How brands can win in predictably irrational consumer journeys

Consumer journeys are often irrational, but they are predictably irrational if you think about them using Behaviour Change principles.

In our Consumer Journeys, Human Experience workshop we talked about how life is messy. Real journeys are often non-linear, non-rational, and idiosyncratic. We also talked about how messiness isn’t the same as chaos and biases in consumer decision making are predictably irrational.

Understanding this predictable irrationality means understanding consumer psychology. Let’s look further at the psychology of different journey types:

Habitual journeys

Consumers stock up their groceries in remarkably consistent fashion. This is because people in the household, the groceries buyer and the repertoire of meals, packed lunches and snacks are relatively stable over time. Buyer behaviours become habitual. Habits are formed by repeat behaviours in stable environments. New information or evidence is usually ignored or discounted in favour of information that reinforces already-made choices. It is possible to change attitudes, but it is much more difficult to change behaviours. To change habitual behaviours brands need to change the context: shopping environment, in-store experience, product experiences, packaging, position on the shelf, reframed communication — pushing people into our next journey type: Disrupted Journeys. 

Disrupted journeys

A change in context can cause people to deviate from their default or habitual behaviours. Brands need to be inventive to jolt consumers out of their System One, automatic behaviours. Brands also need to be brave enough to deviate from established category norms. This can happen at the latent awareness stage, point-of-sale or any point in between. 

Take the latest smartphones, for example. Marketing tends to heavily target the rational mind – highlighting  technical specifications, new features and speed. Rarely are these the only considerations though and fashion, design and sustainability are all directions that brands have used to break this monotony. 

Impulse journeys

Impulse purchasing happens precisely because the context has triggered an emotional response. The fabricated smell that wafts through a supermarket bakery makes us want to buy bread. John Lewis successfully makes us buy things we didn’t know we needed by curating a brand that people want to be part of, creating an inviting atmosphere and presenting products and aisles beautifully. Need and fulfilment are in close proximity for impulse journeys, brands and retailers need to work hard to elicit feelings at these critical moments.  

Planned journeys

Planned journeys are typically high importance or high cost. Research and evaluation happen non-habitually, mostly in System Two mode. These are the hardest journeys for brands to get right, because there are more touchpoints where things can go right or wrong. The onus is on brands and channel partners to guide consumers through the journey (never leaving them stuck or lost) and to remove as much physical and mental effort from the experience as possible. The example of Apple is a cliche for good reason. Apple is still probably the best at getting consumers to trade up seamlessly to their latest offering and buy accessories that make the consumption experience more pleasurable. One thing not to ignore is the importance of branding in planned purchases. Consumers don’t enter an important decision fully rationally. Be it a new phone, buying a flight or a TV service subscription, consumers are strongly influenced by prior experience and a brand’s reputation, imagery and associations. 

Distress journeys

Distress journeys are, well, stressful. They often happen in low involvement, infrequently shopped categories with relatively big price tags. Broken phone, vacuum cleaner, washing machine. Paying out for these items feels about as good as calling a plumber –  unbudgeted expenditure for little incremental benefit. It doesn’t exactly put people in a good frame of mind for going on a journey. Brands can plan for distress journeys by taking pain away. Help consumers feel good by providing new features, benefits or use cases that turn a loss into a gain. Match products and services to needs, avoid having your brand associated with buyer’s remorse. Perhaps most importantly, make benefits and value clear and don’t overwhelm consumers with too many choices.