Consumer behaviour theory: how well do you know your audience?

Consumer behaviour theory was developed out of wanting to better understand consumers (and how to sell to them). Until the late 1940s, this understanding was based on the ‘rational consumer’ model - that is, consumers will always make decisions based on logic and utility (i.e. getting the most bang for your buck).

At the time, the frameworks for consumer behaviour were developed by an academic movement known as the Classical school, which treated marketing as a subset of economics. The Classical school based their research on case studies, using them to make observations and draw conclusions about consumer behaviour.

This all changed following the post-war economic boom: the 1950s saw the rise of the Managerial school, which introduced modern marketing concepts such as the marketing mix, market segmentation, and more. The Managerial school thought that case studies painted an incomplete picture of consumers, so they started using interviews to add to their knowledge of consumer behaviour, incorporating aspects from sociology, psychology, and behavioural science.

Academic publications such as the Journal of Consumer Behaviour and Psychology & Marketing have continued developing this field, putting the emphasis on the inner workings of consumers rather than assuming we all rationalise our purchases the same way based on utility. These developments have helped marketers throughout the years to better understand their consumers and what factors (internal and external) help influence their behaviour.


Mode of initiation

Mode of initiation describes how a consumer is motivated to purchase. Motivation can come from the individual (you’re hungry), another person (someone asks you if you’re hungry), or external stimuli (you see a billboard ad for a new restaurant). Someone who is self-motivated to purchase will behave very differently from someone motivated by an ad campaign, so it’s important keep these factors in mind when personalising your marketing messaging.

Mode of initiation will affect how engaging and relevant your marketing will be to each individual consumer. A consumer who searched ‘running shoes’ may not be familiar with your brand, so the messaging should focus on differentiating your running shoes from your competitors’. On the other hand, a consumer who has seen your running shoes in your monthly newsletter will be more receptive to marketing messaging that offers limited-time discounts on shoes. Consider at what stage of the buying journey each customer may be, and use this knowledge to produce targeted, relevant marketing.


Efficacy of communication

Efficacy of communication relates not just to the quality of your marketing communications, but the medium of communication as well - whether it’s a televised advert, a series of tweets, or direct mail. Efficacy of communication will vary based on the brand, the product, and the intended audience; while Snapchat-based marketing may work for younger generations, you may not have the same success with older customers.

For example, the Co-Operative Group drew criticisms from users for advertising their funeral service on Twitter, which many found inappropriate - this would negatively impact the efficacy of communication for these consumers.


Brand perception

Brand perception is a consideration for many businesses, and for good reason - it can make or break a purchasing decision. Pre-purchase knowledge of your brand is something that consumers will take into account along with all the other factors, as well as changing perceptions based on your messaging. For example, a user may have a neutral perception of your brand; however, excessive and irrelevant email marketing may put them off purchasing as they will begin to associate your brand as being too pushy or intrusive.

Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, Facebook’s brand perception by its userbase was severely impacted - according to research by The Manifest, 44% of users said they viewed Facebook more negatively following the scandal, while 37% used the platform less frequently. And while Facebook is still a widely used platform today, it is also now the most distrusted social media platform.


Financial constraints

Price can be a sticking point for many consumers, especially in the age of easily-available price comparisons. However, this process isn’t necessarily tied to the price of your offering. Instead, consumers will weigh the perceived quality of your product against its stated value. This perception can change from consumer to consumer, based on their values, preferences, financial status, and more.

For example, some people may think that spending hundreds of pounds for an Ed Sheeran concert is a waste of money - but hardcore Ed Sheeran fans would feel that their experience at the concert is more valuable than the stated price of tickets, due to the scarcity of tickets, high quality of the performance, and the sentimental value of seeing their favourite artist live.


Social norms

Having in-depth knowledge of your target audience’s social groups and communities will help you make decisions about your strategy, and monitor the success of their campaigns. Where do they live online and offline? Who are the influencers within those spaces? Celebrity sponsorships, influencers, and word-of-mouth marketing can all influence consumer behaviour through social norms.

Knowing how social norms influence your target audience will help you know where to direct your focus in your marketing strategy. For example, a cosmetics company whose target audience is primarily young women active on social media may market primarily on Instagram and collaborate with make-up gurus as influencers to engage with their audience’s social sphere.


In short...

Consumer behaviour theory is complex, and we shouldn’t follow a ‘one size fits all’ approach. The above points are only part of the complete picture, and research conducted by both universities and agencies continues to add to our collective understanding of consumer behaviour. It’s important to consider how each of these factors will change based on your brand, product/service, and target audiences. But knowing is only half the challenge - making informed decisions around consumer behaviour theory will help you better engage with your audience and existing customers, deliver a superior customer experience, and grow your business.


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