How and why do customers buy?

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

The steps, in order, are:

  1. Problem/Need Recognition
  2. Information Search
  3. Evaluation of Alternatives
  4. Purchase Decision
  5. Post-Purchase Evaluation

The developers of the theory 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, so they can help influence other consumers when they go through the stages of the decision-making process. Powerfully useful 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 “alternate 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. Or how/why human beings make decisions about anything. 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, we’d probably agree.

Who knows who’s “right,” but I do think you’ll find understanding these theories can give you some valuable insight into how your messaging efforts find their way into the world of your customers.

All models are wrong. Some are useful.” – George E.P. Box, Statistics Professor