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The Past, Present and Future of Consumer Behaviour

Christopher Martin

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Christopher Martin

    Every successful brand has, at its core, an in-depth and robust understanding of consumer behaviour. Not just a picture of what customers want, but the dynamics of the wider marketplace. It seems almost routine today – but this hasn’t always been the case. The emergence of consumer behaviour research as a social science can trace its direct roots back to the 1940s, when it grew out of the marketing discipline to also incorporate the study of psychology, anthropology and economics.

    A Brief History of Consumer Behaviour

    Important to understanding the origins and history of consumer behaviour are the four eras of marketing. Sometimes known as the four epochs of business, this categorisation of corporate history helps historians understand the economic and commercial developments of the past few hundred years. Broadly, the four eras are:

    • The production era, which was guided by the attitude that a product will sell itself
    • The sales era, where creative advertising and sales were used to overcome buying resistance
    • The marketing era, in which products were built to fulfil the needs of potential customers
    • The relationship era, in which long-term relationships underpin successful companies

    Loosely, it is believed that the production era governed commercial markets prior to the 1920s, and the sales era was in full swing until the 1950s. It is towards the end of the sales era and the dawn of the marketing era that the origins of consumer behaviour can be found. Rather than starting from a single idea, the practice developed out of a change in the prevailing mood. No longer was it effective to create revenue through advertising and sales investments. Markets had become too competitive. The new advantage was found in knowing the consumer. And to do that meant studying behaviour from a sociological point of view.

    In these early years, the practice was heavily influenced by motivation research, which has been favoured by advertisers throughout the years of the sales era. Therefore, early consumer research relied on techniques such as depth interviews, projective tasks, thematic analysis and quantitative questionnaires.

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    Once insights are gathered on the consumer decision-making journey, stakeholders can apply them to all manner of brand strategies, decisions and processes.

    Over the next few decades, the field of consumer behaviour increasingly differentiated itself with research, hypotheses and theories that painted a less logic-driven and more nuanced view of its subjects. Specifically, consumer behaviour research began to highlight the role of the following characteristics in decision-making:

    Psychological Factors – including pre-purchase attitudes, post-purchase attitudes, social norms, beliefs, motivations, personality traits and lived experiences.

    Demographic Factors – such as age, gender, financial status, occupation, background, geography and other statistical data points.

    Social Factors – the networks of people that surround an individual consumer, such as friends, family, colleagues and social communities.

    As these various factors came together, the breadth of the research questions that the field of consumer behaviour could be applied to also grew. Practitioners throughout the 21st century has asked: how do consumers choose between brands? How does the environment affect purchase decisions? What marketing messages and pricing strategies do consumers respond best to? And even, what are the different types of purchase that consumers make?

    Modern Consumer Behaviour Theory

    Over the course of its development, a number of important theories have garnered attention. Today, while none of these theories dominate the field, each provides a framework through which marketers can consider the impact their decisions will have. Here are five of the most influential:

    Theory of Reasoned Action – this is concerned with the relationship between marketing and the existing attitudes that consumers have at the point of purchase. In short, the theory posits that attitudes, subjective norms and control beliefs form a behavioural intention, which in turn leads to a behavioural outcome. This view, in particular, suggests consumers are primarily rational and have access to accurate information.

    Engel Kollat Blackwell Model – a complex examination of consumer behaviour which identifies five distinct phases. The model suggests consumers go through an information input stage, information processing stage and decision processing stage, which is also mediated by decision variables and external factors. As a comprehensive evaluation, the model also lays out a typical decision-making pathway which involves problem recognition, solution search, evaluation of alternatives, choice, purchase and outcomes. It is suggested that decision variables and external factors influence the first four steps of this process.

    Motivation-Need Theories – there are a number of needs-based theories of motivation, but perhaps the most famous is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Joined by ideas such as the two-factor theory, ERG theory and the study of acquired needs, these concepts all suggest taxonomies for what drives human behaviour and investigate the relative importance of each. In consumer behaviour, they are applied to explain why particular purchase journeys are started.

    Theory of Buyer Behaviour – the Howard-Sheth theory of buyer behaviour is often cited as one of the most influential factors on the development of consumer behaviour as a research field separate to that of market research. The theory states that the brand-choice decision is comprised of a set of motives, several alternative courses of action and mediators to any decision. The theory introduces the concept of the evoked set of choices and intertextuality between outputs and inputs for future decisions.

     The Future of Consumer Research

     The modern commercial landscape continues to accelerate. More competition is able to enter the market, faster. The internet has improved consumers’ access to information. The media-mix choices for advertisers and marketers I still growing exponentially. While we may have entered the relationship era of marketing (or perhaps something different altogether), the need to understand consumer decision making, and the competitive advantage that it offers, remains.

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    As long as the commercial landscape remains competitive, understanding the needs of consumers will always be a priority for brands - and consumer behaviour research will grow increasingly sophisticated.

    So, what does that mean for the future of consumer behaviour as a field of study? Well, it certainly means that the way in which consumers make decisions will become more complicated. And it means the ways in which we measure, define and understand those decision-making journeys will need to grow more sophisticated. Technology, methodology and theory all have a role to play. But so too does setting a frame of reference.

    One important implication of our modern paradigm is that, unlike generations past, consumers don’t all have access to the same marketplaces, information and choices. Globalisation, technology and personalisation have fractured once simple models. The real evolution in consumer behaviour will be the way in which academics and commercial researchers dissect consumer groups to find both global truths and factor-based nuances that contribute to a more data-oriented future.

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