Marketing and Research Consulting for a Brave New World
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Traditional marketing theory tells us that the purchase is the successful outcome of consumer-directed messages that create awareness which begets interest, desire, and action. 

What happens when that is wrong?  What does marketing do when it STARTS with the purchase?

This is an extreme version of what Procter calls “store back”.  However, based on shopper insights research I have conducted, I believe that, for grocery products, over half of first-time purchases are unplanned; in fact, the shopper might not even have been aware of the product before buying it.  In those cases, it all STARTS with the purchase and ENDS with awareness.  The purchase funnel is totally flipped.

When it all starts with the purchase, the role of marketing communications changes.  Now marketing must get the product noticed at shelf and impart meaning to it instantaneously for the shopper.  Packaging, shelf placement, thematic displays, signage, mobile messages that are location-aware, shopper offers based on that shopper’s history, and master brand familiarity become the main vectors for creating meaning.  In this communications model, when someone encounters a product they were unfamiliar with they should be able make sense of it instantly; to tell YOU (the marketer) what the product is about, rather than you having to tell them in a concept statement.  After the product is bought and being used, there is more sense-making that occurs.  If the consumer is really into the product as they are using it, now you have an opportunity to build engagement:  they might join a community, become a fan in Facebook, share comments, start seeking out advertising and recalling it, seek out the brand’s “creation story”, etc.  In this scenario, the impact of brand narrative, brand values, social media engagement, etc. come AFTER the purchase, so they solidify rather than precondition the brand-customer relationship. 

Could it really be that it all starts with the purchase?  Well, for certain types of products and retailing situations, I believe it does.  Consider this:

  • Conduct a study to measure the percent of products bought for the first time that are discovered in-store (I got 50%+)
  • Do you think the products bought for the first time on impulse in a Kroger’s, Trader Joes, Costco, Target, etc. are all the same and were previously known? If not, then you believe that brand adoption can START via the shopping experience.
  • Consider shopping styles that people have, reflecting their relationship with a product category.  Can you imagine categories (e.g. artisan cheeses) where shoppers like to explore and find new interesting products to buy?

This last point is perhaps the most important.  People have different shopping styles for different product categories which means that the heuristics they use to make decisions are systematic.  You might not ever buy carbonated soft drinks the way you buy interesting dips that you just tried at a tasting station.  This is where behavioral economics intersects marketing; the study of how people decide is often more interesting than theoretical purchase intentions.  Hence, some products will predominantly be bought via a process that starts in-store.  Others will be bought based more on the traditional marketing model requiring awareness built via mass media. You need to study HOW people decide in order to understand when to start from the traditional end of the funnel and when you start from the other end of the funnel.

When it all STARTS with the purchase, everything that you thought was upstream becomes downstream and the thing that was the most downstream of all, the purchase, becomes the most upstream event. 

This is “store back” on steroids.

Now, the researcher in me has to ask the rhetorical question, “Does the marketing community have the research tools to act on this new way of thinking?”  Rhetorical because, I don’t think we do.

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5 Responses to “What if it all STARTS with the purchase?”

  1. Love it! I’m completely on board with this. It’s hard to take off the researcher hat but if you do, you will see so many cases of this. Researchers need to stop thinking like researchers and marketers, and remember what they are like when they enter a store.

  2. Art Christiani

    Joel and Annie,
    All excellent points you make and the power of ‘in-store’ advertising is driven partly by your findings.
    I want to add that we need to conduct research on the trial and purchase drivers vs. usage; and try to identify what was the ‘genesis’ of the initial brand introduction into our lives. (Mom for some feminine care products; girl friends for make up; etc.) We also need to understand how preferences form and then how long they change over time.
    Rather than the traditional purchase funnel which proposes a start and finish, it is much more what you discuss which is circular in nature and it can start at any point. (Sometimes driven by life stage, etc.) As marketers we like to think we control the consumer and their introduction to our brands and products, but as you clearly state it is not that simple and linear.
    I am a big believer in the interrelationships between behaviors and attitudes, and that behavior can begin ‘in-store’. Think wine tastings at Trader Joe’s, or Trader’s constant food testing demonstrations – all trying to drive trial in-store.
    Keep up the great work and contribution.
    Always a Big Fan of yours!

  3. Great post Joel!

    There’s lots of evidence to support your points and countless personal anecodates to illustrate the
    theory. Just the other day I was buying ingredients for dinner (pasta) and ended up walking out with salsa and dip (I’d never heard of the brand before and in fact can’t even recall it now).

    Establishing demand and building brand equity is not a lost art though. I like to look at it as establishing a headstart in a race – e.g. the stronger the brand equity the bigger the headstart, but you still need to run out the race (shopper marketing).

    Art’s points is a good one as well. Any model aiming to explain decision making should be non linear and cyclical in nature.


  4. Great post Joel. I think one of the key insights you bring out here is that there is no single path to purchase. No matter what the product, there are consumers going down both ends of the funnel (more or fewer for specific categories to be sure). Marketers need to use all the tools available to them to influence people, whether starting at the top of the funnel or at the bottom. Researchers need to recognize that we need to explore the distribution of paths taken, not find “the one path”.

  5. Thanks for a thought provoking post and comments. I agree that much of our behaviour is driven by context and difficult to predict based on standard market research brand models. I would add one key point though, which is that I believe that this is because much of what we do is outside our consciousness.

    I don’t mean by that that we are irrational (or evencrazy). I mean that our brain is very effective at making decisions for us without our knowledge, based on past experience. Our brain is non-linear and cyclical as Asher says, consisting of feedback loops at many different levels (I have written about this here:

    For example, I bet that Asher really enjoyed the salsa and dip, as his brain already knew he would! So despite what he was consciously trying to achieve, his in-store behaviour reflects the happiness maximising unconscious brain, rather than his deliberate decisions.

    If I were to ask Asher to explain his purchase of salsa, I am sure he would give me a reason, but would that really be the reason, or just a socially appropriate narrative (excuse) from his more “rational” brain. A lot of market research data should be checked for evidence of confirmation bias.

    This is where market research really needs to up it’s game! Our models and even our questions are based on very “rational” views of consumers, which we know from neuroscience and behavioural economics are simply not valid). We don’t need to worry about being replaced by brain scanners though. We just need to ask smarter questions, and where we can, stop asking questions at all. If you want to understand what consumers really do, watch and listen.

    Neil (aka Dr Disruption)