The holy grail of marketing is to establish what consumers want and then respond to that need. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? However, many consumers declare certain intentions in terms of the product they wish to buy or the kind of service they want to use but then do not follow through and translate their intention into action. How, if at all, can marketeers, manufacturers, researchers et al get to the bottom of this psychological conflict within some consumers and cater for these changes of heart?
Consumer behaviour is, by its very nature, hard to measure with absolute certainty. Neither quantitative nor qualitative approaches can ever fully account for the fact that consumers are above all human beings, and therefore prone to doubt, hesitation, changes of mind... In short, a service provider or product manufacturer can never truly know what goes through the minds of consumers, however clearly they may state their intentions to eat healthily, opt for high-tech, buy luxuriously, drive ecologically or dress conservatively. It's a veritable minefield for the marketing people who have to second-guess potential changes of heart and therefore the suitability of the product or service they are trying to sell.
Can you really conceptualise consumer behaviour?
The oft-quoted Theory of Reasoned Action places the finger on part of the issue - from the moment that consumers start to ponder their purchasing or lifestyle intentions, they are acting (in other words buying) in a rational manner. However, what happens when the intentional healthy eater (to take the example of studies we conducted ourselves) eventually "bottles it" and goes for the easier, less nutritious option? How does one bridge the gap between the underlying "implicit" attitude (a consumer has an instinctive preference for junk food even if they know that this is bad for their health) and the explicit, more volitional one (the same person claims they are going for the healthy option because this is good for them, even if this goes against their deeply held beliefs).
Theory rightly points out this disparity but for practitioners how on earth do they anticipate and accommodate for such fluctuating consumer attitudes and behaviour? To get to the heart of the matter, marketeers need to grasp what is meant by "attitude" in the first place and then decide how best to gauge it.
Consuming with an attitude!
The attitude of a consumer is bound up in several concerns – what would I like to purchase, what will it cost me and how will I be perceived based upon my choice? There exists a clear link between the "object of their desire" and how it will be evaluated by others. The first, most visible consumers of purely bio food products may have, in some cases, given a certain amount of consideration to the way in which they would be regarded by others. Those brave enough to have wielded a 10-ton telephonic brick in the 1980s (aka the first mobile phone) may or may not have wondered how others viewed them in the street. There are no doubt web users these days who speak in hushed tones of their continued adherence to Internet Explorer, despite the existence of far trendier options.
Above all, many other consumers may have considered going down these routes and buying similar products and either avoided doing so or consciously doing so in order to manage their "social impression". It is this desire to elicit social acceptance that throws an additional spanner into the works for marketeers who are trying to anticipate demands that are not always clearly expressed or, in some cases, just harder to identify in the first place.
Keep your finger on the pulse – but how?!
In more practical terms, the challenge is how to test the consumer waters whilst taking into account potential changes of heart for the reasons mentioned above. Based upon our own computer-driven findings (where respondents had to react more spontaneously than the good, old-fashioned questionnaire) and which covered a broad spread in terms of gender, age, level of education and income, it became clear that this kind of approach, coupled with the more "live" experience of setting up and directly questioning panels are more viable options for marketeers - asking questions through surveys afford too much time for reflection and ultimately end up confirming what those seeking revealing answers were expecting in the first place.
Listen to consumers, and keep listening
What emerges clearly from our research is the strong impact of social consensus upon human behaviour – a certain company or restaurant that has recently taken its fair share of stick in the press may well be avoided, however much the consumer enjoyed its services or products. Therefore the correlation (in this case a negative one, for the company or restaurant) between the intention to adopt a certain behaviour and the actual choice or "final act" is significantly governed by such external factors as social perception and acceptability.
It is therefore of vital importance that managers, marketeers, manufacturers, product developers and even public policy-makers also gauge their products, services and ideas in relation to socially-acceptable phenomena, rather than simply sticking to what they feel their consumers are after. To make a complicated situation even more complex, they can no longer even rely entirely upon what consumers declare to be their intentions when questioned. The key? Keep questioning and try to elicit an instinctive response, but remain ever-mindful of the consumer's permanent ability to waver in his or her decision.
This article draws inspiration from the paper The contribution of implicit cognition to the Theory of Reasoned Action Model: a study of food preferences, written by Claire-Lise Ackermann and Adrian Palmer published in The Journal of Marketing Management – 2014.
Adrian Palmer is a professor of Marketing at ESC Rennes, France. His first career was in services marketing and management. Since joining academia, he has researched and published extensively on the subject of services buyer behaviour. His book Principles of Services Marketing, now in its seventh edition, is widely used throughout the world to provide a grounding in the challenges and opportunities of marketing services.
Claire-Lise Ackermann is Assistant Professor of Marketing at ESC Rennes Business School, France. She teaches brand management, sales strategy and international marketing and her research interests cover implicit cognition, innovation, and design management
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