Why do customers buy? What goes on inside a customer’s mind before, during and after a purchase? How do buyers choose? What are the hidden influences? How do buyers process information? Unlocking these secrets opens the door to success.

Why buy a Coca-Cola? Is it because of thirst? Why buy Levi’s jeans? Is it to avoid hypothermia, or to conform to a social norm? Or do some brands offer other benefits – emotional benefits? Are there hidden reasons?

Let’s look at the other side. What do the advertisers promise? That Coca Cola will quench your thirst or Levi’s will keep your legs warm? Perhaps they appeal to other desires? Look at the advertisements. Try to summarise exactly what you think they are saying. This takes practice. Summarising advertisements is a skill which top marketing people develop. It may give you an insight into society, its values and aspirations; that is, if you believe that advertising reflects society.

We are not perfectly rational, sensible buyers. We do not always choose goods and services solely on price, performance and availability. The truth is that many purchases are influenced by a whole host of emotional reasons like esteem and image. Many of these non-rational reasons are hidden deep in our subconscious.

In-depth research probes into the darker depths of our unconscious. Some research presents such bizarre explanations that many marketers reject the findings. For example, Ernest Dichter’s 1964 handbook of motivations suggested that men buy open-top/ convertible cars as substitute mistresses! But even today, top companies use in-depth research techniques to discover the hidden reasons why we buy or don’t buy.

Common sense observation also provides useful insights into the minds of buyers.

Research helps find the real reasons why we buy what we buy. This requires time, money and expertise. Surprisingly many other organisations don’t really know exactly why their customers buy or don’t buy from them. Yet understanding customers is at the heart of marketing.

Once the reasons why people buy or don’t buy are discovered, the marketing mix can be changed to suit the buyer’s needs and wants.

Buyer behaviour involves both simple and complex mental processes. Marketers cannot capture human nature in its entirety but we can learn a lot about customers through research, observation and thinking. Here’s Professor Theodore Levitt:

I think it is a process of trying to think your way through why people behave in certain ways. Or if not why, then what that behaviour is likely to be given certain kinds of products, certain kinds of… just stop to think.

Types of Consumer Buying Situation

A customer’s approach to purchasing a product or service is influenced by their situation – whether they have money and how important, frequent, risky or urgent the purchase is to them in their situation.

Imagine the difference between someone with plenty of money who can afford to make a mistake when buying as opposed to someone who has scraped her last few pounds together. They might both be buying the same product but their financial situation suggests that their approach to buying will be very different.

Customers make more of an effort, and become more involved, if the purchase is relatively important to them – particularly if they have no previous experience of buying such a product or service.

On the other hand, if the item being purchased is low value and frequently bought, like a jar of coffee, it follows that the buyer will spend less time and effort and will have less involvement with the purchase.

These frequent, inexpensive purchases generally have little risk, and require less information. These kind of purchase situations are referred to as ‘Low Involvement Purchases’. In these situations, consumers can fall into a routine purchasing pattern which requires little thought and even less effort.

Whenever the need is stimulated – a particular brand is automatically purchased. This is called ‘Routinised Response Behaviour.’ You can visit the Hall Of Fame later to see the gurus explain how brands influence routine purchases.

Alternatively, an expensive high risk infrequent purchase like your first computer will require a lot of detailed information and careful analysis before deciding which machine. This is called ‘High Involvement’. Here the consumer goes through an extensive problem solving process – searching and collecting information, evaluating it and eventually deciding on a particular choice.

There is a third type of buying situation. This is where the customer has had some experience of buying a particular type of product or service before. There is less risk attached and less information is required. This is called ‘Limited Problem Solving’.

Customers require different marketing mixes in different buying situations. For example, a routinised response purchase, like a can of cola, doesn’t require much supporting product literature but perhaps it needs wide distribution and easy availability. An extensive problem solving Type of Purchase, on the other hand, would require detailed product literature and trained sales people.

Time also affects the buying situation. If a purchase is urgent the purchasing pattern will be different from another situation where there is more time available. For example, the decision to call a plumber to install a new shower is different from calling a plumber to stop a leaking pipe!

To summarise, the three types of consumer buying situation can be put onto a problem solving continuum. Consumer Buying Process

There are many different models that attempt to map the reality of the buying process. Some are more complex than others.

This Problem Solving Model identifies the stages through which a buyer moves: Awareness of the need to buy something, is called ‘problem recognition’. This is followed by ‘information search’. For example, when buying a new multimedia PC, the search could involve: collecting brochures and sales literature, articles and advertisements, visits to shops and exhibitions, talking to sales people, computer experts and friends.

The evaluation stage weighs up the criteria, such as size, speed, functions, price, delivery, reliability or guarantee. Eventually a decision is made to choose and buy a particular brand.

It doesn’t end here since the shop might be out of stock. In this case the communications mix has worked but the marketing mix has failed – distribution problems exist since the product is not on the shelf where and when it is needed.

When eventually a purchase is made, most of us then suffer some anxiety about whether we made the right choice. This worry is called Post Purchase Dissonance. It is important for marketers to reduce this customer anxiety so that buyers become satisfied customers who develop brand loyalty and become more likely to buy the same brand again if and when the need arises.

The consumer buying process is not always simply a linear process. Customers sometimes loop backwards when, say, they discover a new product function or new criterion which needs to be considered.

In addition, not all kinds of purchases require the high involvement problem solving approach just discussed.

Buying a can of cola, on the other hand, would require less time and effort. It would involve fewer stages in the buying process. It is a simple, low involvement, routine purchase. This ‘routinised response behaviour’ takes a shortcut by moving from need awareness (problem identification) to memory and straight to choice.

Both of these models hide the detailed workings of the mind. Other models, such as Stimulus-Response models only show inputs, like advertising, and outputs, like sales. Here the complex workings of the mind are ignored and left inside a kind of ‘black box’. There are, of course, more complex models which try to open up the black box and look inside the buyers’ mind.

And there are other simpler communication models such as AIDA which help marketers to plan their communications.

Models can be criticised, but they can also provide a loose checklist for a marketing plan. They can help to give a useful insight into the buying process which is at the core of marketing.

Social and Cultural Factors

Customers are influenced by other people. The influence can come from all or any of these social groups:

  • Family W
  • Reference Group
  • Social Class
  • Culture and Subculture

“I think fans are influenced partly by up-bringing and traditions; I am sure that lots of people will have been brought by their parents. As I’ve already said we have a membership scheme; we have any number of children enrolled when they are a few hours old. The parents have come straight from the hospital after the child’s been born to ask he/she to be become a member of Manchester United. I think that, perhaps, shows the sort of… family commitment if you like.
Ken Merrett

An individual also looks to his/her reference group when forming an opinion, attitude or belief. The Customer may not actually be a member of this group but may simply aspire to be a member of it and so refer to its value system. The marketer needs to know whether Customers are influenced significantly by any reference group and which kind of customer is influenced by which particular reference group. Conspicuous products such as clothes, cars and toys lend themselves to reference group influence.

This means that much marketing effort goes into identifying and converting opinion leaders within particular reference groups. Opinion followers then try to follow the leaders by imitating them and sometimes purchasing the same brands.

Culture and subculture also influence people’s lifestyles, beliefs, attitudes and, of course, their buying behaviour. For example, Japanese buy and eat raw fish. Their children learn to like raw fish. However, few European children eat raw fish.

Subcultures are pockets of people within a culture who have even greater similarities – they share their own set of values, attitudes and beliefs. They can be formed from national, religious, racial or geographic groups. Colour, dress, music, language, tone of voice, gestures and body language can have different meanings among different cultures and even subcultures.

Subcultures not only influence buying patterns but can also influence the way marketing messages are received.

For example, some research suggests that French speaking Canadians focus on message source or who is presenting the advertisement; while English speaking Canadians are more concerned with the content of the advertisement.

The marketer seeks to understand all the group influences that affect customers so that the marketing mix can be adjusted to give the maximum effect.

Psychological Factors

The behaviourist school of psychology concentrates on inputs and outputs; stimuli and responses. In marketing this means focusing on simply whether people respond to stimuli, like advertisements or mail shots, by say, making a purchase. Behavioural Psychology ignores the complex mechanisms of the mind by dumping all the psychological variables into a ‘black box’.

Cognitive psychology, on the other hand, tries to open the lid and look inside the black box by delving into the complexities of the human mind.

Buying behaviour is, in fact, affected by a complex web of internal psychological variables. These include: perception, motivation, learning, memory, attitude and personality.

Perception, in marketing terms, means how commercial stimuli, like advertisements, are seen, interpreted and remembered. Customers tend to engage in ‘selective perception’ – they see what they want to see. They also sometimes distort some messages to fit their view of the world.

Screening out unpleasant messages and non relevant messages allows buyers to engage in ‘selective retention’. Given that perception is influenced by motivation, it is worthwhile researching what exactly motivates and stimulates customers. Imagine sending a message that de-motivated, or worse, irritated, your target market. Just as good advertising may increase sales, bad advertising can decrease sales.

Understanding how customers see themselves, their self-image or self-concept, is important, since many goods and services are chosen because they reinforce the buyer’s self-concept. For example, packaging should reflect, and not conflict, with the customer’s ideal self-image.

What makes a customer want a particular image? What are their underlying motivations?

A motive is a drive to satisfy a need. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provides a useful theory which when slightly simplified suggests that we are motivated to satisfy a higher level of need once we have satisfied a lower level need.

Sigmund Freud suggested that we are motivated by conscious and unconscious forces.

Motivation, in turn, affects perception and learning. How do consumers learn and remember marketing messages? How many advertisements does each customer need to see? When does the advertising become both a waste of money and an irritant?

Add Attitudes and Personalities to the other complexities of the mind and you can see that these questions are difficult to answer precisely.

Although it requires skill, time and money, getting inside the customer’s mind is essential and unavoidable in the quest for continuous marketing success. And it can lead to exciting discoveries.

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