Applying alternative learning concepts to consumer behavior

We should not be dismayed by alternative explanations of how consumers learn. In fact, it is useful to have these alternatives since the nature consumers learn probably influences the method they use to learn it.

Connectionist theories of learning are appropriate to understanding a variety of other aspects of consumer behavior. As has already been noted, classical conditioning is useful for explaining how consumers acquire tastes and motives. Advertisers also employ the concept by showing their brands in pleasant, exciting or otherwise emotionally positive surroundings. For example home computers are shown being enjoyed in interesting settings. Lipton ice tea is depicted in refreshing swimming pool settings and fast food products are often shown being consumed in fun filled social gatherings. Here, the concept of classical conditioning applies to the advertiser’s plan for repeated association of a brand with the positive surroundings, which will lead to consumer developing a preference toward the brand. Figure parallel suggests how this would occur using a happy situation as the unconditioned stimulus. The setting (such as a family gathering) is selected because it already elicits pleasant feelings form consumers – the unconditioned response. Repeated association of the brand with this setting, such as picturing its use during a family gathering will enable the brand itself to generate similar pleasant feelings. This should increase consumers’ preferences for it. The Advil advertisement is an example that is consistent with the previous explanation.

Recent consumer research in universities and for advertisers such as Coca-Cola has suggested that this type of advertising strategy has considerable potential or influencing consumers brand preferences. However, additional investigation indicates that the associations fostered by such advertisements are not very strong after the consumer has had only a small number of advertising exposures. Other research suggests that more investigation is needed to fully explore the usefulness of classical conditioning to advertising applications.

Certain types of habitual behavior are also explained through classical or respondent conditioning. For example many consumers automatically purchase particular brands such as Scotch tape and Bayer aspirin because they have developed strong associations between the brand name and the generic product. This is often an advantage accruing to marketers who first develop a product that dominates the market. In still other cases consumers habitually purchase particular brands such as Campbell’s soups merely because parents did. Here, such a strong association has been made between a particular brand and an activity or a nee that little consideration may be given to its actual suitability.

Instrumental or operant conditioning is useful for understanding consumer learning where conscious choices resulting in positive or negative reinforcement are made. The obvious case is consumers’ purchase and evaluation of products. Favorable experiences will result in positive reinforcement of the particular choice. Of course, learning to avoid certain products due to negative reinforcement from bad experiences with them is also possible. This is strong justification for the marketer’s stress on satisfying the customer.

Advertisements depicting satisfied buyers can also result in consumers’ learning a connection between a brand and favorable experiences. Other types of promotional efforts, including cash rebates, free product samples, trial periods or low introductory prices, also make use of instrumental conditioning. The goal in these cases is to structure a situation so that consumers are given rewards as a consequence of having performed an activity that is desired by the marketer.

Many other applications of both cognitive and connectionist learning could be cited. However, we now turn attention to other useful concepts of consumer learning.

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