American Marketing Association of Las Vegas

5 Myths of Consumer Behavior

Marketers no longer control the system (if they ever did)

Typically, marketing communicators rely on linear processes and approaches. Those are particularly apparent in most marketing communication rituals, whether they be the hoary AIDA model (attention, interest, desire and action) or the still dominant “hierarchy of effects” model circa 1963 by Robert Lavidge and Gary Steiner. All propose or assume some type of consumer or shopper pathway, purchasing process, or trackable and traceable buying trip that they either create or that the marketer creates for them. Further, it is assumed that these pathways, trails or journeys can be identified, modeled and then managed by the marketer.

To support this mythology, marketers and researchers have created lots of tools: sales funnels, hierarchy of effects models, “moments of truth” maps and a host of others. All are supposed to assist the marketer in identifying the point where the buyer is most susceptible or vulnerable to their marketing ploy. It’s there. The only challenge is for the marketer to identify it and use it.

Sounds easy, neat and almost surgical, doesn’t it? The marketer in control, the prospect unable to resist: It’s a perfect marketplace model for success.

The only problem is that in most cases, these identifiable consumer pathways simply don’t exist. They’re myths that marketing managers have created to simplify their jobs. Media and agencies have helped perpetrate this mythical model, providing glitzy tools and techniques that supposedly work “at just the right instant” of consumer decision making.

Unfortunately, in our research, it appears that these models exist only in the minds of the marketer, not in the practices of the buyer or consumer.

Northwestern’s IMC faculty, for the past few years, has had access to consumer research data compiled by Prosper International, a commercial research firm located in Worthington, Ohio. Prosper conducts many online consumer studies, both bespoke and syndicated, for a wide variety of manufacturers and retailers. They make the raw data from their syndicated studies available to IMC faculty for further research and analysis.

With access to that data, we’ve been able to test, validate or challenge a number of basic marketing and communication theoretical concepts.

Given all the hype and ongoing discussion of consumer purchase journeys, trips, trails and pathways, we decided to test that theory. Is there an identifiable “trip to purchase,” “purchase journey” or “pathway” that consumers use to shop and buy various products?

We used data from the December 2014 Prosper syndicated study, “Media Behaviors and Intentions,” which was based on 16,228 responses from adults. All questions used had to do with purchases that the respondents had made in the last 30 days. We picked 10 basic consumer product retail categories that would seem to require some sort of planning or consideration. The categories chosen were apparel, appliances, beauty products, big-ticket appliances, (televisions, refrigerators, washing machines), small-ticket appliances (microwaves, toaster ovens, electric can openers), entertainment, furniture, gift cards, home décor and home improvement.

Our goal was to determine if there was an identifiable shopping journey or pathway that consumers employed that could be used by the marketing organization to “deliver the right message/incentive” at the “right time” and in the “right form.” In other words, could we identify how consumers go about making a purchase in what are commonly thought to be considered purchase categories?

As might be expected, even in these broad categories, some were ones in which respondents reported no purchases.  Those accounted for roughly 20 to 30% in each individual product category, so we’re dealing with buyers, not prospects. Next, we investigated the type of retail channel used to purchase those products, which were traditional bricks-and-mortar retail stores or online channels via a PC or a mobile device. Traditional retail bricks-and-mortar stores accounted for approximately 40% of all the channels used, online via a PC was in the 25 to 35% range, and mobile generally was in the high single digits and mid-teens. All of these findings are in the same range that other research organizations are reporting.

The next set of questions had to do with what type of planning or research was used prior to purchase. Here’s where the “interesting” insights begin to emerge. Anywhere from 18.8% of the respondents in the apparel category up to 44.2% in the gift card purchaser category said that they did no prior research. Roughly 40% of respondents, when shopping for home décor, did no prior research in-store or through mobile devices, online or even ad circulars. The results were 38% for beauty products and 34.4% for home improvement. In short, it appears that a substantial portion of all shopping is done serendipitously or on impulse. That doesn’t say much for the concept of a shopping journey or pathway.

Next we tried clustering the data—that is, trying to find patterns among purchasers based on their media usage or stated product search patterns: nothing there, either. Patterns for apparel shopping were quite different than those for beauty products, which were even more different for big-ticket appliances. There appears to be no rhyme or reason in the way that consumers shop. Further, it appears that each and every consumer has developed or is using some type of individually developed methodology to fill their product requirements and make their shopping decisions. This study seems to blow the concept of a generalized set of consumer shopping behaviors right out the window.

Of course, this is just one study at one point in time, but it does raise serious questions about a commonly held marketing concept: the shopping journey. In addition, it punches holes in the idea of a funnel or even moving people through a process, such as the hierarchy of effects.

What we take away from this study is the following:

  1. Many marketing concepts are no longer relevant, if they ever were.
  2. There are really no “markets” as marketers have conceived them, such as women 18 to 49, middle income, two kids, etc. Each and every customer is unique and different. They may behave alike in some categories, but it tends to end there.
  3. Marketers no longer control the system (if they ever did). So much for funnels, hierarchy of effects models, shopping pathways and the like. The consumer is an individual and acts, thinks and operates like an individual, which the marketer cannot control.
  4. Only Big Data—that is, large samples collected over time—can help to unravel some of the patterns of consumer behaviors. The idea of “snapshots” or “points in time” studies where single event consumer information is gathered and analyzed is passé. Consumers are a moving kaleidoscope of continuing change. We must look for patterns over time, not points in time.
  5. Networked, interactive, integrated marketing and communications plans and programs are needed, and they must be adaptable and adjustable to the continuously changing consumer.

It’s this type of learning that is creating real problems for marketing and brand managers today, but think about the textbook writer (myself included): We’ve always relied on generalizations, rules of thumb and best practices to fill our pages. What will we do if these are no longer relevant or even truthful? Guess I better find a different job.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of Marketing Insights.

Author bio: Don E. Schultz is a professor (emeritus-in-service) of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Categories: Advertising,Marketing.