What’s In That Black Box?

Wouldn’t we like to know!

One very useful tool we have to help understand how consumers make decisions is the 5 stage consumer decision-making model. The model proclaims that consumers indeed go through 5 specific steps in every decision they make.

These are:

Problem Recognition > Information Search > Evaluation of Alternatives > Purchase Decision > Post-Purchase Evaluation

Personally, I tend to agree with this because the developers of the theory anticipated that a skeptical Gen-Xer like me would immediately question it. They go on to say that we don’t necessarily spend an equal amount of time at each stage, we may not follow the process in a linear order, and they say we may not even be consciously aware of going through the stages or of which stage we’re in. When you factor all of that in and think about any purchase decision you’ve ever made, you can see where it does apply and is quite a neat theory. You can also readily get an idea of how YOUR customers, or if you’re a business-to-business marketer, the customers of your customer (who are ultimately YOUR customers too if you’re truly practicing the marketing orientation) make decisions. That knowledge can in turn help you develop your entire marketing campaign from choosing your target market to developing ad copy and sales presentations to making it easy for the customer to make the purchase to ensuring the customer is happy once the relationship is opened (notice I didn’t say the sale was closed!), so they can help influence other consumers when they go through the stages of the decision-making process. Very powerful stuff indeed!

On the other hand, if you’re skeptical of this nifty little 5 stage process, you won’t be without a team to root for. Another lesser-known but consideration-worthy theory is that of the “black box.” This theory asserts that, though the 5 stage model has some application, ultimately it is very difficult indeed to truly, fully understand how and why consumers make decisions. The black box theory states that marketers can know what stimuli “go in” to the mind of the consumer and that a decision “comes out”, but understanding the exact process remains a mystery. If you and I both think about some of the purchases we’ve made and then tried to justify them, it gives credence to the idea of the black box.

Skepticism aside, I encourage you as I encourage all my clients and grad students to use this tool as a framework for decision making, to complement your experience and instincts. If nothing else, it gives us a blueprint for the questions we must ask our customers.

The customer IS the answer, after all!