The consumer decision-making journey has undergone major transformations in the recent decade. These changes have been enabled by an array of factors on different levels, which should be addressed by the industries. Globalization of all business processes is a major aspect of contemporary entrepreneurial activities. As such, modern marketing strategies are to be adjusted to the new reality, in which markets and operations are united on the global arena. This process is characterized by the increasing role of multinational corporations with the corresponding increase in pressure applied to smaller enterprises. At the same time, the matters of image and reputation have acquired an unprecedented level of significance, as enabled by two sets of factors. From one perspective, society’s political awareness is on the increase, which results in better attention to social justice, inclusion, and diversity. Simultaneously, the lack of the aforementioned factors becomes known to the public at a rapid pace through modern communication media.
In fact, the development of technology has become one of the leading characteristics of the contemporary business environment. Its range of application is vast, and the influence of modern advancements has been undeniable. Technology shapes the way in which people think and acquire information, meaning that it can be implemented in all aspects of a company’s operations. However, technological advancements reach the peak of their potential in the sphere of marketing activities. Social media and remote operations have become integral components of life in the 21st century. The recent events, namely the novel coronavirus disease pandemic, have underlined the vital status of technology, prompting marketers to opt for digitization. In this regard, it appears crucial to redefine the marketing paradigm and adjust it to the new reality. Nevertheless, while transformation has been significant, the core principles of marketing have remained unchanged. Accordingly, it is equally important to acquire and retain a complete understanding of all stages and principles of consumer decision-making. The purpose of this paper is to examine the nature of consumer decision-making, as well as the marketers’ response to it in the 21st-century environment.
Consumer Decision-Making Journey
The paradigm comprising all stages of a consumer’s journey from first interest to the final purchasing decision and subsequent experience has been an area of intense attention for modern researchers. Stankevich (2017) writes that the topic has become particularly important for the marketing community, as it provides insight into effective customer relation mechanisms. In order words, exploring the consumer decision-making journey enables a better understanding of the leading factors which impact the final purchasing decision. Organizations can utilize this information to their advantage by evaluating the existing issues and strengths, thus establishing the points of further growth. According to Vollrath and Villegas (2021), the consumer decision-making journey is a fundamental framework, which proves instrumental in the area of strategic marketing planning. Its primary importance consists of tracing the origins of perceived customer value while providing relevant data regarding all stages of the process. The lack of attention in regards to the discussed concept entails a phenomenon to which Vollrath and Villegas (2021) refer as marketing myopia. Therefore, the lack of thorough analysis of the decision-making framework impairs an organization’s ability to evaluate the market objectively.
Model and Levels of Consumer Decision-Making
Considering the seminal status of the decision-making framework in marketing, it is natural that the topical has had several views and interpretations. Stankevich (2017) begins her review with the traditional presentation of the process in the form of a five-stage sequence: “need recognition, information search, evaluation of alternatives, purchase, post-purchase behavior” (p. p. 10). As such, all purchasing behavior stems from the primary need identification, which determines the further interest. Stankevich (2017) refers to subsequent research by Belch G. and Belch M. (2009), adding a psychological dimension to the discussion (Figure 1). According to this model, the initial stages of consumer decision-making set the motivation for the subsequent purchase or lack thereof. Therefore, it is vital for marketers to identify consumer motivation as the underlying concept of the entire framework, further incorporating it into the operations.
As can be inferred from the concepts described above, all purchasing decisions begin with an identification of a need or a problem. Accordingly, marketing concepts suggest either highlighting or artificially creating an imbalance between a potential consumer’s current and desired position. Through this process, an attitude is formed, which leads to further interest in the product. At this point, the task of the marketers is to convince a consumer that the envisaged purchase will meet the newly emerged need and fill the created gap better than its alternatives.
The act of buying within the classical paradigm is associated with the integration of the product in the life of the consumer. The transition from this stage to the final one is essential, as it is often disregarded by outdated concepts of marketing (Vollrath and Villegas, 2021). In other words, organizations often tend to limit their evaluations to the moment of purchase. Nevertheless, subsequent experience and corresponding behavior cannot be underestimated, as it is related to the psychological aspect of learning. Once the purchase is made, the consumer evaluates their experience with the product and its distributors, this forming an impression. This impression can, in turn, be shared with other participants of the market affairs. If it is positive, the range of returning of referred customers will see a major contribution. Through this stage, loyalty and brand image are formed, and these factors are of paramount importance in today’s business environment.
Views of Consumer Decision-Making
Consumer decision-making is a complex process, which encompasses various aspects of feelings and thinking in regards to the issue at hand. One of the leading elements of the framework reveals itself on the cognitive level. This aspect is responsible for the rational side of the purchasing behavior in that it is directly related to the objective thinking process. The cognitive view of consumer decision-making dictates that a customer remains in the pursuit of a satisfactory solution to their needs, which is present until an optimal variant is found (Four views of decision making, n.d.) Throughout the process, consumers continue to evaluate the advantages and drawbacks of each option based on both objective and subjective characteristics of the product. This aspect is fueled by information and facts, which sway an individual in a certain direction, either enabling or impeding the purchase. Simultaneously, the marketers’ goal is to provide such information, which would establish a clear link with the consumer’s motivation through cognition.
The second view of the consumer decision-making process comprises the economic side of the purchase. This view of the matter assumes that each customer is a rational individual capable of making objective, economic evidence-based decisions. Therefore, in the environment of perfect competition, consumers will opt for the option that demonstrates the best value. This view urges marketers to emphasize the economic sides of their products by highlighting the value (Four views of decision making, n.d.) In reality, however, there are other aspects that influence the final purchasing decision. As such, viewing consumers as perfectly rational and economic may be unrealistic and even damaging for an organization. Furthermore, an average individual in the mass market cannot be expected to possess profound knowledge of economic principles. As a result, consumers do not always select the best value objectively, rather resorting to their perception of it.
In this regard, it is interesting to explore the emotional view of consumer decision-making. According to this principle, people tend to associate a certain product with the feeling they evoke (Four views of decision making, n.d.) For example, if an individual becomes involved in an accident when driving a specific automobile, they may develop negative associations with the brand in the future. While, objectively, the manufacturer and the quality of the vehicle may not have had a role in the accident, the image of the car itself becomes embedded in a consumer’s mind. As a result, they may be more likely to opt for a different automobile brand simply to avoid the unfortunate associations. In addition, the emotional aspect can reveal itself in the pre- and mid-purchase environments. Customers who are met with an unwelcoming attitude of brand representatives will be likely to have an overall negative perception of the product despite the objective value. Therefore, emotions, indeed, affect the rationality of the purchase, thus confirming the emotional view and setting limitations to the economic perspective.
Finally, another prominent view of consumer decision-making is titled the passive one. It suggests that an average buyer has little or no agency in the purchasing process. The proponents of this view claim that consumers are fully subject and even submissive to the promotional actions of the marketers. In other words, all information delivered by the marketing units does not undergo any processing within the minds of the recipients. This view implies the lack of critical thinking among consumers. However, practical observations suggest that such a perspective is not related to the reality of the 21st century. Today, people have access to multiple sources of information, as enabled by the development of technology. As such, an average consumer has become more informed of marketing tools, brand imaging, and product properties. Consequently, it would be unwise to regard them as passive recipients of information, thus compromising their agency.
The Importance of Map to Purchase
Overall, the examination of the consumer decision-making views reveals that purchasing behavior in today’s market is determined by the nexus between cognition and emotion. Therefore, the subsequent analysis is to consider the decision-making process as a balance between these two aspects. A similar perspective is necessary for organizations willing to draw and examine their consumers’ map to purchase. Berman (2020) states that such a map provides a detailed presentation of a customer’s interaction with brand at various stages of the decision-making model from awareness, to consideration, to search, to purchase and to post-purchase behavior” (p. 84). The purpose of the path-to-purchase review is to divide the operation chain into segments corresponding with the consumer decision-making framework. Through this procedure, marketers and organization’s leadership acquire a better understanding of their strategies’ weak points while observing the gap between the actual and the desired.
Hence, a map to purchase is required by all modern organizations willing to respond to contemporary challenges effectively. Berman (2020) devotes considerable attention to this method, suggesting that it is an innovative approach to responsible market research. The author of this study differentiates between traditional methods of research and map-to-purchase analysis based on their perceived advantages for organizations. In this regard, the former concentrates on specific channels, for example, reviewing customer interaction via retail points or smartphone e-tail applications. On the other hand, mapping the path to purchase provides a different, inter-channel perspective, which unites various media within one stage. Furthermore, the innovative mapping technique reviews customer experience across all stages of interaction with the product, unlike outdated methods that focus on each step at once.
B2B and B2C Contexts
The contemporary business environment is highly complex, which poses additional difficulties for marketers. First of all, the organizational landscape per se is subject to strong influence from the external factors, which, in turn, shape the internal operations of a business. Globalization and active digitalization are among the most important determinants of today’s market relations. At the same time, Lieu et al. (2018) discuss the crucial dichotomy present in the dualistic approach to marketing, which consists of the division between B2B and B2C operations. As a matter of fact, this dichotomy has shaped the understanding of marketing as a unity of two separate entities. Nath et al. (2019) acknowledge the existence of the dual context while mentioning that current trends point toward the act of merging between the two spheres. The environment, in general, has seen an increased emphasis on consumer-centric ideas, which permeates business-to-business operations. However, as of now, the B2B-B2C dichotomy remains the prevalent concept, which is why each context is to be discussed separately.
B2C relations are interpreted as business-to-consumer, meaning that product manufacturers and service providers interact directly with their clients. Most of the traditional understandings of business and marketing are related to this particular format. According to Liu et al. (2018), the main feature of B2C marketing concerns its broader scope. In this scenario, companies draw the profile of their target audience, thus identifying a primary population group at which marketing activities will be aimed. As a result, effective campaigns can encompass a variety of households and attract new consumers. As a matter of fact, B2C sales do not require pre-existing interest on behalf of the customer. Instead, proficient marketers are capable of nurturing it within the target population by addressing its generalized features and creating a gap between the actual and the preferred.
In addition, B2C markets see a more important role of the emotional aspect in decision-making. Consequently, consumers tend to trust their perception and devote less time to research in regards to a potential purchase. In the case of the automobile industry, the range of the key factors of decision-making may include the visual appeal of a vehicle, its associated status, and comfort as much as the driving experience and economics. For some people, owning a good-looking premium car outweighs such aspects as fuel consumption and maintenance costs. Therefore, the marketers’ objective will be to convince the target audience that their vehicles will meet the status and esthetic criteria, thus bridging the gap between the actual and the desired. Ultimately, B2C marketing is a more personalized activity that addresses feelings and the practical side, often preferring quantity of consumers over quality.
On the other hand, the B2B context introduces a different set of rules for marketers. In this scenario, implying business-to-business operations, the potential sale is discussed between equal business partners. Furthermore, B2B marketing cannot boast a similar scope to the B2C context, thus often eliminating the mere concept of the target audience. As such, these relations suggest that the manufacturer is to convince a specific client company that the product meets their requirements. While the global objective may appear the same, its primary features become different. First of all, most B2B purchasing decisions are not made individually, as client companies tend to assign workgroups of several professionals who evaluate each opportunity (Nath et al., 2019). Therefore, marketing campaigns are tailored in accordance with the specifications of each sales scenario. Second, as can be inferred from the context, the B2B context suggests a lower degree of emotional involvement and bias. Evidently, even in business-to-business relations, the decisions are still made by people. However, the underlying motivation for purchase is dictated by the needs of an organization, and biases are mitigated by the participation of several workgroup members.
In the discussed context, the role of facts and objective characteristics of the product becomes crucial. Visual appeal and perceived personal benefits may not suffice for a successful purchase in B2B relations. In the automobile industry, a multitude of B2B scenario examples exist. For instance, if a taxi company seeks to expand its garages, it will be more likely to select vehicles that meet their particular criteria. For this B2B deal to be successful, the proposed models should be durable in order to sustain increased pressure of taxi operations while having generally lower maintenance costs. The client company will not consider the esthetics or associated status of the vehicle as its defining characteristics when making the final decision. Therefore, marketers will have to present their models in a way, which would highlight their benefits for the partners’ business operations. This objective is usually attained through an emphasis on the economic aspect and practical properties of the product.
Approaches to Market Research
All successful marketing operations require a strong research base that would provide the specific direction for subsequent activities. In other words, the success of marketers’ efforts depends largely on the quantity and quality of market research data obtained prior to the campaign. According to Wilson (2018), the importance of marketing research is difficult to overestimate, as it has acquired a vital status within the organizations of the 21st century. The primary purpose of it is to provide a company’s leadership with a clear vision of enablers and barriers in the market.
Ideally, market research is to encompass all stages of the decision-making process. During the initial phases, organizations assess the existing demand within the target market. Next, as consumers’ interest arises, the objective is to determine whether the value of the product is sufficient based on the quantity and quality of the competition (Iacobucci et al., 2019). Finally, in the post-purchase stage, it is equally important to gather and analyze consumer feedback, thus completing the cycle and drawing meaningful conclusions. At the same time, while the marketing community generally acknowledges the importance of such research, the opinions divide in regards to the exact manner in which it is to be executed.
From a historical perspective, organizations have often relied on their internal expertise and knowledge of marketing concepts. The opposition of qualitative and quantitative market research is a classical dichotomy within the discussed area of interest (Kuhn and Baumann, 2017). The first approach relies on qualitative data obtained in the form of statements, opinions, and trends. The usual formats of its execution comprise the traditional methods of interacting with consumers via interviews and feedback forms. However, Bender et al. (2020) observe a significant decrease in the prevalence of qualitative market research in recent years. As suggested by these findings, the expert community has swayed toward quantitative methods of market analysis. This approach suggests a stronger emphasis on numerical, measurable data, which is considered to provide more objective information. Standardized surveys and corresponding marketing metrics serve as the central instruments of this classical method of research.
On the other hand, the changing landscape of the business environment enables a corresponding shift of the market research paradigm. First of all, according to Kuhn and Baumann (2017), today’s sphere of marketing analysis sees a surge in mixed-method approaches that combine the best properties of both qualitative and quantitative methods. This innovation virtually breaks the long-existing dichotomy, adding a new, versatile dimension to marketing studies. Next, the field also benefits from the implementation of modern technology, which provides state-of-the-art methods of market research and evaluation. For example, Nilashi et al. (2020) focus on neuromarketing, which “combines neuroscience and physiological techniques in order to get insights in customer behavior for effective prediction of customer preferences in decision-making process” (p. 23). Simultaneously, Ma and Sun (2020) conceptualize the use of Artificial Intelligence in market research through advanced machine learning and multi-faceted big data analysis. These innovative approaches attempt to provide accurate market prediction frameworks, which would rely on the immense computing potential of modern technology. While computers are unlikely to replace human marketer expertise, their assistance considerably expands the inventory of the expert community.
Factors in Consumer Decision-Making
Considering the aforementioned points in regards to effective market research, the principles of consumer decision-making remain the leading force in this environment. In fact, the multi-stage journey discussed above defines the entire process of marketing operations. At the same time, consumer decision-making remains a complex phenomenon, which is influenced by an array of both internal and external factors. The first category comprises the psychological processes behind each level of the decision-making model, as described by Belch G. and Belch M. (2009). Overall, the experience with the purchase corresponds with a consumer’s journey from an initial motivation to subsequent interest, learning, and reflection. The psychology of the matter plays a role of pivotal importance in B2C sales, but its part in the B2B context is also observable. Nevertheless, the decision-making factors are not limited to the psychological aspect, and the external influence on the purchasing behavior equally deserves additional exploration.
Heuristics in Consumer Decision-Making
The idea of heuristics is related to the psychological dimension of the consumer decision-making process. In general, this principle represents a practice-oriented approach to problem-solving and decision-making. It suggests that when a person faces a choice, they can make it without the full knowledge and complete analysis. Next, the outcome of the choice will serve as an element of learning (Ceschi et al., 2019). Heuristics contradict the principles of rationality, as such decisions are often based on impulses rather than objective cognition. Mousavi and Gigerenzer (2017) refer to heuristics as the tool for uncertainty, which helps make at least some decisions in difficult situations. However, despite its contribution to battling uncertainty, experts often consider heuristics to cause higher risks for the decision-makers.
In the field of marketing, rationality is not always prevalent, especially in the B2C context. Nevertheless, the presence of heuristics in the consumer decision-making paradigm depends entirely on the industry. Naturally, its prevalence will be more significant in the cases of smaller purchases, which do not require considerable assessments. For example, grocery or daily clothes purchases may well be made within the heuristic framework. On the other hand, the automobile industry is unlikely to be influenced by this factor. The purchase of a vehicle is a serious endeavor for most individuals, meaning that it will be subject to extensive cognitive analysis. As such, the role of heuristics in consumer decision-making will vary across industries and contexts.
An organization’s marketing mix represents a major component of the consumer decision-making framework. This fundamental concept has had several leading interpretations, each comprising a varying number of elements. For example, Pomering (2017) relies on the paradigm of “traditional four Ps (product, price, promotion and place)” (p. 157). At the same time, this study extends the core of the marketing mix to incorporate several other factors: promise, principles, and partnership. Each P of the marketing mix reflects strong market forces, which impact the decision-making process. The core notions exist in a strong nexus, which is responsible for the objective aspect of marketing. Despite possible psychological processes, the price and properties of the product remain the cornerstone of the consumer interest. In fact, the element of the marketing mix could be seen as the root of decision-making. For example, even when the need and corresponding motivation are present, poor quality of the product or its unrealistic price will prevent the relations from progressing past the initial stage.
In the 21st century, the importance of technology across various industries has risen as modern advancements transitioned from the status of a narrow-use means of entertainment to a basic necessity. The research conducted by Kumar et al. (2018) indicates an observable shift of the consumer decision-making paradigm toward technological innovation. First of all, modern advancements provide people with a wider selection of goods and services enabled by online platforms and delivery services. Second, another observation by Kumar et al. (2018) suggests that consumer preferences also focused on innovative products, which enhance users’ experience. According to Muzellec and O’Raghallaigh (2018), the rise of technology, namely mobile devices, had a direct impact on the consumer decision-making process, adding new stages to the previous three-step model. Findings by Varkaris and Neuhofer (2017) reveal a strong link between social media and decision-making, as well. The prevalence of online-based communication enables a quicker exchange of information, thus forming brand images through electronic word-of-mouth. Ultimately, modern technology becomes the leading factor, which shapes the marketing landscape today.
Marketers’ Influence on Consumer Decision-Making
While rigorous market research provides marketers with a better understanding of the consumer decision-making framework, the mere possession of this knowledge does not suffice. This information is to be utilized to the advantage of the organization, and the correct execution of the task will allow marketers to influence the process of consumer decision-making. The identification of factors described above in the context of a particular industry is a crucial step. It allows organizations to reveal their own strengths and weaknesses combined with the demands and expectations of consumers.
Subsequently, it appears possible to instigate positive decision-making through the implementation of modern technology, thus meeting the innovative requirements of the target audience. In fact, electronic commerce and technologically advanced products have become particularly important in the age of COVID-19 (Bhatti et al., 2020). Furthermore, marketers can no longer underestimate the potential of social media. Active online presence combined with effective cooperation with local and global opinion leaders will positively contribute to the brand’s image through electronic word-of-mouth. For example, car manufacturers can invite a prominent influencer to review a new model and present it to the audience in a favorable manner. As of now, the organizations in the automobile industry utilize this capacity to a moderate degree. Accordingly, a stronger emphasis on online marketing opportunities is required to instigate the conversion across all stages of the sales funnel.
Ultimately, consumer decision-making is the key element of marketing and related studies. This notion refers to a complex, multi-stage process that describes an individual’s journey from the initial motivation to actual purchase and post-purchase experience. The nature of the process is enabled by an array of internal and external factors, among which technology appears the most relevant ones in the current environment. As such, the best approach to marketing in the 21st century will rely heavily on emerging online opportunities. Social media platforms are instrumental in this regard, as it helps marketers reach a broad audience efficiently. The correct utilization of these tools will help the brand maintain a positive image by following the spirit of the time. Demonstrating commitment to the modern values and trends while maintaining a positive image of a fresh, culturally, and the technologically aware company will inevitably yield positive results in the current environment.
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