Illustrated infographic explaining three popular consumer behavior theories.

The science of marketing is increasingly important to success in the modern marketplace. Understanding human behavior — how people think and make decisions — can be illuminating for marketers. Studying consumer behavior can provide professional marketers with the knowledge they need to develop effective communications that motivate people to purchase goods and services.

A Brief History of Modern Marketing

The use of evidence-based approaches when selling products is a relatively recent phenomenon. As a science, marketing lacks its own research history. Instead, the field is a collection of work from other disciplines. These include psychology, sociology, social psychology, anthropology and economics, the University of Pretoria in South Africa explains.

Prior to the mid-20th century, businesses promoting their goods and services focused little attention on the individual behavior of their customers. Instead, their strategies focused on mass promotion. This involved impersonal campaigns that aggressively tried to convince consumers to make purchases. They were less focused on customer satisfaction with goods and services. These tactics ultimately proved ineffective.

In the early 1950s, marketers began to recognize the benefits of selling to customers already inclined to buy certain products. This discovery led to a shift in focus, with marketers examining the specific details of who their customers were and what they needed and desired.

Consumer Behavior Theory

Theories of consumer behavior are a natural extension of human behavior theories. While no single theory is unifying, each one provides a unique piece of the puzzle in understanding the psychological processes of people and their patterns of consumption. Four theories stand out as influential for marketers.

Marshallian Economics

Alfred Marshall was an economist who believed that consumers buy their goods and services based on what offers the most personal satisfaction. Some have criticized this theory for being uninformative. (It is assumed that people buy what they like, if they can afford it.) However, the theory has given marketers several useful hypotheses. Some include:

  • If a product’s price is lower, the sales of that product will be higher.
  • When there is a product and substitute of that product, sales of the substitute will be greater if its price is lower than the price of the original product.
  • When the income of consumers is higher, sales of a product will therefore be higher, provided the product is not an inferior one.
The Marshallian Model

Ultimately, the Marshallian model offers a way for marketers to understand the behavior of consumers when they are making purchases that require rational consideration.

Psychoanalytic Theory

Psychoanalytic theory traces back to Sigmund Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis. Although he himself was not concerned with consumer behavior, his theories of human behavior were revolutionary. He believed that humans are not able to fully understand their own motivations because the psychological factors that shape them are largely unconscious. A major part of the unconscious mind is comprised of strong urges and desires. Since these desires can cause significant guilt and shame when they surface, people will repress them.

According to psychoanalytic theory, consumers respond to symbolic concerns as much as they respond to those of economics and function. Freud’s work implies that external factors such as age and income cannot fully account for consumer behavior because motivations lay deep in the psyche. Instead, marketing messages that contain an emotional appeal to consumers’ feelings, hopes, aspirations and fears are often more effective than rational appeals.

Pavlovian Theory

This theory comes from the work of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov. In a famous experiment, Pavlov discovered that if he rang a bell immediately prior to feeding a dog, he could eventually get the dog to salivate just by ringing it. He concluded that much of human behavior results from conditioned responses.

The Pavlovian Model

The Pavlovian theory can prove highly useful for marketers. When establishing or reinventing a brand, marketers can use this knowledge to help create or change consumer habits, or reinforce brand elements that are associated with positive customer experiences.

Veblenian Social-Psychological Model

Economist Thorstein Veblen suggested that humans are social creatures who conform to the standards of the culture and subgroups in which they live. He believed that people’s individual needs and desires are created and influenced by group membership. Veblen focused his theory on members of society’s “leisure class,” whom he hypothesized were influenced by the desire for prestige rather than utilitarian need fulfillment. Although critics of Veblen’s theory argue that it may be overstated in scope, the theory still proves useful. It suggests that marketers should understand the social influences that impact consumers in order to better comprehend product demand.

Applications of Consumer Behavior Theories

Marketers are now using these foundational theories of consumer behavior in innovative ways.

In keeping with the Veblenian model, for example, they are beginning to understand that our face-paced, technology-saturated culture means that consumers are placing an even higher value on their time. Marketers must find ways to make their advertisements both shorter and more impactful, according to Direct Marketing News (DMN). Other examples of changing consumer values include: decreasing tolerance for marketers who abuse personal data, rising expectations for interaction with brands and the desire to build long-term relationships with companies. The American Marketing Association adds that in order to move forward, marketing experts must begin to collect consumer data in far more intentional ways and increase their focus on advertising to a diverse, global audience.

The science of consumer behavior is always evolving, characterized by constant change and refinement. For those seeking to find their place at the forefront of the marketing profession, Husson University offers an online BSBA with a marketing concentration. The fully online program takes just one to two years to complete, giving students a fast track to achieving their career goals.