CONSUMER
BEHAVIOR

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Lars Perner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing
Department of Marketing
Marshall School of Business
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0443, USA
(213) 740-7127
Cell: (213) 304-1726

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Attitudes

Introduction. Consumer attitudes are a composite of a consumer’s (1) beliefs about, (2) feelings about, (3) and behavioral intentions toward some object--within the context of marketing, usually a brand or retail store.  These components are viewed together since they are highly interdependent and together represent forces that influence how the consumer will react to the object.

attitudes

Beliefs.  The first component is beliefs.  A consumer may hold both positive beliefs toward an object (e.g., coffee tastes good) as well as negative beliefs (e.g., coffee is easily spilled and stains papers).  In addition, some beliefs may be neutral (coffee is black), and some may be differ in valance depending on the person or the situation (e.g., coffee is hot and stimulates--good on a cold morning, but not good on a hot summer evening when one wants to sleep).  Note also that the beliefs that consumers hold need not be accurate (e.g., that pork contains little fat), and some beliefs may, upon closer examination, be contradictory (e.g., that a historical figure was a good person but also owned slaves).

Since a consumer holds many beliefs, it may often be difficult to get down to a “bottom line” overall belief about whether an object such as McDonald’s is overall good or bad.  The Multiattribute (also sometimes known as the Fishbein) Model attempts to summarize overall attitudes into one score using the equation:


That is, for each belief, we take the weight or importance (Wi) of that belief and multiply it with its evaluation (Xib).  For example, a consumer believes that the taste of a beverage is moderately important, or a 4 on a scale from 1 to 7.  He or she believes that coffee tastes very good, or a 6 on a scale from 1 to 7.  Thus, the product here is 4(6)=24.  On the other hand, he or she believes that the potential of a drink to stain is extremely important (7), and coffee fares moderately badly, at a score -4, on this attribute (since this is a negative belief, we now take negative numbers from -1 to -7, with -7 being worst).  Thus, we now have 7(-4)=-28.  Had these two beliefs been the only beliefs the consumer held, his or her total, or aggregated, attitude would have been 24+(-28)=-4.  In practice, of course, consumers tend to have many more beliefs that must each be added to obtain an accurate measurement.

Affect.  Consumers also hold certain feelings toward brands or other objects.  Sometimes these feelings are based on the beliefs (e.g., a person feels nauseated when thinking about a hamburger because of the tremendous amount of fat it contains), but there may also be feelings which are relatively independent of beliefs.  For example, an extreme environmentalist may believe that cutting down trees is morally wrong, but may have positive affect toward Christmas trees because he or she unconsciously associates these trees with the experience that he or she had at Christmas as a child.

Behavioral Intention.  The behavioral intention is what the consumer plans to do with respect to the object (e.g., buy or not buy the brand).  As with affect, this is sometimes a logical consequence of beliefs (or affect), but may sometimes reflect other circumstances--e.g., although a consumer does not really like a restaurant, he or she will go there because it is a hangout for his or her friends.

Attitude-Behavior Consistency.  Consumers often do not behave consistently with their attitudes for several reasons:

Attitude Change Strategies.  Changing attitudes is generally very difficult, particularly when consumers suspect that the marketer has a self-serving agenda in bringing about this change (e.g., to get the consumer to buy more or to switch brands).

Changing affect.  One approach is to try to change affect, which may or may not involve getting consumers to change their beliefs.  One strategy uses the approach of classical conditioning try to “pair” the product with a liked stimulus.  For example, we “pair” a car with a beautiful woman.  Alternatively, we can try to get people to like the advertisement and hope that this liking will “spill over” into the purchase of a product.  For example, the Pillsbury Doughboy does not really emphasize the conveyance of much information to the consumer; instead, it attempts to create a warm, fuzzy image.  Although Energizer Bunny ads try to get people to believe that their batteries last longer, the main emphasis is on the likeable bunny.  Finally, products which are better known, through the mere exposure effect, tend to be better liked--that is, the more a product is advertised and seen in stores, the more it will generally be liked, even if consumers to do not develop any specific beliefs about the product.

Changing behavior.  People like to believe that their behavior is rational; thus, once they use our products, chances are that they will continue unless someone is able to get them to switch.  One way to get people to switch to our brand is to use temporary price discounts and coupons; however, when consumers buy a product on deal, they may justify the purchase based on that deal  (i.e., the low price) and may then switch to other brands on deal later.  A better  way to get people to switch to our brand is to at least temporarily obtain better shelf space so that the product is more convenient.  Consumers are less likely to use this availability as a rationale for their purchase and may continue to buy the product even when the product is less conveniently located.  (Notice, by the way, that this represents a case of shaping).

Changing beliefs.  Although attempting to change beliefs is the obvious way to attempt attitude change, particularly when consumers hold unfavorable or inaccurate ones, this is often difficult to achieve because consumers tend to resist.  Several approaches to belief change exist:

  1. Change currently held beliefs.  It is generally very difficult to attempt to change beliefs that people hold, particularly those that are strongly held, even if they are inaccurate.  For example, the petroleum industry advertised for a long time that its profits were lower than were commonly believed, and provided extensive factual evidence in its advertising to support this reality.  Consumers were suspicious and rejected this information, however.
  2. Change the importance of beliefs.  Although the sugar manufacturers would undoubtedly like to decrease the importance of healthy teeth, it is usually not feasible to make beliefs less important--consumers are likely to reason, why, then, would you bother bringing them up in the first place?  However, it may be possible to strengthen beliefs that favor us--e.g., a vitamin supplement manufacturer may advertise that it is extremely important for women to replace iron lost through menstruation.  Most consumers already agree with this, but the belief can be made stronger.
  3. Add beliefs.  Consumers are less likely to resist the addition of beliefs so long as they do not conflict with existing beliefs.  Thus, the beef industry has added beliefs that beef (1) is convenient and (2) can be used to make a number of creative dishes.  Vitamin manufacturers attempt to add the belief that stress causes vitamin depletion, which sounds quite plausible to most people.
  4. Change ideal.  It usually difficult, and very risky, to attempt to change ideals, and only few firms succeed.  For example, Hard Candy may have attempted to change the ideal away from traditional beauty toward more unique self expression.

One-sided vs. two-sided appeals.  Attitude research has shown that consumers often tend to react more favorably to advertisements which either (1) admit something negative about the sponsoring brand (e.g., the Volvo is a clumsy car, but very safe) or (2) admits something positive about a competing brand (e.g., a competing supermarket has slightly lower prices, but offers less service and selection).  Two-sided appeals must, contain overriding arguments why the sponsoring brand is ultimately superior--that is, in the above examples, the “but” part must be emphasized.

The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) and Celebrity Endorsements.  The ELM suggests that consumers will scrutinize claims more in important situations than in unimportant ones.  For example, we found that in the study of people trying to get ahead of others in a line to use photo copiers, the compliance rate was about fifty percent when people just asked to get ahead.  However, when the justification “... because I have to make copies”  was added, compliance increased to 80%.  Since the reason offered really did not add substantive information, we conclude that it was not extensively analyzed--in the jargon of the theory, “elaboration”  was low.

The ELM suggests that for “unimportant” products, elaboration will be low, and thus Bill Cosby is able to endorse Coke and Jell-O without having any special credentials to do so.  However, for products which are either expensive or important for some other reason (e.g., a pain reliever given to a child that could be harmed by using dangerous substances), elaboration is likely to be more extensive, and the endorser is expected to be “congruent,” or compatible, with the product.  For example, a basket ball player is likely to be effective in endorsing athletic shoes, but not in endorsing automobiles.  On the other hand, a nationally syndicated auto columnist would be successful in endorsing cars, but not athletic shoes.  All of them, however, could endorse fast food restaurants effectively.

Appeal Approaches.  Several approaches to appeal may be used.  The use of affect to induce empathy with advertising characters may increase attraction to a product, but may backfire if consumers believe that people’s feelings are being exploited.  Fear appeals appear to work only if (1) an optimal level of fear is evoked--not so much that people tune it out, but enough to scare people into action and (2) a way to avoid the feared stimulus is explicitly indicated--e.g., gingivitis and tooth loss can be avoided by using this mouth wash.  Humor appears to be effective in gaining attention, but does not appear to increase persuasion in practice.  In addition, a more favorable attitude toward the advertisement may be created by humorous advertising, which may in turn  result in increased sales.  Comparative advertising, which is illegal in many countries, often increases sales for the sponsoring brand, but may backfire in certain cultures.