There are two broad approaches to the study of consumer behavior:
- Managerial Approach
- Holistic Approach
A managerial approach views consumer behavior as an applied social science. It is studied as an adjunct to and a basis for developing marketing strategies. A holistic approach views consumer behavior as a pure rather than applied social science. In this view, consumer behavior is a legitimate focus of inquiry in and of itself without necessarily being applied to marketing. Although it may appear that the first view has the most credence for marketers, in reality, a holistic approach also provides a useful perspective to strategy in many cases.
A managerial approach to consumer behavior tends to be more micro and cognitive in nature. It is micro in emphasizing the individual consumer: his or her attitudes, perceptions, and lifestyle and demographic characteristics. Environmental effects- reference groups, the family, culture -are studied in the context of how they influence the individual consumer. In being more micro, a managerial orientation is also more cognitive; that is, it emphasizes the thought processes of individual consumers and the factors that go into influencing their decisions. Marketing mangers find such a focus on the individual only natural.
The goal of all marketing strategy should be to satisfy the needs of individual consumers in a socially responsible manner. Information is collected on the consumer’s needs (desired product benefit), thought processes (attitudes and perceptions), and characteristics (lifestyles and demographics).
This information is then aggregated to define segments of consumers that can be targeted with the company’s offerings. Thus, a more affluent, older baby boom segment might be identified that likes causal wear and emphasizes performance over status. Identification of such a segment would have implications for marketers of everything from clothes to home computers and from yogurt to cars. But there are risks in taking too rigid a managerial perspective.
First, it might overemphasize the rationality of consumers. The cognitive view is that consumers search for and process information in some systematic manner in an attempt to meet their needs.
But in many cases, such systematic processing may not occur, as when consumers buy products for their symbolic value, on impulse, or on an addictive basis. Using a strictly approach may not reveal the underlying nature of the consumer’s decision in these cases.
Second, a micro view might over look the dynamics of environmental factors independent of the individual. For example, a perspective on gift giving in the context of ritual behavior would be culturally derived and might be insightful for many marketers. Yet such a perspective might be over looked if the focus is primarily on individual consumers.
Third, a managerial perspective tends to focus more on purchase than on consumption. This is only natural since marketing managers emphasize sales results as represented by purchasing behavior. But, recently, the focus has increasingly shifted to what happens after the purchase.
Satisfaction is generally defined by the consumption, not the purchase experience. A whole new area in marketing called relationship marketing recognizes that marketers must maintain a relationship with their customers after the purchase. And to a large degree, this relationship will depend on the consumption experience.
A holistic approach is more macro in its orientation. It tends to focus more on the nature of consumption experience than on the purchasing process because it stresses the broader, culturally derived context of consumption.
Consumption is seen as being symbolic as well as functional, antisocial as well as social, and idiosyncratic as well as normative. Purchase behavior is of little inherent interest outside of its impact on the consumption experience.
When it is studied, it is in the context of shopping rather than decision making because shopping is frequently culturally derived. Where as a managerial orientation is more interested in predicting what the consumer might do in the future, the holistic approach is more interested in understanding the environmental context of the consumer’s action.
A holistic approach also has its draw backs. The most important is that findings regarding the culturally derived meaning of consumer actions and consumption experiences may not be actionable from a marketer’s perspective.
This need not bother those who study consumer behavior for its own sake, but findings from consumer behavior should be actionable for marketing strategies in a business context.
Second, a holistic approach does not put sufficient emphasis on purchase decisions. Marketers must understand how consumers reach decisions if they are to influence them. Third, although many consumer decisions are not made through a process of systematic processing, many are. Some understanding of such cognitive processes is necessary if marketers are to attempt to meet consumer needs.