Illustrations of a dog representing pavlovian theory which shows icons for sound and thought.

Several consumer behavior theories have emerged as marketers apply findings in fields like psychology and sociology to consumers wants, needs and identities. Some of the most popular examples include psychoanalytic theory and Pavlovian theory.

What is the Pavlovian Theory?


Pavlovian theory is a learning procedure that involves pairing a stimulus with a conditioned response.

In the famous experiments that  Ivan Pavlov conducted with his dogs, Pavlov found that objects or events could trigger a conditioned response. The experiments began with Pavlov demonstrating how the presence of a bowl of dog food (stimulus) would trigger an unconditioned response (salivation). But Pavlov noticed that the dogs started to associate his lab assistant with food, creating a learned and conditioned response. This was an important scientific discovery.

Pavlov then designed an experiment using a bell as a neutral stimulus. As he gave food to the dogs, he rang the bell. Then, after repeating this procedure, he tried ringing the bell without providing food to the dogs. On its own, an increase in salivation occurred. The result of the experiment was a new conditioned response in the dogs.

Pavlov’s theory later developed into classical conditioning, which refers to learning that associates an unconditioned stimulus that already results in a response (such as a reflex) with a new, conditioned stimulus. As a result, the new stimulus brings about the same response.

Application to Consumer Behavior

A simple application of Pavlovian theory is the response that some consumers have when they hear the word “sale.” It can generate an urge to shop, even if people have no specific need at the time.

The theory can also work with specific brands. A consumer may start associating a brand name or product with a certain perception after repeated marketing efforts and/or experience with the brand or product. For instance, many people associate the brand name Neutrogena with purity and clear skin.

Coca-Cola is a classic example of a brand that has used this technique successfully for years, according to digital marketing firm Loyaltic. Coca-Cola’s marketing campaigns associate various activities and environmental factors, like sports, dehydration and heat, with their product. These activities and factors make people thirsty. “The cold Coke has now become the signal for the arrival of the heat, the thirst,” according to Loyaltic. “So, when you spot a red poster of a big glass filled with sparkly, bubbly cola on ice, you automatically get thirsty.”

As consumers receive verified experiences with brands, a conditioned response is possible. Automatic thirst when seeing a Coca-Cola bottle can result, or visualizing clear skin can occur when seeing a Neutrogena product.

Who Was Ivan Pavlov?

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian psychologist best known for his work in classical conditioning. In 1904, this work earned him the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. His principles have been applied to behavior therapies for educational classrooms and for reducing phobias via systematic desensitization.

Applying Consumer Behavior Theories

Consumer behavior is a constantly evolving science. With this knowledge, marketing professionals can be more effective in reaching their audience and bringing value to employers.

Husson University’s fully online BSBA with a marketing concentration helps students gain a strong understanding of consumer behavior, basic marketing principles, applied research, sales, social media and more. Graduates are prepared for a wide range careers, including market research analyst, brand manager and marketing specialist.