Psychology of a purchase decision

Human psychology is a fascinating science, not least because of the frightening discoveries about just how predictable our behaviour can be. Customers make decisions based on a large number of factors and although it is impossible to influence them all, successful marketers try to strike a balance between appealing to the emotional and rational sides to our personality.

Humans are not completely practical, nor do they make decisions based solely on feelings. The amount of emotional desire varies according to the product, but rational decisions vary according to circumstances. Nobody gets too excited about Tesco value beans, however there are people all over the world right now dreaming about owning a yacht. Baked beans and yachts are both successful products, so clearly different processes are at work.

Emotional decisions

Ferrari don't have to try very hard to sell their products – these cars are almost entirely emotional purchases which appeal due to the power of their brand, the technical brilliance of the cars and an intangible value which varies from person to person. If the nature of your product is not particularly aspirational – you can increase this emotional appeal by carefully managing your brand, but remember - when times are tough, it's the emotional products that get hit hardest.

In "Mail Order Strategy” (Hoke Communications, 1956), Victor Schwab compiled the following 40 key emotional drivers:

What they want to gain: What they want to save or reduce:
Health Time
Popularity Discomfort
Praise from others Risks
Pride of accomplishment Money
Self-confidence Worry
Time Embarrassment
Improved appearance Work
Comfort Doubts
Advancement: social-business  
Money  
Security in old age  
Leisure  
Increased enjoyment  
Personal prestige  

What they want to be: What they want to do:
Good parents Express their personalities
Creative Satisfy their curiosity
Efficient Appreciate beauty
Recognized authorities Win others’ affection
Up-to-date Resist domination by others
Gregarious Emulate the admirable
“First” in things Acquire or collect things
Sociable, hospitable Improve themselves generally
Proud of their possessions  
Influential over others  

Rational decisions

Abraham Maslow published his theory of the hierarchy of needs in 1943, which describes how people's behaviour varies according to their circumstances. Maslow realised that as people's situations improve, their motivational focus and rational requirements shift.

The budget supermarket chain Aldi thrived as a result of the 2009 recession. Not because of clever promotion or product development, but because a great many people's circumstances have changed as a result of the external environment. For Aldi, the recession was a massive opportunity, but there is no point in advertising fashion brand clothes to people who don't have any air – they simply won't take any notice. Conversely if you are promoting an emotional product you may get better results if you appeal to that side of their personalities – you rarely see Bentleys being advertised simply as a method of getting from A to B.

Major changes in circumstances include:
Children
Marriage, divorce
Buying or renting a new house of flat
Getting a job, pay rise, or losing a job
Starting school, college, university

How consumers make up their mind to purchase

Now you're customer has made up their mind that they're in the market for, say, a premium watch, there are still plenty of decisions to be made and this is where marketing is especially important. There are plenty of premium watch brands, each of which tell the time equally well – this is where competition is fierce and differentiation is key. At this point, potential customers are most susceptible to marketing messages, the value of which varies according to the source. The combination of rational and emotional factors will be consciously weighed up in the mind of the customer which will lead to the ultimate decision.

Marketing message authority

Depending on the source, marketing messages have different value and trust associated with them. For example, an opinion of a close friend is much more likely to affect customer's views than, say, a radio ad.

We've highlighted some examples of messages and their relative value below:

Messages in order of authority
Personal experience
Recommendation from a friend or trusted contact
Experiential marketing event
Press review
Internet research - customer reviews etc
Discussion with salesman
Mass media promotional message

This hierarchy of value has lead to the more recent emergency of more personal methods of promotion including live 'experiential' events which are an excellent way of influencing potential customers and building trust.

Final words

You don't need to be a psychologist to successfully market a product, but you do need to understand the decision making process and the emotional and rational factors involved. Strike the right balance and you will outperform the competition.

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