Conflict of Interest

Reconciling the divided mind of the consumer along the Path to Purchase.

It's April. Spring is in the air. And there is a war on. This war is waged on the battlefield known as the Path to Purchase, a battle between what consumers want to be and what they want right now.

There are specific points in our lives when we think about the world in terms of how we can be better and help improve those around us. This is a state of mind we refer to as the "Aspirational Self." This is the side of us that envisions ideal outcomes and aids in our ability to behave in a manner consistent with achieving more lofty goals for ourselves and our families. Think about New Year's resolutions, and you get the idea.

Of course, in any war, there are at least two sides. Te other side, the Hyde to the Jekyll, all but abandons aspiration. This side views the world in terms of what will satisfy basic and pleasure-oriented desires. We refer to this state of mind as the "Hedonic Self." Tink about your birthday, and you get the idea.

Te conflict between the Aspirational Self and the Hedonic Self is ever present in our daily lives and influences a variety of moments of truth all along the Path to Purchase. Like an enactment of the famous story, our two selves — our Jekyll and Hyde — take turns in the spotlight on our decision-making stage. In certain circumstances, the two "selves" may be present at the same time, creating significant difficulties for consumers making even simple purchase decisions.

Mixed Messages

This inner conflict of interest is known in academic circles as self-regulation. Much academic research effort in ivory towers around the world has been directed at this critical dynamic, which has been shown to underlie many aspects of human decision-making. For example, convergent studies have found that under increased stress (such as time pressure or performing a difficult mental task), the tendency to choose healthier food items is reduced, and more attention is directed at colorful images of food than at health-oriented messages.

Other studies have reported that physical or mental fatigue, such as is common at the end of a busy day, increases the propensity to make less healthy food choices and to engage in meal preparation shortcuts, or behavioral heuristics, aimed at saving time and energy. In this case, interests in health and preparation effort are replaced by self-indulgence and convenience.

As we consider the ever-evolving Path to Purchase, with its increasingly rigorous delineation of moments of truth, when exactly does the Aspirational Self govern our decision-making? Most commonly, it is during the planning phase preceding the actual shopping trip. This is when meals are planned, lists created, coupons clipped and budgets allocated. During this stage, the actual consumption of items to be purchased is more distant in time, and decisions have a dominant rationality to them.

Discovery and Trial

While the appetitive appeal of food is always a key decision factor, convenience and decadence are more typically de-emphasized in favor of more complex and healthy meal components. We, as consumers, have more patience for discovery and trial. This is when we are more likely to aspire to make the meal seen on Te Food Channel. We take the time to look up the recipe on the Internet, compare prices of ingredients, and consult with our social networks for opinion and affirmation. We make this effort because we believe we are doing something that will nurture and improve ourselves and our families.

In contrast, when and how is the Hedonic Self most likely to appear? Convergent research aimed at understanding food preparation and consumption in the household has revealed that it is preparation and consumption that are centered on appetitive appeal and convenience- oriented decision-making. This is especially true of late-day meals, such as dinner and evening snacks, and when meal occasions are immediate (as opposed to prepared ahead of time). Complex recipes are exchanged for the convenience of ready meals. Healthy or better-for-you options are often traded for tasty and hunger-satisfying options. Importantly, even when healthier options are chosen, the messages that resonate best with the consumer, and get the product out of the pantry and onto the plate, are those that appeal to the Hedonic Self.

There are two key implications of these insights regarding marketing activations: Communicate to the Aspirational Self when marketing to consumers in the planning stage, and speak to the Hedonic Self in the preparation and consumption stage.

Here is where it gets even more interesting, leveraging for the Path to Purchase some of the most innovative and comprehensive research ever conducted. While the model described above is proved in a macroscopic framework, as we dive deeper, leveraging a unique combination of neuro-cognitive, behavioral and perceptual measures captured from actual shoppers in-aisle, we have discovered that the model is more complex.

Importantly, these recent studies have revealed that a robust self-regulatory dynamic is present in more microscopic contexts. In other words, like many cognitive phenomena, the dynamic is fractal in nature, a predictable pattern that is repeated at many scales (in this case, time). In no stage of the Path to Purchase is this "fractalness" more apparent than in shopping.

Oscillating Behaviors

During the shopping trip for many food and beverage categories, there are micro-moments where the oscillations between the Aspirational Self and the Hedonic Self are rapid and frequent.

While shoppers are engaged in a shopping trip, the Hedonic Self is increasingly dominant. Shoppers are most engaged at the shelf by appetitive imagery and cues to convenience, while less engaged by nutritional claims and value statements. Consumers are moving ever closer to the consumption point, and the experiences of shopping share many of the same traits as when shoppers are selecting options for consumption.

However, there are points along the trip where aspirational or highly rationalized decision-making reclaims the lead. Such moments include perusing the in-store circular when first arriving at the store to look for last-minute deals, and at the entry to, and initial exploration of, a category (when shoppers are typically 8 to 15 feet from the shelf). This is a point where decisions are based more on rational pecuniary facts than on hedonic impressions. Te Aspirational Self surfaces again, briefly, at the conclusion of the category experience (post-choice), when rational affirmation of purchases (e.g., health or value) has been shown to increase overall purchase satisfaction, likelihood of repeat purchase, brand confidence and faster use of the product.

Certainly, one of the most critical implications of these insights impacts the totality of shopper marketing, which we believe extends well beyond the confines of the store and into the everyday lives of consumers. In examining countless iterations of in-store and out-of-store messaging, we are often amazed at how frequently there is a disconnection between the message and the state of mind of the consumer. Health messages are often highlighted on packages and in-line signage when the consumer thinking is focused on how good the product will taste and how easy it will be to prepare. Conversely, out-of-store contexts are best used to convey aspirational characteristics while maintaining a strong positioning of appetitive qualia.

Today, while there is currently no reason to believe that we, as insight generators, brand marketers or retailers, should aspire to influence consumers in a manner that will allow the internal war of self-regulation to be won outright (a self-indulgent line of thinking), it is possible to win a great number of battles.

To accomplish this, the industry must continue to identify and delineate the specific states of mind that predominate decision-making across every moment of truth, macro and micro, and tailor messaging to align with consumer cognitive dispositions along the entire Path to Purchase.

Matthew L. Tullman is co-founder and CEO of West Lebanon, N.H.-based Merchant

Mechanics Inc. He can be reached at [email protected].

In examining countless iterations of in-store and out-of-store messaging, we are often amazed by how frequently there is a disconnection between the message and the state of mind of the consumer.

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