Context is the Key to Understanding Consumer Behavior

The bulk of marketing research these days consists of:
1) analyzing demographics;
2) constructing psychological profiles;
3) using MRIs to understand brain activity related to purchasing; and
4) asking about purchasing behavior after the fact.

Unfortunately, a good understanding of consumer behavior remains elusive. Most new product launches fail, and consumers oftentimes appear to act irrationally. Why can’t market researchers get a handle on purchasing behavior?

I suggest that consumer research would be more effective if we assume that all purchasing is contextual. To understand consumer behavior one must understand the what, when, where, why, and how of the purchasing experience. This is true whether you are purchasing a car, an appliance, clothing, a cruise, a computer and so forth. The market researcher needs to account for context.

There may be a variety of ways to add context to the study of consumer behavior, and I have utilized pictographs to “walk” respondents through the purchasing process. I simply construct a series of pictographs or storyboards to show potential purchasers going through a buying scenario. Pictographs are used because people identify with them, and they are able to discuss each point in the purchasing process in detail. People tend to also get emotional just like they would in an actual purchasing situation. Laminated cards or a tablet computer can be used and interviews can be conducted individually or in focus groups.

We often use more than one set of pictographs to roughly match them demographically to the respondent(s). For example, one set for a single person and another set for a couple, or one set for young and another set for older people. Respondents look at the pictographs and start telling a seamless story, becoming more animated and emotional as they go along, and there are very few if any leading questions from the researcher. The story is audio-recorded for later analysis.

Pictographs can include many steps in the buying process. For example, the set for buying a car might show an old car that has broken down, a car that is too small for a large family, a car that cannot easily get into urban parking spaces, or a fancy sports car that projects prestige. There are many disparate reasons for a person to be in the market to buy a car and there may be a combination of factors, and there may be changes depending on the economy. We are trying to answer the following question, “How can one depict the many decision factors related to buying a specific product or service?”

What if the research fails to depict an important part of the decision-making process? This is easily corrected because the process is open-ended. Respondents themselves suggest decision points that may be needed.

There are three general types of pictographs: setting the scene; showing interaction; and someone discussing what just happened. This guides the researcher and the respondent so a whole story is told.

This article argues that to understand consumer behavior the investigation must include the context of the buying situation. Context includes the specific product or service and the environment where the purchase is to be made.

Dale Paulson, Ph.D
President, Allegiance Research Group

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