Consumer behavior models are instrumental for understanding how, when, and why your customers buy. By applying the models to your customer acquisition efforts, you can accurately predict who will buy your product and target the right customers at the right time.
In this post, we’ll discuss the most important consumer behavior models and explain how you can use them to create customer-centric experiences.
What is a consumer behavior model?
A consumer behavior model is a theoretical framework for explaining why and how customers make purchasing decisions. The goal of consumer behavior models is to outline a predictable map of customer decisions up until conversion, thus helping you steer every stage of the buyer’s journey.
Consumer behavior models may sound complicated, but they’re not. They’re a way to create a “buyer behavior story” that you can use to refine and improve your customer experience.
As a whole, buyer behavior refers to an individual's buying habits based on influences from their background, education, personal beliefs, goals, needs, desires, and more.
Businesses aim to understand buyer behavior through customer behavior analysis, which involves the qualitative and quantitative analysis of a target market. Even though this data can tell you your customer’s favorite brand of socks, it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t tell you why they purchased that brand of socks.
That’s where consumer behavior models come in. Consumer behavior models contextualize results from customer behavior analysis studies and help you get to the “why” of purchasing decisions.
Consumer Behavior Models
Customer behavior models help you understand your unique customer base and more effectively attract, engage, and retain them. These models are either traditional or contemporary.
|Traditional Consumer Behavior Models||Contemporary Consumer Behavior Models|
|Learning Model||Engel-Kollat-Blackwell (EKB) Model|
|Psychoanalytical Model||Black Box Model|
|Sociological Model||Hawkins Stern Model|
|Economic Model||Howard Sheth Model|
|Webster and Wind Model|
Traditional Behavior Models
Traditional behavior models were developed by economists hoping to understand what customers purchase based on their wants and needs. Traditional models include the following:
- Learning Model
- Psychoanalytical Model
- Sociological Model
- Economic Model
1. Learning Model of Consumer Behavior
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).
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.
2. Psychoanalytical Model of Consumer Behavior
Sigmund Freud is the father of psychoanalysis. The psychoanalytical 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.’
3. 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 work out. 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.
4. Economic Model of Consumer Behavior
The economic model of consumer behavior is the most straightforward of the traditional models. This model argues that consumers try to meet their needs while spending as few resources (e.g. money) as possible.
That means that businesses and manufacturers can predict sales based on their customers’ income and their products’ price. If companies offer the lowest-priced product, they may feel that they’re guaranteed a consistent level of profit.
While the economic model is the easiest to understand, it’s also the most limited. A buyer may have other reasons for purchasing a product aside from price and personal resources.
One such example would be prescription medicine in the U.S. healthcare industry. While the price of a prescription drug may exceed the buyer’s resources, the buyer would still have to find a way to purchase it and meet their needs. They might open a credit card or take out a personal loan to pay for the medicine. Thus personal income and price don’t affect the purchasing decision here; instead, need does.
Contemporary models of consumer behavior focus on rational and deliberate decision-making processes rather than emotions or unconscious desires. The contemporary models include:
- Engel-Kollat-Blackwell (EKB) Model
- Black Box Model
- Hawkins Stern Model
- Howard Sheth Model
- Nicosia Model
- Webster and Wind Model
1. Engel-Kollat-Blackwell (EKB) Model of Consumer Behavior
The Engel-Kollat-Blackwell model of consumer behavior outlines a five-stage decision process that consumers go through before purchasing a product or service.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
2. Black Box Model of Consumer Behavior
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.
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.
3. Hawkins Stern Impulse Buying Model
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.
4. Howard Sheth Model of Buying Behavior
The Howard Sheth model of consumer behavior posits that the buyer’s journey is a highly rational and methodical decision-making process. In this model, customers put on a “problem-solving” hat every step of the way — with different variables influencing the course of the journey.
According to this model, there are three successive levels of decision-making:
- Extensive Problem-Solving: In this stage, customers know nothing about the product they’re seeking or the brands that are available to them. They’re in active problem-solving mode to find a suitable product.
- Limited Problem-Solving: Now that customers have more information, they slow down and begin comparing their choices.
- Habitual Response Behavior: Customers are fully aware of all the choices they have and know which brands they prefer. Thus, every time they make a purchase, they know where to go.
We’ve all gone through some version of these stages. Let’s look at an anecdotal example.
When I first started buying glasses online, I had no idea which retailers I should use or whether the glasses sold online would be the same quality as the opticians’ offerings. I searched online to find a high-quality online glasses retailer (extensive problem-solving).
I found a few choices and started comparing them from both a pricing and quality standpoint (limited problem-solving). I eventually chose one, and that’s the retailer I’ve used ever since (habitual response behavior).
But these stages aren’t that simple. According to the Howard Sheth model, I was under the sway of several stimuli during this process:
- Inputs: This refers to the marketing messages and imagery a consumer receives while they’re going through the decision-making process. “Inputs” also refers to any perceptions and attitudes that come from the consumer’s social environment, such as their friends, family, and culture.
- Perceptual and Learning Constructs: This may sound complicated, but this stimulus is simply the customer’s psychological makeup and psychographic information. Perceptual and learning constructs may include needs, preferences, and goals.
- Outputs: After inputs and perceptual and learning constructs are mixed together, you get the output. The output is the customer’s resulting action under the influence of marketing messages, social stimuli, and internal psychological attributes. It can result in the customer paying more attention to a certain brand over another.
- External Variables: This is anything that’s not directly related to the decision-making process, such as weather or religion, that still may sway the customer’s decision.
5. Nicosia Model
The Nicosia Model places emphasis on the business first and the consumer second. It argues that the company’s marketing messages determines whether customers will buy. Simple, right?
While it’s an attractive model because it places all the power on businesses, it’s unwise to ignore the customer’s internal factors that lead to a purchase decision. In other words, while you may offer the wittiest and most effective marketing copy ever, a customer’s internal attributes may have more sway in some instances over others.
The model is comprised of four “fields”:
- One: The business’ characteristics and the customer’s characteristics. What does your marketing messaging look like? And what’s your customer’s perception of that messaging? Are they predisposed to be receptive to your message? The latter is shaped by the customer’s personality traits and experiences.
- Two: Search and evaluation. Similar to the Howard Sheth model’s “limited problem-solving” stage, the customer begins to compare different brands here based on the company’s messaging.
- Three: Purchase decision. The purchase decision will occur after the company convinces the customer to choose them as their retailer or provider.
- Four: Feedback. During the feedback field, the company will determine whether it should continue using the same messaging, and the customer will decide whether they will continue to be receptive to future messages.
6. Webster and Wind Model of Organizational Buying Behavior
The Webster and Wind Model is a B2B buying behavior model that argues there are four major variables that affect whether an organization makes a purchase decision. Those are:
- Environmental Variables: Environmental variables refer to any external factors that could sway a purchase decision. Customer demands, supplier relationships, and competitive pressure are a few examples. Broader variables apply, too, such as technology, politics, and culture.
- Organizational Variables: Organizational variables refer to internal factors that could sway a purchase decision, such as the organization’s goals and evaluation criteria.
- Buying Center Variables: Who makes the final purchase decision? Who has the authority to sign the contract, and who influences the buying process? Buying center variables take all of this into account.
- Individual Variables: These variables refer to the demographic and psychographic information of the individual prospect at the business. What’s their education and level of experience? What are their goals and desires?
After taking all of those variables into account, B2B organizations are then able to chart a predictable buyer’s journey for their target customers.
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.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in January 2021 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.