Even though it may not seem like it, the brand of sponge you always buy, the lamp on your bedside table, and even the chocolate bar you threw in your cart seconds before checkout all tell a story — your buyer behavior story. 

As a whole, buyer behavior refers to an individual's buying habits based on influences from their place in society, personal beliefs, or even how they make purchases but don’t know why they made a purchase.

Businesses aim to understand buyer behavior through customer behavior analysis, which involves qualitative and quantitative analysis of a target market. Even though this data can tell them your favorite brand of socks, it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t tell them why you purchased that brand of socks.

Consumer behavior models contextualize behavior analysis results, as they explain why and how customers make purchasing decisions. In this post, we’ll discuss six consumer behavior models and explain how you can use them to create customer-centric experiences.

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Consumer Behavior Models

Customer behavior models help you understand and retain your unique customer base. These models are either traditional or contemporary, and we’ll cover six of them below.

Traditional Behavior Models

Traditional behavior models were developed by economists hoping to understand what customers purchase based on their wants and needs. These models focus on purchasing behavior as being driven by emotion.

Learning Model

The Learning Model of customer behavior theorizes that buyer behavior responds to the desire to satisfy basic needs required for survival, like food, and learned needs that arise from lived experiences, like fear or guilt. This model takes influence from psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (pictured below).

customer behavior model hierarchy of basic needs and learned needs diagram

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The bottom level of this hierarchy represents basic needs, and ascending sections describe learned needs, or secondary desires, that allow consumers to feel as though they’ve reached self-fulfillment.

The Learning Model says that consumers first make purchases to satisfy their basic needs and then move on to meet learned needs. For example, a hungry customer would fulfill their need for food before a learned need to wear trendy clothing.

If you’re a multipurpose business that sells products that meet all levels of customer needs, this model applies to you. For example, Target is a United States-based department store that sells hundreds of products. Super Targets are larger versions of the chain that also sell groceries.

When a customer visits a Super Target, they first see products that satisfy their basic needs — the grocery section. They’re probably also seeing produce first, as these items are seen as the most nutritious and necessary for survival. After produce, customers move on to other aisles that satisfy learned needs, like purchasing their favorite cookies, clothing items, or beauty accessories.

You can think of it like this: If you’re a business with a significant amount of in-store options, improve the customer experience and speak to their buyer behavior by first leading them to the products that will satisfy their innate needs. Without doing this, they may navigate through your store anxious about meeting those needs and spend less time browsing other products and making additional purchases. Once they feel comfortable, they’ll move on to satisfy the desires that bring them joy rather than help them survive.

Psychoanalytic Model

Sigmund Freud is the father of psychoanalysis. The Psychoanalytic Model draws from his theories and says that individual consumers have deep-rooted motives, both conscious and unconscious, that drive them to make a purchase. These motives can be hidden fears, suppressed desires, or personal longings.

Thus, customers make purchases depending on how stimuli from your business, like an advertisement on Instagram, appeal to their desires. It’s important to note that, since these desires can be unconscious, customers don’t always know why it appeals to them; they just know it feels right to have it.

This model is unique in terms of application, but it’s relevant to businesses that sell an image that accompanies their products or services. For example, say you sell glasses. We all long to fit in and feel like we’re valued and seen as capable, smart people. Glasses are sometimes a symbol of intelligence, so you’d want to appeal to this desire when crafting a customer experience.

You may instruct marketing to create ad campaigns that display pictures of people wearing your glasses in educational settings or doing things that society labels as ‘smart.’

Sociological Model

The Sociological Model of consumer behavior says that purchases are influenced by an individual's place within different societal groups: family, friends, and workgroups, as well as less-defined groups like millennials or people who like yoga. An individual will essentially purchase items based on what is appropriate or typical of the groups they’re in.

For instance, C-Suite executives are expected to be professional and formal. People who hold these jobs will make purchases that speak to and uphold this group’s rules, like formal business wear.

This model can apply to most businesses, especially those that create products and services relevant to specific groups. To use the Sociological Model, you’d want to create experiences that speak to how these groups usually act. One example is brands that sell exercise equipment.

You sell to and appeal to consumers that are part of a societal group that likes to workout. To delight these customers you’d want to sell to their desires, like equipment that improves performance or an insulated water bottle that stays cold and leaves them satisfied during their breaks. By doing this, you’re speaking to the consumer in that specific group and showing them that your product will help them retain their position in that group.

Check out this ad from Nike. They’re selling this shoe to the undefined group of people who like to run, claiming that it will improve their speed and help them fit in with the group.


Contemporary Models

Contemporary models of consumer behavior focus on rational and deliberate decision making rather than emotions or unconscious desires.

Engel-Kollat-Blackwell (EKB) Model

The Engel-Kollat-Blackwell model of consumer behavior outlines a five-stage decision process that consumers go through before purchasing a product or service.

  1. Awareness - During this stage, consumers view advertisements from a business and become aware of their need, desire, or interest, to purchase what they've just discovered. 
  2. Information Processing - After discovering a product or service, a consumer begins to think about how the product or service relates to their past experiences or needs and whether it will fulfill any current needs.
  3. Evaluation - At this point, consumers will research the product they’ve discovered and research options from competitors to see if there is a better option or if the original product is the best fit.
  4. Purchasing Decision - A consumer will follow through with a purchase for the product that has beat out competitors to provide value. A consumer may also stop the process if they change their mind.
  5. Outcome Analysis - After making a purchase, a customer will use what they’ve bought and assess whether their experience is positive or negative. After a trial period, they’ll keep a product and maybe decide to become repeat customers or express dissatisfaction and return to stage three.

Overall, EKB says that consumers make decisions based on influencing factors that they assess through rational insight.

This model applies to businesses that have many competitors with similar products or services. If your product market is highly saturated and competitive, the goal is to outshine your competitors by meeting customers at every stage of their journey.

Increase visibility for your business during the awareness stage through Search Engine Optimization. Show them how your product or service will benefit them and give them the resources they need to weigh you against your competitors, like customer reviews and testimonials, free trials, discounts for bulk purchases. Lastly, and provide excellent after-sales support to show them that you care about their business even if they make a return.

Black Box Model

The Black Box model, sometimes called the Stimulus-Response model, says that customers are individual thinkers that process internal and external stimuli to make purchase decisions. The graphic below illustrates the decision process.

diagram of black box behavior model displaying the consumer decision process

Image Source

It may look complex, but it’s a fairly straightforward path. A consumer comes into contact with external stimuli from your business’ marketing mix and other external stimuli, and they process it in their mind  (black box). They relate the external stimuli to their pre-existing knowledge, like personal beliefs and desires, to make a decision.

In short, this model says that consumers are problem solvers who make decisions after judging how your product will satisfy their existing beliefs and needs. Since consumers only follow through with a purchase after understanding how a product relates to their experiences, this model can benefit businesses selling products that go along with a lifestyle.

Case in point: cars. Different brands sell their cars to specific types of buyers. Jeeps and Subarus are for those that engage in outdoor activities and need a sturdy, reliable vehicle. At the same time, Mercedez Benz and Lexus’ are marketed to those who want luxurious driving experiences. Even though the machinery is relatively similar, these brands speak to the pre-existing life values that customers have, and they promise that purchasing their vehicle will uphold their values.

Hawkins Stern Impulse Buying

The Impulse Buying theory is an alternative to the Learning Model and EKB, as it claims that purchases aren’t always a result of rational thought. When we think of impulse buying, we typically imagine picking up a candy bar or a pack of gum right before checking out. These are certainly impulse purchases, but Hawkins Stern categorizes them into four different types:

  •  Escape Purchase - Sometimes called pure impulse, this involves purchasing an item that isn’t a routine item or on a shopping list. Consumers are drawn to these items through appealing visuals.
  • Reminder Purchase - A consumer makes a reminder impulse purchase when they come across a product through in-store setups, promotional offers, or a simple reminder that a product exists, like a strategically placed ice cream scoop in the freezer aisle of a grocery store.
  • Suggested Purchase - Suggested impulse purchases occur when a consumer is made aware of a product after a recommendation or suggestion from an in-store salesperson or online algorithms. For example, seeing an ad that says, “Other people who bought this shoe you’re about to buy also purchase these socks.” The consumer didn’t know the socks existed, didn’t plan to buy them, but now the suggestion has told them that they need them.
  • Planned Purchase - Although planned is the opposite of impulse, these purchases occur when a consumer knows they want a particular product but will only buy it if there is a deal involved. An unexpected price drop could lead a customer to make a planned impulse purchase.

The Hawkins Stern Model applies to most businesses, as there are no limits to what a customer with this purchasing behavior will buy. Create a tailored customer experience by putting care into product displays, creating AI algorithms for online shopping, or placing items on sale to appeal to your shoppers who are planned purchase impulse buyers.

Your Customers Will Inform Your Strategy

If you take the time to create buyer personas, you’ll discover how your customers plan, or don’t, to purchase your products and services. If they say a deal entices them, pay close attention to the Hawkins Stern Impulse Buying Model. If they report strong ties to their social groups, refer to the Sociological Model.

Overall, your customers will inform your strategy and help you create tailored experiences that speak to their buyer behavior and leave them feeling satisfied after every purchase.

 Apply for a job, keep track of important information, and prepare for an  interview with the help of this free job seekers kit.

Apply for a job, keep track of important information, and prepare for an  interview with the help of this free job seekers kit.

Originally published Feb 4, 2021 8:00:00 AM, updated November 19 2021


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