Have you ever bought something on a whim, simply because you could? Maybe you justified that it was inexpensive, or you rationalized that you deserved it. In reality, there are many cognitive processes and factors that influence our purchasing behaviors, and more and more marketers and businesses want to understand these influences.
Consumer psychologists are researchers, examining the marketing, advertising, and personal cognitions that influence consumer behavior. Using this research, consumer psychologists work with companies and businesses to develop marketing campaigns that maximize profits.
Because so many factors influence consumer behavior, consumer psychologists try to pin down exactly what techniques work – in addition to the ones that don't.
Understanding the Consumer
Usually, one problem most companies face is finding a way to attract consumers to a product in the first place. A large part of the work consumer psychologists conduct focuses on gaining a deeper understanding of what causes a consumer to purchase or forgo purchasing a product.
In “Self-Image Motives and Consumer Behavior: How Sacrosanct Self-Beliefs Sway Preferences in the Marketplace,” published in The Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers say that consumers often look beyond the simple economics behind a purchase. The article, by researcher David Dunning, notes that consumers don't merely weigh the objective negatives and positives of a product, but they also incorporate their own beliefs into a purchase.
Consumer psychologists have found that people often develop self-images of themselves that are more positive than they really are, which in turn influences their purchasing behaviors.
A company wanting to increase sales of a product might hire a consumer psychologist to examine what kinds of self-images their customers hold. The consumer psychologist might work to develop a survey or poll featuring questions about personal values and whether the product matches their values.
The consumer psychologist reports back to the company, explaining the customers’ values, and how the product might change to reach a greater number of customers with those values. Dunning writes that consumers develop self-images over time, and tend to buy products that reflect those self-images. Purchasing products that reflect a perceived self-image maintains a harmony in the consumer's life. But self-image also changes over time in order for consumers to justify certain purchases.
For example, imagine a woman who thinks of herself as frugal. She doesn't go out to eat, spends selectively, and places frugality high on her list of valuable traits. However, she has also become more environmentally conscious, and begins to buy more expensive, but “greener” products. In this case, she might justify spending for the greater good of saving the planet, fitting this into her self-image.
These self-image factors sometimes also have negative consequences on consumer behavior for businesses. According to “Brand Dislike: Representing the Negative Side of Consumer Preferences,” published in Advances in Consumer Research, some people develop self-images against certain products.
Researchers Daniele Dalli and others state that consumer psychologists must further investigate the negative reactions to consumption. Someone who has a strong self-belief that corporations are bad, selfish entities might not buy products from a major retail outlet.
For example, Dalli writes that while Disney is a popular brand, participants polled at Burning Man, a free-spirited artistic event in the desert, said they disliked the brand for its promotion of consumerism that didn't fit into their self-images.
In addition to understanding how a consumer's self-image affects his or her purchasing behaviors, consumer psychologists are beginning to examine how consumer mood influences decision making.
Researching Consumer Mood
Consider someone who makes plans to go to a major retail outlet after work to buy curtains for his home. But, at the end of the day, he is exhausted. Work was much more draining than expected, and he was just notified of his poor performance.
While he had made previous plans to shop after work, the whole idea of shopping, especially for curtains, gets postponed – perhaps indefinitely. Or he decides instead to buy the curtains online.
Consumer psychologists have long understood that mood might dictate consumer behavior in different ways, and are devoting more time to understanding how advertising and marketing techniques influence mood.
Consumer psychologists examine moods in terms of “valence.” Valence refers to either positive or negative effects of specific moods. For example, “happiness” and “pride” are of positive valence, while “sadness” and “anger” are of negative valence. According to the book “Consumer Psychology,” written by Cathrine V. Jansson-Boyd, consumer psychologists can use the Appraisal-Tendency Framework, to help determine how moods influence decisions.
The Appraisal-Tendency Framework states that explicit emotions or moods generate specific cognitive processes, which in turn influence a consumer's evaluation of products. The framework holds that emotions of the same valence might provide different outcomes.
For example, Jansson-Boyd writes that people who experience fear (negative) tend to take less risks, but people experiencing anger (also negative) have been shown to take more risks. Because risk taking is a large part of consumer behavior, consumer psychologists are looking to see how advertisers might influence these moods.
Consumer psychologists working to examine consumer mood for a company would look into how mood influences what they buy, when they buy, who they buy with, and how long they assess products. For example, a consumer in a bad mood might not want to spend much time shopping, and engages in more “impulse” buying as a result, not spending much time assessing a product.
According to “Mood States and Consumer Behavior: A Critical Review,” published in The Journal of Consumer Behavior, examining consumer mood states has become a major focus for consumer psychologists. The article, by Meryl P. Gardner, notes that research on consumer moods provides marketers with a more complete view of consumers and their reactions to marketing tactics and strategies.
While many factors of mood are beyond the control of marketers, more consumer psychologists are looking into how certain marketing tactics influence moods. For example, consider a dog shelter looking to increase adoptions and donations over the next few months. To reinvent their advertising strategy, the organization might hire a consumer psychologist to provide information and marketing advice about the development of a new commercial.
The consumer psychologist, knowing mood is a huge influence on consumer behavior, helps the organization to create a new marketing campaign that uses the commercial to invoke sympathy in the viewer.
The commercial features sad music and videos of dogs in the shelter. When the viewer sees the images and hears the music, he or she experiences a sense of guilt, and as a result, feels more charitable.
The shelter commercial uses these mood-changing factors attempting to arouse feelings of generosity in the viewer, increasing the chances he or she will give money to the shelter or adopt an animal.
Providing Valuable Information
Consumer psychologists work as consultants to advertisers, marketing agencies, and businesses. By observing consumers and conducting research, consumer psychologists provide these organizations with information that shapes their marketing campaigns.
Some consumer psychologists specialize in certain types of consumer-based research, such as environmental factors of consumer behavior, mood effects on behavior, or how certain commercials gain attention while others are ignored.
Others prefer to teach and conduct research at universities. For these positions, usually a PhD is required. If you're interested in a career as a consumer psychologist, request information from psychology schools.
Children as Consumers
Sparking controversy in both advertising and psychology, the targeting of children and adolescents in advertising has provoked consumer psychologists to research the effects of advertising on this demographic. While some psychologists believe that advertising targeting children violates their innocence, other psychologists believe advertising is just another part of life, and sheltering children from it doesn’t matter.
In any case, consumer psychologists agree that they must conduct further research to analyze the effects of advertisements on children. Because brand recognition and loyalty are large subjects of research for consumer psychologists, many are interested in seeing how brands reflect on children and adolescents.
In “The Meaning of Brand Names to Children: A Developmental Investigation,” published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers attempt to chart when children begin to identify with brands.
In the article, researchers Gwen B. Achenreiner and Deborah R. John tested a total of 202 children from three different age groups to determine their brand preferences.
John and Achenreiner showed children two identical looking advertisements, both consisting of a picture of a shoe. The difference between the two advertisements was that one of the pictures had “K-Mart” written below it, while the other had “Nike” written underneath.
Researchers asked children to determine which brand they preferred. According to the results, 74% of the 8-year-olds viewed the K-Mart brand preferably, compared to 56% of 12-year-olds and 33% of 16-year-olds.
The researchers concluded that beginning at around age 8, children start to view brands more conceptually, attaching “meaning” to them. John and Achenreiner note that before the conceptual view of brands begins to form, children relate to brands at perceptually.
This means that by age 3 or 4 children might request specific products by brand, but they are referring to a product type. For example, a child asking for Oreos would likely be pleased to have any chocolate, cream-filled cookie.
As they get older, children begin to identify brand names as specific products, and think about them beyond a perceptual level, understanding that Oreos is one thing, and a store-brand cookie is another. Consumer psychologists are continuing to examine the effects of branding and advertising on children as interest in the market increases.