Consumers As Problem Solvers

Traditionally, consumer researchers have approached decision making process from a rational perspective, some but a lesser degree, emotional.[1]  Such a view is reflected in the stage model of a typical buying process (often called the consumer information processing model) depicted in

 Figure 1. 






In this model, the consumer passes through five stages: problem recognition, information search, evaluation and selection of alternatives, decision implementation, and post-purchase evaluation.


Problem Recognition

In this information processing model, the consumer buying process begins when the buyer recognizes a problem or need.  For example, Doug may realize that his best suit doesn’t look contemporary any more.  Or, Kathleen may recognize that her personal computer is not performing as well as she thought it should.  These are the kinds of problem that we as consumers encounter all the time.  When we found out a difference between the actual state and a desired state, a problem is recognized.  When we find a problem, we usually try to solve the problem.  We, in other words, recognize the need to solve the problem.  But how?


Information Search

When a consumer discovers a problem, he/she is likely to search for more information.  Kathleen may simply pay more attention to product information of a personal computer.  She becomes more attentive to computer ads, computers purchased by her friends, and peer conversations about computers.  Or, she may more actively seek information by visiting stores, talking to friends, or reading computer magazines, among others.  Through gathering information, the consumer learns more about some brands that compete in the market and their features and characteristics.  Theoretically, there is a total set of brands available to Kathleen, but she will become aware of only a subset of the brands (awareness set) in the market.  Some of these brands may satisfy her initial buying criteria, such as price and processing speed (consideration set).  As Kathleen proceeds to more information search, only a few will remain as strong candidates (choice set).


Evaluation and Selection of Alternatives

How does the consumer process competitive brand information and evaluate the value of the brands?  Unfortunately there is no single, simple evaluation process applied by all consumers or by one consumer in all buying situations.


One dominant view, however, is to see the evaluation process as being cognitively driven and rational.  Under this view, a consumer is trying to solve the problem and ultimately satisfying his/her need.  In other words, he/she will look for problem-solving benefits from the product.  The consumer, then, looks for products with a certain set of attributes that deliver the benefits.  Thus, the consumer sees each product as a bundle of attributes with different levels of ability of delivering the problem solving benefits to satisfy his/her need.  The distinctions among the need, benefits, and attributes are very important.  One useful way to organize the relationships among the three is a hierarchical one (Figure 2).  Although simplified, Figure 2 is an example of how a bundle of attributes (i.e., a product or, more specifically, personal computer) relates to the benefits and underlying needs of Kathleen.



Figure 2          Hierarchical View of Needs, Benefits, and Attributes



From this figure and the preceding discussion, you might recognize that the product attributes are relevant and important only to the extent that they lead to a certain set of benefits.  Likewise, benefits are meaningful only if they can address the problem and be instrumental to satisfy the underlying need.  As the underlying need is often personal, consumers differ as to their beliefs about what product benefits and attributes are more (or less) important and relevant in satisfying their needs.  Based on their personal judgment on importance of benefits and attributes, consumers develop a set of attitudes (or preferences) toward the various brands.  One may express his/her preferences of the brands in terms of ranking, probability of choice, and so forth.


Decision Implementation

To actually implement the purchase decision, however, a consumer needs to select both specific items (brands) and specific outlets (where to buy) to resolve the problems.  There are, in fact, three ways these decisions can be made: 1) simultaneously; 2) item first, outlet second; or 3) outlet first, item second.[2]  In many situations, consumers engage in a simultaneous selection process of stores[3] and brands.  For example, in our Kathleen’s personal computer case, she may select a set of brands based on both the product’s technical features (attributes) and availability of brands in the computer stores and mail-order catalogs she knows well.  It is also possible, that she decides where to buy (e.g., CompUSA in her neighborhood) and then chooses one or two brands the store carries.  Once the brand and outlet have been decided, the consumer moves on to the transaction (“buying”).


Post-purchase Evaluation

Post-purchase evaluation processes are directly influenced by the type of preceding decision-making process.  Directly relevant here is the level of purchase involvement of the consumer.  Purchase involvement is often referred to as “the level of concern for or interest in the purchase” [4] situation, and it determines how extensively the consumer searches information in making a purchase decision.[5]  Although purchase involvement is viewed as a continuum (from low to high), it is useful to consider two extreme cases here.  Suppose one buys a certain brand of product (e.g., Diet Pepsi) as a matter of habit (habitual purchase).  For him/her, buying a cola drink is a very low purchase involvement situation, and he/she is not likely to search and evaluate product information extensively.  In such a case, the consumer would simply purchase, consume and/or dispose of the product with very limited post-purchase evaluation, and generally maintain a high level of repeat purchase motivation (Figure 3).




Figure 3          Low Involvement Purchase

Source: Hawkins, Best, and Coney (1983)



However, if the purchase involvement is high and the consumer is involved in extensive purchase decision making (e.g., personal computer), he/she is more likely to be involved in more elaborate post-purchase evaluation – often by questioning the rightness of the decision: “Did I make the right choice?  Should I have gone with other brand?”  This is a common reaction after making a difficult, complex, relatively permanent decision.  This type of doubt and anxiety is referred to as post-purchase cognitive dissonance (Figure 4).




Figure 4     Elaborate Post-purchase Evaluation

Source: Adopted from Hawkins, Best, and Coney (1983)



According to the research, the likelihood of experiencing this kind of dissonance and the magnitude of it is a function of:[6]

·        The degree of commitment or irrevocability of the decision,

·        The importance of the decision to the consumer,

·        The difficulty of choosing among the alternatives, and

·        The individual’s tendency to experience anxiety.


Because dissonance is uncomfortable, the consumer may use one or more of the following approaches to reduce it:[7]

·        Increase the desirability of the brand purchased.

·        Decrease the desirability of rejected alternatives.

·        Decrease the importance of the purchase decision.

·        Reject the negative data on the brand purchased.


If the dissonance about the purchase is not reduced, the anxiety may transform into a dissatisfaction (general or specific).  Certainly, this negative experience leads to a new problem recognition (Figure 1), and the consumer will engage in another problem solving process.  The difference, however, is that in the next round of process, memory of the previous negative experience and dissatisfaction will be used as part of information.  Therefore, the probability for the unsatisfactory brand to be re-selected and repurchased will be significantly lower than before.



The Hierarchy of Effects


Another widely-used model in marketing that attempts to explain consumer decision making process is called the hierarchy of effects model.  Although different researchers developed slightly different models, the basic idea is the same: people experience a sequence of psychological stages before purchasing a product.   Such a model is provided in Figure 5. [8]



Figure 5          A General Model of the Hierarchy of Effects

Source: Adopted from Delozier (1976)

Originally conceived to explain how advertising affects consumer’s purchase decisions, the hierarchy of effects (HOE) model focuses on consumer learning that takes place as he/she processes information from the external world.  The HOE model begins with the state where a consumer has no awareness about the brand (unaware) then develops awareness triggered by external stimuli, such as advertising message or “word of mouth.”  As he/she obtains and processes more information, the consumer develops more specific knowledge about the brand.  The knowledge, then, is used as basis to form a liking (or disliking), leading to a preference of brand(s) relative to the others.  However, people need to be pushed beyond the preference stage to actually buy the brand of preference.  The preference stage, after all, simply means that the consumer has formed a preference psychologically.  Now it takes conviction for him/her before actually buying the brand.