BrainTrust Query: What if it all STARTS with the purchase?

Aug 06, 2010
Joel Rubinson

Commentary by Joel Rubinson, Chief Research Officer, The
Advertising Research Foundation

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion
is an excerpt from a current article from the Joel Rubinson on Marketing
Research Consulting

Traditional marketing theory tells us that the
purchase is the successful outcome of consumer-directed messages that create
awareness, which begets interest, desire, and action. But what if it all
starts with the purchase?

Well, for certain types of products and retailing
situations, I believe it does. Consider this:

  • Conduct a study to measure the percent of products bought for the first
    time that are discovered in-store (I got 50 percent+)
  • Do you think the products bought for the first time on impulse in a Kroger,
    Trader Joe’s, Costco, Target, etc. are all the same and were previously known?
    If not, then you believe that brand adoption can start via the shopping experience.
  • Consider shopping styles that people have, reflecting their relationship
    with a product category.  Can you imagine categories (e.g. artisan cheeses)
    where shoppers like to explore and find new interesting products to buy?

This last point is perhaps the most important. People have different shopping
styles for different product categories which means that the heuristics they
use to make decisions are systematic.  You might not ever buy carbonated soft
drinks the way you buy interesting dips that you just tried at a tasting station.
This is where behavioral economics intersects marketing. Hence, some products
will predominantly be bought via a process that starts in-store.  Others will
be bought based more on the traditional marketing model requiring awareness
built via mass media.

When it all starts with the purchase, marketing must get the product noticed
at shelf and impart meaning to it instantaneously for the shopper. In this
communications model, when someone encounters a product they were unfamiliar
with, they should be able make sense of it instantly; to tell you (the marketer)
what the product is about, rather than you having to tell them in a concept
statement. After the product is bought and being used, there is more sense-making
that occurs.  If the consumer is really into the product as they are using
it, now you have an opportunity to build engagement: they might join a community,
become a fan in Facebook, share comments, start seeking out advertising and
recalling it, seek out the brand’s "creation story," etc. 
In this scenario, the impact of brand narrative, brand values, social media
engagement, etc. come after the purchase, so they solidify rather than precondition
the brand-customer relationship.

When it all starts with the purchase, everything
that you thought was upstream becomes downstream and the thing that was the
most downstream of all, the purchase, becomes the most upstream event. This
is an extreme version of what Procter calls "store

Now, the researcher in me has to ask the rhetorical question, "Does
the marketing community have the research tools to act on this new way of thinking?" 
Rhetorical because, I don’t think we do.

Discussion Questions: Do you agree that for certain categories, at least,
it all starts with the purchase?
How does marketing’s role change
when awareness starts with the purchase?

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16 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: What if it all STARTS with the purchase?"

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Bob Phibbs
10 years 9 months ago

A lot of words to say packaging is important based on the “Don’t make me think” model. I believe the model exists: purchases of the product.

Paula Rosenblum
10 years 9 months ago

Boy, this is a tough one. I’m not even quite sure I agree with the premise. I think the answer depends on the retail vertical, the product and the selling channel.

The key of course, is across two dimensions: Product – does it meet the implicit brand promise when I use/consume it? Customer – does the retailer know enough about the customer to cater to her personally>

No matter what, what comes out of the box has to be as good, or better than what comes out of the retailer’s mouth.

Steve Montgomery
10 years 9 months ago

I believe Joel’s point is valid–for some categories/items it all starts with the purchase. I tend to be less adventurous in my purchases (especially food) than does my family. I buy what I am familiar with while they are far more willing to try new items, brands, etc. In most of these cases, they are not familiar with the brand or even the item. Once they buy it and if they like it then they will then do the research on the item, brand, etc.

Marketing’s role doesn’t completely change. You still have to induce trial. This includes all the steps required to get the product/brand in a position to be tried. Post purchase, the marketing effort has to include some of the similar elements. Product descriptions, information on other items manufactured, locations where available have to be listed on the web site, etc. still have to be available.

Doug Stephens
Doug Stephens
10 years 9 months ago
There is absolutely no doubt that this is where marketing is headed. And this is what is currently so confounding for so many traditional marketers. Gone are the days where you could calmly calculate your marketing plan, roll it out smoothly to the market and sit back and watch “targeted” consumers come to you. Customer segmentation now begins in the store. There is no more “married female 18-54.” A market is now the people who buy a certain product(s) on Wednesday between 6 and 8 PM versus Saturday morning. Men who turn left when they enter the store versus those who turn right. It’s that fine. And also true that it goes way beyond packaging. It’s about after-purchase behavior. A growing majority of people Google a product or brand for the first time only AFTER they’ve bought the product. You only truly know the consumer once they’ve bought. What Joel has hit on here is probably the most profound shift in marketing theory since the introduction of mass marketing in the 1920s. And it’s going… Read more »
Herb Sorensen
10 years 9 months ago
Joel says: “When it all starts with the purchase, marketing must get the product noticed at shelf and impart meaning to it instantaneously for the shopper.” And he correctly observes that this is an extreme version of P&G’s “shelf-back” concept. We have been working on a closely related idea for several years, using both point-of-focus and field-of-vision in-store eyetracking methodologies. Some initial results of these studies, with my colleague Jacob Suher, were reported at the IIR Shopper Insights in Action conference in Chicago last month. We have known for the past ten years that a VERY large share (70%) of shoppers time in stores is more or less a total waste. Peter Fader (a fellow BrainTruster) and his associates at Wharton confirmed this in a major analysis of shopper path data, and published the work as “The ‘Traveling Salesman’ Goes Shopping.” The basic idea of our continuing Visual Deconstruction of the Shopping Trip is that seeing through the shoppers own eyes is the most direct method of looking into the mental process that moves them… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum
10 years 9 months ago

It seems to me if we begin with the premise that marketing begins with the purchase; then eventually we are creating a circle. Why? Because the marketer’s are taking the purchase data and creating new advertising or new products built upon the data received from the original purchase. Ah, the chicken and the egg theory is back.

Carol Spieckerman
10 years 9 months ago

I’ve been working on some ideas that pivot off of this topic.

The article posits that it all starts with the purchase yet whiffs of shopper marketing (in-store, pre-purchase activity) appear throughout. I am taking the concept even more literally by starting when the purchase has actually been made. To me, the shift to shopper marketing has left this part of the cycle in the dark. CONSUMER marketing in the most literal sense: who, what, how, when the products are consumed and then what happens next, is a wide open opportunity as a result.

If you are only focused on shopper marketing and “path to purchase,” then the what-happens-next possibilities get left out of the equation. Phenomena like adults buying toys for themselves or other adults (the stats on this are amazing) or people shopping disproportionately for others point to a hand-off between shopper and consumer rather than an assumption that they are one in the same. Therefore, marketers must develop engagement models that address the unique motivations of both.

Joan Treistman
10 years 9 months ago
Joel asks if the research tools are there to capture this purchase decision process and I believe they are. However, they are not traditional and they require adaptation to the context of how the products are merchandised and how consumers think about them in from a risk averse perspective. Many cough/cold products are examined at the store shelf for some time and the patient makes a decision on what the package tells him the remedy will provide (cough suppressant, decongestant, etc) and what the brand means to him in terms of quality and efficacy. When it comes to salty snacks it’s another kind of story. Research can help us identify the process, observe the decision making and evaluate the contribution of advertising, packaging, in-store displays, etc. You have to put the pieces of the puzzle together and create a sequence of appropriate research. Focus groups don’t have all the answers, but neither do the neurosciences. Marketers need to consult with research experts who can identify the true objectives and the specific tools which will provide… Read more »
Shelley Carter
Shelley Carter
10 years 9 months ago

I think it is important to note the typical journey that shoppers go through when deciding to make a purchase:
1. Break Through – the message breaks through the noise and a new desire or need is recognized
2. The Search Begins – The quest begins–which retailer and/or category can fulfill the shopper’s needs; exploring, seeking, and researching–transformation into a shopper with a purpose.
3. Decision Point – This is the moment of truth. The shopper is presented with their choices and the final decision is made.
4. The Reward – This is where the brand must follow through on their solution–the shopper’s experience is shared outward to friends, family and coworkers.

The primary driver for behavior during the shopping journey is the role that the retailer and category being shopped plays in a given consumer’s life. One could argue that in every category it starts and ends with the purchase and what “reward” or solution that purchase offers.

Alison Chaltas
Alison Chaltas
10 years 9 months ago

It’s hard to say that anything can really “start with the purchase”. There needs to be some form of consumer or shopper motivation to make that decision and pull a product off the shelf or off a display in a store (or to click proceed to checkout on a website).

The big idea for many products is that marketing ROI may very well all “start with the store.” We’ve seen research on many new products where in-store displays were cited as the #1 awareness driver by product triers, far higher than television, internet or print. So awareness, interest, desire, and action are all created simultaneously at the point of purchase. Even on shelf, packaging can play this role, encouraging a category purchaser to try something new.

The question is not whether the store should be first or last but rather how to keep the store top of mind throughout integrated sales and marketing planning. Shopper Marketing is a critical component of the overall marketing plan, not something we do before or after brand marketing.

Kai Clarke
10 years 9 months ago

This cannot happen, since you cannot start with the purchase. At some point you must see the product and select it. This may “jump” some of the traditional steps of marketing, but the initial step of product discovery still occurs and will always occur before the purchase. This is a misleading question which is a misnomer, since marketing cannot start with a purchase.

Mark Johnson
Mark Johnson
10 years 9 months ago

Those who believe in behavioral economics may not agree, so I do not agree.

Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson
10 years 9 months ago
For certain products, it does all start in the store when the consumer decides at the POP to buy the product for the first time. Obviously, consumers are making such purchases, likely after being motivated by tactics like sampling programs, product packaging and in-store signage. Under traditional product marketing, the big hurdles are making the consumer aware of the product and getting them to purchase the product. With in-store purchases, those two hurdles have been jumped successfully. But under either scenario, once the product has been purchased for the first time, marketers must find ways to prolong the engagement and create a repeat customer. That can be helped along by various tactics like ads, getting the consumer to visit the brand website, ensuring they sign up for e-newsletters, offering coupons, contests, etc. I don’t think marketers can rely totally on in-store tactics or totally on upstream/outside-the-store tactics. It’s a combination of both, as well as tail end tactics. One of the key factors in creating a repeat customer is product quality, i.e., does the product… Read more »
Joel Rubinson
10 years 9 months ago

I am grateful for all the great comments. The fact that not all are supportive or are trying to amplify on the basic concept shows it is intriguing and new, rather than “old news”. This makes me feel I am onto something and you guys have all helped to shape the thinking even further by your comments.

Phil Rubin
10 years 9 months ago

It’s wonderful to read this from the ARF as it underscores the painful reality for the advertising industry: it’s not only the 21st century but the second decade therein. In other words, advertising in its traditional form is often — perhaps not always — irrelevant.

Mr. Rubinson’s premise is right on and (and we’re not even related though apparently it’s close!). Marketing is increasingly about customers, brands and the products/services they represent. It’s not about advertising, though that’s not to say that there is not a purpose for advertising.

Let’s hope that Mr. Rubinson’s writings and studies will serve as a wake-up call to marketers, especially CMOs, that are “traditional brand ad guys.” These marketers need to wake up and embrace the new realities of digital, social and customer-driven media.

Martin Amadio
Martin Amadio
10 years 8 months ago
Joel puts forth an interesting idea, but because of his affiliation with ARF he may be missing some very fundamental and necessary marketing which took place to get this or any product to the store shelf. Earlier the Point of Purchase display was mentioned, although no one (that I recall) mentioned packaging or brand positioning or shelf placement. How about trade marketing and advertising? I recognize the importance of traditional consumer marketing, but “…if it ain’t in the doesn’t exist.” to the shopper. Unless I am mistaken, the battle for shelf space is a marketing battle. Joel rightfully pointed out the very high percentage of products recognized by shoppers/consumers for the first time “in store.” Enter Private Label Store Brands. These products may very well be the guinea pigs on which Joel is basing his concept. I have never seen an advertisement for Organics by Safeway, except I do recognize the packages. It is clear to shoppers/consumers there is a family of products packaged with similar graphics, and if they liked product A, maybe… Read more »

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