is then translated into clever ads, reinforced on product packaging, and integrated into all promotion and communication strategies.

Over time, a brand's image can fade or become diluted. Sometimes consumers associate concepts that are not favorable to a brand. When this occurs, marketers reposition the brand, using advertising and other marketing tools to help consumers create new links to positive association and discard links to the unfavorable ones. By rotating such catchy phrases as "Are your french fries lonely?" and "Your fish stick improvement system" on their ketchup labels, Heinz was able to reposition their ketchup as a more exciting, youth-oriented, and sparky brand.

Strategies for successful brand extensions also depend on the brand schema. Generally speaking, a brand extension is more likely to be successful if the set of associations for the extension matches the set of associations of the core product. Would Lifesavers brand toothpaste sell? Probably not, because the associations for Lifesavers (sweet, candy, sugar, fruity) are not the same as those for toothpaste (mint, clean, noncandy). On the other hand, a Lifesavers brand sugared children's cereal with colorful, fruity rings has a much better match of associations.

Attitude Formation and Change

The set of beliefs consumers have stored in long-term memory provides another critical function to marketers: It provides the basis for a consumer's attitude toward a brand or an ad. An attitude is an overall evaluation of an object, idea, or action. Attitudes can be positive or negative, and weakly or strongly held. The statement "I love Ben & Jerry's Vanilla Toffee Crunch" is a strong, positively valenced attitude toward a product. The statement "I dislike the new Toyota ad" is a weak, negatively valenced attitude toward an advertisement. Marketers work hard to continuously monitor consumer attitudes toward their products. Among other things, attitudes can indicate problems with a product or campaign, success with a product or campaign, likelihood of future sales, and overall strength of the brand or brand equity.

A popular perspective is that attitude has three components: cognitive, affective, and conative. The cognitive component reflects the knowledge and beliefs one has about the object (e.g., "Two pieces of Jolt chewing gum contains as much caffeine as one cup of coffee"), the affective component reflects feelings (e.g., "I like the energy boost I get after chewing Jolt Gum") and the conative component reflects a behavioral tendency toward the object (e.g., "I will buy Jolt Gum to take with me into my classes for exams"). Thus, attitudes are predispositions to behave in a certain way. If you have a favorable attitude toward a politician, you will likely vote for him or her in the next election. Because of this, many marketers use attitude measures for forecasting future sales.

It is important to note, however, that the link between attitudes and behavior is far from perfect. Consumers can hold positive attitudes toward multiple brands but intend to purchase only one. External economic, social, or personal factors often alter behavioral plans.

Attitudes are dynamic, which means they are constantly changing. As an individual learns new information, as fads change, as time goes on, the attitudes one once held with confidence may no longer exist. Did you ever look at old photos of yourself and wonder "What was I thinking wearing clothes like that? And look at my hairstyle!"


In addition to the internal factors, consumer behavior is also shaped to a large extent by social factors, such as culture, family relationships, and other aspects of the external environment. Awareness of these influences can help marketers to identify groups of consumers who tend to think, feel, or act similarly and separate them into unique market segments. Aspects of the marketing program such as product design, advertising, and pricing can then be tailored to meet the unique needs, values, and goals of these distinct groups.

Group Influences on Individual Consumer Behavior

Group influences on consumer behavior can affect motivation, values, and individual information processing; they can come from groups to which consumers already belong or from groups to which they aspire to belong. Groups can exert a variety of influences on individuals, including: (1) informational influences, where the group acts as a source for expert opinions; (2) comparative influences, such that the group provides opportunities to manage the individual's self-concept with respect to the group's identity; and (3) normative influences, whereby the group specifies guidelines and sanctions for appropriate or inappropriate individual behaviors.

The influence of groups on consumer behavior tends to vary with a variety of group- and product-related factors. For example, the more the group is perceived to be a credible, valued source of approval or disapproval to the consumer, the more likely that consumer is to conform to group values. In addition, the more frequently group members interact, and the more outwardly visible use of the product is to group and nongroup members, the greater the group's influence on individual consumption behavior.

Family Influences on Consumer Behavior

Families have a particularly significant influence on consumer behavior. For example, consumption behavior often changes substantially as family status changes over time. Thus, young unmarried adults, who are often focused on individual self-definition, tend to purchase products that enhance or define their self-concepts. In contrast, couples with children may be more interested in purchasing items or experiences that can be shared by all family members and, as a result, may spend less on individually oriented products.

Family membership also leads to a greater need for joint rather than individual decision making, further complicating consumer behavior at the household level. For example, the person who buys a product may not be the ultimate consumer of the product. Or perhaps the husband and wife have differing levels of involvement with certain product decisions, leading to different types of separate decision processes that must be integrated before a choice is ultimately made.

Understanding the dynamics involved in joint decision making and which family members influence which types of decisions has important implications for marketers interested in directing marketing efforts to the right person. Importantly, these family dynamics and lifestyle transitions are complicated by the decline in traditional households and the accompanying rise in nontraditional family structures, such as cohabitating couples or couples integrating families from previous marriages.

Cultural and Subcultural Influences on Consumer Behavior

Culture comprises the common meanings and socially constructed values accepted by the majority of members of a society or social group. It includes such things as shared values, beliefs, norms, and attitudes, as well as affective reactions, cognitive beliefs, and patterns of behavior. Typically, when we think of culture, we tend to think of differences among individuals from different countries or regions of the world. With the increasing globalization of the world economy, understanding differences and similarities in consumer behavior across cultures becomes increasingly meaningful, with important implications about the degree to which marketing strategies can be standardized across countries and cultures, or localized to reflect country- or region-specific cultural distinctions.

One important cultural difference is the degree to which the self is defined as independent from others versus interdependent with important others. Individualistic societies, such as the United States, tend to foster an independent sense of self, with the self believed to be a set of internal attributes unique to each person. Collectivist societies, however, such as China, foster an interdependent sense of self, with the self believed to be inseparable from others and the social context; person-specific attributes are less important in self-definition than are interpersonal relations. These differences in self-definition affect a variety of consumer behaviors, including emotional reactions to advertisements, the degree to which information from others is valued when making consumption decisions, and gift-giving behavior.

In addition to cultural differences that exist across countries, marketers are also increasingly recognizing the importance of subcultural differences within a society. Subcultures are distinctive groups within a society that share common meanings. Subcultures can often be identified based on demographic characteristics, such as geographic location (e.g., the southern United States), ethnicity (e.g., Hispanic Americans), or age (e.g., baby boomers). Subcultures can also be identified based on common lifestyles.

The start of the twenty-first century saw a growing emphasis on lifestyle segments based on food restrictions and food choices. For example, vegetarians, vegans, those who eat only organically grown food, and those who require gluten-free food are rapidly growing segments of the population. There are some national retailers, such as Whole Foods Market, who serve a multitude of these specialized segments.

There are also more targeted specialized products and services, such as Gluten-Free Living, a national magazine for people who follow a gluten-free diet ( Importantly, identification of lifestyle subcultures, and the corresponding development of an inventory of shared meanings, is typically more difficult than the development of such understanding of subcultures based on observable demographic characteristics.

Increasingly, Internet marketers have come to realize the value of subculture segments and have tailored product offerings and/or Web site content to appeal to particular subcultures, most often demographically based, and to foster a greater sense of community and connection among subculture members. For example, features content of particular interest to women and offers forums for discussion of issues relevant to its users. Similarly, aims to provide services and information to Hispanic Americans as well as to provide a virtual meeting space for Hispanic Americans to meet and help one another. These represent early attempts to use the Internet to target and serve multicultural populations. Future sites are likely to target more narrowly defined subcultures (e.g., Hispanic Americans with an interest in gourmet cooking) and to focus on reaching more lifestyle-based subcultures.


What consumers think and the social environment they live in determine what they buy and how that purchase decision is made. Typically, the decision process is described as a series of five stages. The first stage, need recognition, occurs when consumers perceive a difference between their ideal and actual states. Need recognition is often prompted by persuasive advertising. Consumers then begin the information search process by conducting an internal search of their own knowledge structures, followed by an external search for information from friends, family members, salespeople, and advertisements. This step can clarify the problem, providing criteria to use for assessing product alternatives and resulting in a subset, or "consideration set," of potential choices.

These options are then assessed more completely in the third stage, alternative evaluation. In this stage, products in the consideration set are compared with one another. Sometimes a simple heuristic rule of thumb, such as "I'm going to buy the cheapest product" is used. At other times a more complex strategy, such as a weighted-average model that compensates for product strengths and weaknesses, is used.

After examining each alternative, consumers are ready to purchase, the fourth step in the decision process. Finally, after buying, the consumers enter the postpurchase phase of the process, during which the performance of the chosen alternative is evaluated in light of prior expectations. Consumers will be satisfied with the product if it meets or exceeds expectations; dissatisfaction occurs if the product does not meet expectations.

This model of consumer behavior, while very useful, is highly simplified and does not always accurately reflect the decision process consumers follow. Consumers may not always proceed linearly through the five steps as described, and sometimes they may skip certain steps entirely. The model, however, is a close approximation of the process for most consumers for most purchase occasions.

We are all consumers. Understanding why we behave as we do is integral to an efficient transfer of goods and services in a market-driven economy and helps consumer needs get fulfilled. As Weinthal pointed out, "Since both founders of Laura's Wholesome Junk Food had dietary restrictions of their own and knew many individuals with limitations on what they could eat, we wanted to make the Bite-lettes accessible to as many people as possible. By making products that are all kosher, vegan, sweetened primarily with fruit, then adding a wheat-free flavor and three gluten-free ones, Laura's made something for almost every consumer" (Trice, 2005).

see also Marketing


Trice, Laura M.D. (2005). Personal correspondence.

Wilkie, William L. (1994). Consumer Behavior (3rd ed.). New York: Wiley.

Lauren G. Block

Patricia Williams

Consumer Behavior

views updated May 29 2018

Consumer Behavior

A consumer is the ultimate user of a product or service. The overall consumer market consists of all buyers of goods and services for personal or family use, more than 300 million people (including children) spending trillions of dollars in the United States as of the early twenty-first century.

Consumer behavior essentially refers to how and why people make the purchase decisions they do. Marketers strive to understand this behavior so they can better formulate appropriate marketing stimuli that will result in increased sales and brand loyalty. There are a vast number of goods available for purchase, but consumers tend to attribute this volume to the industrial world's massive production capacity. Rather, the giant known as the marketing profession is responsible for the variety of goods on the market. The science of evaluating and influencing consumer behavior is foremost in determining which marketing efforts will be used and when.

To understand consumer behavior, experts examine purchase decision processes, especially any particular triggers that compel consumers to buy a certain product. For example, one study revealed that the average shopper took less than 21 minutes to purchase groceries and covered only 23 percent of the store, giving marketers a very limited amount of time to influence consumers. And 59 percent of all supermarket purchases were unplanned. Marketers spend a great deal of time and money discovering what compels consumers to make such on-the-spot purchases. Market researchers obtain some of the best information through in-store research, and will often launch new products only in select small venues where they expect a reasonable test of the product's success can be executed. In this manner, they can determine whether a product's success is likely before investing excessive company resources to introduce that product nationally or even internationally.


Consumers adjust purchasing behavior based on their individual needs and interpersonal factors. To understand these influences, researchers try to ascertain what happens inside consumers' minds and to identify physical and social exterior influences on purchase decisions.

On some levels, consumer choice can appear to be quite random. However, each decision that is made has some meaning behind it, even if that choice does not always appear to be rational. Purchase decisions depend on personal emotions, social situations, goals, and values.

People buy to satisfy all types of needs, not just for utilitarian purposes. These needs, as identified by Abraham Maslow in the early 1940s, may be physical or biological, for safety and security, for love and affiliation, to obtain prestige and esteem, or for self-fulfillment. For example, connecting products with love or belonging has been a success for several wildly popular campaigns such as Reach Out and Touch Someone, Fly the Friendly Skies, and Gentlemen Prefer Hanes. This type of focus might link products either to the attainment of love and belonging, or by linking those products with people similar to those with whom people would like to associate.

Prestige is another intangible need, and those concerned with status will pay for it. However, goods appealing to this type of need must be viewed as high-profile products that others will see in use. One benefit of targeting this type of market is that the demand curve for luxury products is typically the reverse of the standard; high-status products sell better with higher prices.

Some equate the type of need to be met with certain classes of goods. For instance, a need for achievement might drive people to perform difficult tasks, to exercise skills and talents, and to invest in products such as tools, do-it-yourself materials, and self-improvement programs, among others. The need to nurture or for nurturing leads consumers to buy products associated with things such as parenthood, cooking, pets, houseplants, and charitable service appeals.

Personality traits and characteristics are also important to establish how consumers meet their needs. Pragmatists will buy what is practical or useful, and they make purchases based more on quality and durability than on physical beauty. The aesthetically inclined consumer, on the other hand, is drawn to objects that project symmetry, harmony, and beauty. Intellectuals are more interested in obtaining knowledge and truth and tend to be more critical. They also like to compare and contrast similar products before making the decision to buy. Politically motivated people seek out products and services that will give them an edge, enhancing power and social position. And people who are more social can best be motivated by appealing to their fondness for humanity with advertising that suggests empathy, kindness, and nurturing behavior. One successful way an insurance company targeted this market was through its You're in good hands with Allstate campaign.

Consumers also vary in how they determine whose needs they want to satisfy when purchasing products and services. Are they more concerned with meeting their own needs and buying what they want to, for their own happiness? Or do they rely on the opinions of others to determine what products and services they should be using? This determines, for example, whether or not they will make a purchase just because it's the newest, most popular item available or because it is truly what they need and/or want.

This also influences the way marketers will advertise products. For example, a wine distributor trying to appeal to people looking to satisfy their personal taste will emphasize its superior vintage and fine bouquet; that same distributor, marketing to those who want to please others, will emphasize how sharing the wine can improve gatherings with friends and family.

Cultural and social values also play large roles in determining what products will be successful in a given market. If great value is placed on characteristics such as activity, hard work, and materialism, then companies who suggest their products represent those values are more likely to be successful. Social values are equally important. If a manufacturer suggests their product will make the consumer appear more romantic or competitive in a place where those values are highly regarded, it is more likely consumers will respond.


While all of this information might be helpful to marketers, it is equally important to understand what compels the consumer to actually make a purchase, as opposed to just generating interest. For example, some consumers respond based on how they are feeling, while some are focused on making the wisest economic decision. Knowing the different elements that stimulate consumer purchase activity can help marketers design appropriate sales techniques and responses.

A 1999 study conducted by Susan Powell Mantel focused on analyzing the roles of attribute-based processing and attitude-based processing when analyzing consumer preference. According to the study, product attributes (qualities such as price, size, nutritional value, durability, etc.) are often compared disproportionately, i.e., one is the more focal subject of comparison, thus eliciting more consideration when the consumer decides which brand is the best. The order of brand presentation in these cases is particularly important.

Adding to the complexity of the issue is the fact that purchase decisions are not always made on the basis of an attribute-by-attribute comparison (attribute-based processing). Consumers also make decisions based on an overall evaluation of their impressions, intuition, and knowledge based on past experience, or attitude-based processing. Learned attitudes also influence these decisions. For example, parents who drank Kool-Aid as children often buy it for their kids, either because they associate it with fond memories or just because of brand familiarity or loyalty.

There is time and effort associated with each of these strategies, though attribute-based processing requires significantly more effort on the consumer's part. To dedicate the time required for an attribute-by-attribute comparison, consumers need the combination of motivation and the time or opportunity to use such a strategy.

Other contributing factors were discussed in Mantel's study, such as personality differences and each individual's need for cognition. Need for cognition reflects to what extent individuals engage in and enjoy thinking. People with a high need for cognition tend to evaluate more and make more optimal in-store purchase decisions. This is in part because they do not react to displays and in-store promotions unless significant price reductions are offered. Low-need cognition people react easily when a product is put on promotion regardless of the discount offered.

Consumers are also affected by their perceived roles, which are acquired through social processes. These roles create individuals' needs for things that will enable them to perform those roles, improve their performance in those roles, facilitate reaching their goals, or symbolize a role/relationship, much in the way a woman's engagement ring symbolizes her taking on the role of a wife.

Other factors that influence purchase decisions include the importance attributed to the decision. People are not likely to take as much time doing brand comparisons of mouthwash as they are a new car. The importance of the purchase, as well as the risk involved, adds to how much time and effort will be spent evaluating the merits of each product or service under consideration. In cases of importance such as the purchase of a car or home appliance, consumers are more likely to use rational, attribute-based comparisons, in order to make the most informed decision possible.

In some cases, consumers make very little effort to evaluate product choices. Habitual evaluation refers to a state in which the consumer disregards marketing materials placed in a store, whether because of brand loyalty, lack of time, or some other reason. Indeed, evaluating all relevant marketing information can become time consuming if it is done every time a person shops.

On the opposite side of the coin, extensive evaluation is the state in which consumers consider the prices and promotions of all brands before making a choice. There are also in-between states of evaluation, depending again on the importance of the purchase and the time available to make a decision. Some consumers, usually those who earn higher incomes, value their time more than the cost savings they would incur. Decisions on whether to compare various products at any given time may be a factor of the anticipated economic returns, search costs or time constraints, and individual household purchasing patterns.

When it comes time to actually make purchases, however, one person in the family often acts as an information filter for the family, depending on what type of purchase is being made and that person's expertise and

interest. The information filter passes along information he or she considers most relevant when making a purchase decision, filtering out what is considered unimportant and regulating the flow of information. For example, men are more often the family members who evaluate which tools to purchase, while children pass along what they consider to be seminal information about toys. At times, family members may take on additional roles such as an influencer, contributing to the overall evaluation of goods being considered for purchase. Or one person may act as the decider, or the final decision-maker. Ultimately, purchase decisions are not made until consumers feel they know enough about the product, they feel good about what they're buying, and they want it enough to act on the decision.


When market researchers begin evaluating the behavior of consumers, it is a mistake to rely on conventional wisdom, especially when it is possible to study the actual activity in which consumers are engaged when using a product or service. Where are they when they buy certain items? When do they use it? Who is with them when they make the purchase? Why do they buy under certain circumstances and not others? Researchers need to determine the major needs being satisfied by that good or service in order to effectively sell it.

There are two principal ways to evaluate the motivation behind consumer purchases. These are by direction (what they want) and intensity (how much they want it). Direction refers to what the customer wants from a product. For example, customers selecting a pain reliever may like the idea that one pain reliever is cheaper than another, but what they really want is fast pain relief, and will probably pay more if they think the more expensive brand can do that more effectively. Marketers need to understand the principal motivation behind each type of product to correctly target potential customers.

The other way to evaluate consumer behavior, intensity, refers to whether a customer's interest in a product is compelling enough that she will go out and make the purchase. Good marketing can create that kind of intensity. A successful example of such a campaign was Burger King's Aren't You Hungry? campaign, which aired on late-night television and was compelling enough for people to leave their homes late at night to go out and buy hamburgers. Understanding consumer motivation is the best way to learn how to increase buyer incentive, as well as a better alternative to the easy incentivedecreasing the price.

While it is easy to speculate on all these elements of consumer motivation, it is much harder to actively research motivating factors for any given product. It is rare that a consumer's reasons for buying a product or service can be accurately determined through direct questioning. Researchers have had to develop other ways to get real responses. These include asking consumers How do you think a friend of yours would react to this marketing material? While consumers do not like to admit that marketing affects them at all, they are often willing to speculate on how it would affect someone else. And most often they answer with what would be their own responses.

Another tactic that has proven successful is to ask consumers What kind of person would use this type of product? By asking this question, market researchers can determine what the consumer believes buying the product would say about them, as well as whether or not they would want to be seen as that type of person.


One of the best ways to influence consumer behavior is to give buyers an acceptable motive. This is somewhat related to the idea of asking what type of person would buy a certain product in evaluating consumer behavior. Consumers want to feel they're doing something good, being a good person, eating healthy, making contacts, keeping up appearances, or that they just deserve to be spoiled a little bit. If marketers can convince consumers that they need a product or service for some legitimate reason, customers will be more likely to make a purchase.

In addition, sensory stimuli are important to marketing. When food packages are appealing or associated with other positive qualities, people often find that they taste better. For example, people often taste with their eyes, discerning differences in products where they do not see any difference during a blind taste test. One of the best examples of this was a test of loyal Coca-Cola customers who were totally unwilling to concede that any other soda was its equal. While able to see what they were drinking, they maintained this position. But during blind testing, some were unable to tell the difference between Coke and root beer.

Finally, another alternative for influencing customer behavior is by offering specialized goods. Marketers have exploited the trend toward specialized products by creating the illusion that a product is available in limited supply in order to stimulate demand. On a Harvard Business Online blog, professor John Quelch discusses how publicity for the iPhone and the seventh Harry Potter book both gave customers the impression that supplies were scarce to encourage people to buy sooner, when in fact the marketers had gauged demand fairly accurately.


While commonality was once popular, more and more people are seeking diversity in taste, personal preferences, and lifestyle. In 2004 Chris Anderson coined the term The Long Tail to refer to the consumer demographic that contributes to the success of niche businesses, such as Amazon, which sell small volumes of hard-to-find items to a wide customer base, rather than large volumes of a small number of popular items.

In fact, marketers are quite successful at targeting rebels and the counterculture, as it is referred to in Commodify Your Dissent. As Thomas Frank writes, Consumerism is no longer about conformity' but about difference. It counsels not rigid adherence to the taste of the herd but vigilant and constantly updated individualism. We consume not to fit in, but to prove, on the surface at least, that we are rock 'n' roll rebels, each one of us as rule-breaking and hierarchy-defying as our heroes of the 60s, who now pitch cars, shoes, and beer. This imperative of endless difference is today the genius at the heart of American capitalism, an eternal fleeing from 'sameness' that satiates our thirst for the New with such achievements of civilization as the infinite brands of identical cola, the myriad colors and irrepressible variety of the cigarette rack at 7-Eleven.


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