When faced with a choice, consumers must interpret or represent various aspects of the decision problem. This problem representation may include (1) an end goal, (2) a set of subgoals organized into a goal hierarchy, (3) relevant product knowledge, and (4) a set of simple rules or heuristics by which consumers search for, evaluate, and integrate this knowledge to make a choice. A problem representation serves as a decision frame, a perspective or frame of reference through which the decision maker views the problem and the alternatives to be evaluated.
Often consumers’ initial problem representations are not clear or well developed (Megan’s wasn’t). Nor are they fixed. In fact, the components of a problem representation often change during the decision-making process, as in the opening example. Marketers sometimes try to influence how consumers represent or frame a purchase choice. 8 For instance, consumers might be portrayed in advertisements as representing and then trying to solve a purchase problem in a particular way. Salespeople also try to influence consumers’ problem representations by suggesting end goals (buy life insurance to assure your children’s college education), imparting product knowledge (this special flash eliminates red eyes in the pictures), or suggesting choice rules (the more expensive coat is of higher quality).
The basic consequences, needs, or values that consumers want to achieve or satisfy are called end goals . They provide the focus for the entire problem-solving process. Some end goals represent more concrete, tangible consequences; other end goals are more abstract. For instance, a purchase decision to replace a bulb for a flashlight probably involves the simple end goal of obtaining a bulb that lights up—a simple functional consequence. Other product choices involve more abstract end goals such as desired psychosocial consequences of a product (a consumer wants to serve a wine that conveys her good taste to her guest). Finally, end goals such as instrumental and terminal values are even more abstract and general (a consumer chooses a car that makes him feel powerful or enhances his self-esteem). End goals also vary in evaluation. Some consumer decisions are oriented toward positive, desirable end goals, while others are focused on negative end goals—aversive consequences the consumer wishes to avoid.
Some end goals (e.g., being happy) are so general that consumers cannot act on them directly. For instance, most consumers cannot specify the decision plan of specific actions that will yield the best restaurant or avoid a “lemon” of a car. When consumers try to solve problems involving abstract end goals, they break down the general goal into several more specific subgoals. The end goal and its subgoals form a goal hierarchy . Forming a goal hierarchy is analogous to decomposing a complex problem into a series of simpler subproblems, each of which is dealt with separately. For most people, buying a new car requires at least one trip to a showroom, which generates the subproblems of which dealer(s) to visit and when to go shopping. Usually the consumer can generate a solution to the overall problem by solving the simpler subproblems in order.
Consumers’ relevant knowledge in memory about the choice domain is an important element in problem solving. Some knowledge may be acquired by interpreting information encountered in the environment during the problem-solving process. For instance, in the opening example, Megan learned a lot about cars, car dealers, and price ranges for cars. Other relevant knowledge may be activated from memory for use in integration processes. The relevance of knowledge is determined by its means–end linkages to the currently active end goal. Parts of the activated knowledge may be combined in the integration processes by which consumers evaluate alternative behaviors (form Aact ) and choose among them (form BI ). Two types of knowledge are particularly important in problem solving: choice alternatives and choice criteria.
Choice Alternatives. Choice alternatives are the alternative behaviors that consumers consider in the problem-solving process. For purchase decisions, the choice alternatives are the different product classes, product forms, brands, or models the consumer considers buying. For other types of decisions, the choice alternatives may be different stores to visit, times of the day or week to go shopping, or methods of payment (cash, check, or credit card). Given their limited time, energy, and cognitive capacity, consumers seldom consider every possible choice alternative. Usually only a subset of all possible alternatives, called the consideration set , is evaluated.
Exhibit 7.3 illustrates how a manageable consideration set of brands can be constructed during the problem-solving process. Some brands in the consideration set may be activated directly from memory; this group is called the evoked set. For highly familiar decisions, consumers may not consider any brands beyond those in the evoked set. If consumers are confident they already know the important choice alternatives, they are not likely to search for additional ones. In other decisions, choice alternatives may be found through intentional search activities such as reading Consumer Reports, talking to knowledgeable friends, or finding brands while shopping. Finally, consumers may learn of still other choice alternatives through accidental exposure to information in the environment, such as overhearing a conversation about a new brand, a new store, or a sale. In the opening case, Megan learned about the car megadealer from a billboard ad, essentially by accident. However, the choice alternatives are generated, consumers form a consideration set of possible purchase options to be evaluated in the decision-making process.
To be successful, a brand must be included in the consideration sets of at least some consumers. For example, Kali Klena, marketing manager at Kellogg, flew from Milwaukee to Chicago even though a one-way flight cost between $84 and $206 and could take as long as three hours, including check-in time and transportation to and from the airports. Another choice alternative, the Amtrak train, took half that time and cost only $49. Ms. Klena didn’t take the train because . . . well, she never thinks of taking the train. The train never entered her consideration set.
Marketers therefore develop strategies to increase the likelihood that a brand will be activated from consumers’ memories and included in their evoked sets of choice alternatives. The activation potential of a brand, sometimes called its top-of-mind awareness, is influenced by many factors. One is the amount of past experience consumers have had in purchasing and using the brand. Consumers are much more likely to think of (activate) brands that they have used before. For this reason, popular brands with higher market shares have a distinct advantage. Because they are used by more consumers, these brands are more likely to be activated from memory and included in more consumers’ consideration sets. This increases the brands’ probability of purchase, which in turn increases their activation potential, and so on. In contrast, unfamiliar and low-market-share brands are at a disadvantage because they are much less likely to be activated in consumers’ evoked sets and thereby be considered as choice alternatives.
One marketing strategy to increase the activation potential of a brand is the repetitive and costly advertising campaigns devised by marketers of cigarettes, beer, soft drinks, and toothpaste (among others). The heavy expenditures may be worthwhile because brands with high top-of-mind awareness are more likely to be included in the evoked set of choice alternatives that “come to mind” during problem-solving processes.
Finally, a company’s distribution strategy can influence whether a brand is in consumers’ consideration sets. Consider food products, for which an estimated 65 percent of decisions are made in the store. A key marketing strategy for such products is making sure the product is always on the shelf. This enhances the likelihood that consumers will encounter the brand at the time of the decision, which increases its chances of entering consumers’ consideration sets and thus the probability of purchase.
Package design can influence both the consideration set and the choice decision. Package design can catch the consumer’s attention in the store and increase the probability of considering the product further. Packaging also can communicate important information such as ingredients, the product’s ease of use, and overall value, which may be integrated into the consumer’s decision process.
Choice Criteria Consumers’ evaluations of the choice alternatives in the consideration set are based on their beliefs about the consequences of buying those products or brands. The specific consequences used to evaluate and choose among choice alternatives are called choice criteria . Virtually any type of product-related consequence can become a choice criterion in a brand-choice decision, including Salient Beliefs about functional consequences (product performance), psychosocial consequences (admiration of friends), or value consequences (a sense of achievement or self-esteem). For most decisions, consumers probably have beliefs stored in memory about some of the relevant consequences of at least some choice alternatives in their consideration sets. If additional knowledge is desired, consumers may form a subgoal of obtaining information about those choice alternatives. Achieving this subgoal may require intentional search behaviors such as visiting stores, reading Consumer Reports, or talking with knowledgeable friends. Information search may be motivated by consumers’ uncertainty about appropriate choice criteria and/or choice alternatives. In the opening case, Megan engaged in a substantial amount of intentional search to identify possible choice alternatives and form beliefs about appropriate choice criteria.
The probability that product knowledge is activated and used in the evaluation process is influenced strongly by the means–end relevance of that knowledge to the goal or subgoal being considered. For instance, if the dominant end goal is self-esteem, beliefs about product consequences that are perceived as helping to achieve self-esteem are most likely to be used as choice criteria. Differences in the purchase context, such as buying a sweater for yourself versus buying one as a gift, may activate different end goals (being perceived as stylish versus being perceived as generous). These end goals, in turn, may activate different choice criteria (fashionable design versus expensive looking).
Marketers often place prominent stimuli in the immediate decision environment to activate certain choice criteria from consumers’ memories. For instance, special price tags activate beliefs about price consequences (saving money). Prominent labels on food packages, such as “sugar-free” or “low sodium,” enhance the likelihood that the consequences associated with those attributes (good health) will be used as choice criteria. Finally, salespeople often emphasize certain product benefits in their sales pitches, which increases the likelihood that beliefs about those consequences will be used as choice criteria.
Not every activated belief about product or brand consequences is necessarily used as a choice criterion. Only discriminant consequences —consequences that are perceived to differ across choice alternatives—can be used as choice criteria. 19 Beliefs about common or very similar consequences of the choice alternatives do not discriminate among alternative actions. To present an obvious example, if all the soft drinks in a vending machine contain caffeine, the consequences of caffeine (stimulation) cannot be used as a choice criterion for deciding which brand to buy. However, if a different set of choice alternatives (brands that vary in caffeine content) is being considered, caffeine content may become a choice criterion. This is an important point. The choice criteria that are relevant (activated) for a decision depend, in part, on the particular set of choice alternatives under consideration. 20 Consumer Insight 7.2 discusses other influences from on-line purchasing that affect consumers’ decision-making processes.
Consumers’ choice criteria also vary in evaluation. Some choice criteria are perceived as positive, desirable consequences (more horsepower or leather seats) and elicit positive affective responses. Other choice criteria, such as price, may be thought about in negative terms as unpleasant consequences or perceived risks to be avoided. 21 To avoid rejection, marketers may try to reduce perceived risk by assuring consumers of product quality or by offering warranties and guarantees. Consumers tend to reject choice alternatives perceived to have negative consequences unless the alternatives also have several positive consequences. For example, many Americans treat caffeine as a negative choice criterion. The popularity of this choice criterion was influenced by basic changes in societal values about health and by 7UP’s no-caffeine marketing strategy: “Never had it, never will.” Other soft-drink manufacturers responded to consumers’ increasing use of this negative choice criterion by introducing their own brands of caffeine-free soft drinks. Consumers who perceive that a choice involves both positive and negative consequences may be motivated to search for information to resolve the conflict between the benefits and risks of the decision.
Consumer Insight 7.2
Customer Feedback and Online Decision Aids: New Choice Criteria
Thanks to the Internet, consumers have more ways than ever to gather decision-making information about anything from professors to books to cars. Perhaps you are considering scheduling a class, but first you would like to know what other students think about the professor. Of course, you could ask your friends. But what if they didn’t have that professor? You could check www.rateyourprofessorr.com . There you can find other students’ opinions about the professor. What about that mystery book you were thinking of buying? Your friends don’t read mystery novels. But you can see what others think about the book on www.amazon.com. With the information you gain, you can then make your decision.
Not only do people use online feedback from others about products (or professors) to aid in their decision making, but with the advent of online auctions they also can get information about the sellers of products. Unlike shopping in a brick and mortar store, where atmospherics and other cues influence judgments of seller reliability (in essence, how much consumers trust the seller), online shoppers must get this information elsewhere. Online auction sites such as e-Bay allow buyers who purchased products from a certain seller to provide feedback on that seller’s service and reliability. Other buyers use this feedback as their key source of seller reliability information—thus aiding in their decision of whether to buy from a certain seller. On Amazon.com, consumers can purchase used books and products from other customers. This consumer-to-consumer feedback (also known as “word-of-Web”) provides more information to consider in the decision-making process.
Other types of online decision-making aids are available in addition to customer feedback and opinions. Online shopping Web sites are unique compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts because they offer customizable mechanisms to assist consumers in their decision- making processes. These decision aids can change the way online shoppers make decisions by assisting them with their purchase decisions. Two such mechanisms are the recommendation agent and the comparison matrix. The recommendation agent creates a list of choices tailored to the individual’s preferences after the consumer provides the desired attribute information. Using a recommendation agent, consumers have the ability to efficiently screen their alternatives. Consumers may then select certain alternatives and compare them by a desired attribute using the comparison matrix tool.
These decision tools are frequently used online to assist consumers in car buying decisions. For instance, www.edmunds.com allows you to select certain criteria (style, price range, etc.) about the type of vehicle you would like to purchase. After a list of recommended vehicles appears, you may then check certain cars to compare side by side. For example, you want to check out new convertibles. You can select “convertibles” and then choose a price range. You’ll go with “$15,000 to $25,000,” since you want to be reasonable. Look at the choices available and decide which cars you would like to compare.
Research shows that these decision aids have a strong effect on Consumer Decision Making. Humans have been labeled “cognitive misers”—people do not want to expend more mental energy than necessary when making a decision. Online decision aids like the recommendation agent and the comparison matrix do in fact help consumers reduce the amount of energy needed to make a good decision—oftentimes a better decision. How do you think online decision aids will or do affect your consumer decision making?