Learning and Consumer Behavior

Learning and Consumer BehaviorWe start sensing our environment right from the day we are born. As our nervous systems begin to process stimuli, experiences penetrate our awareness and become perceptions. As our nervous systems develop and we can have expanded new perceptions, we begin to increase meaning in our experiences. In short, we learn.

Psychologists broadly describe learning as relatively permanent changes in thought and behavior that result from experience. Learning requires memory – the ability to summon past thoughts and events to mind. Thus, it is a change in the content or organization of long-term memory. This change takes place as a result of information processing.

Two processes are intertwined: we must remember to learn, and we must have learned to remember. Learning and perception are closely related since a consumer can only learn what he has perceived.

Learning consists of changes in one’s behavior that are caused by information and experience. Variations in behavior resulting from psychological conditions such as hunger, thirst, sex, etc. are not considered learning.

It refers to the effects of direct and indirect experiences on future behavior. It can also be described as a change in a person’s thought processes caused by prior experiences.

Michael L. Ray defines learning as the more or less permanent acquisition of tendencies to behave in particular ways in response to particular situations or stimuli.

Learning, thus, essentially involves the linking of stimuli with responses. So far, we have defined and explained learning from a general perspective.

Now it is time to define learning for consumer study.

As mentioned earlier, consumer evaluation of product alternatives is enhanced through learned behavior. Learning occurs when consumers respond to a stimulus and are rewarded with need satisfaction or are penalized by product failure.

For example, consumers may be stimulated by a need for a cold drink on a hot day. Their response may be to try different soft drinks brands until they find a product that satisfies their needs.

After this, they will tend to make similar responses on future occasions. The consumer has learned. Thus, for our purpose, we mean, for consumer study, learning may be defined as the acquisition of new responses to behavioral cues in the environment, occurring as the result of reinforcement.

It may also be defined as how individuals acquire the purchase and consumption knowledge and experience they apply to future and related behavior. If you analyze these definitions, you can note a few important points about consumer learning.

They are;

  1. learning is a process which continually evolves and changes as a result of newly acquired knowledge or from experience,
  2. the process of learning starts because of the drives,
  3. cues create drives,
  4. individuals respond to the cues,
  5. future responses are related to reinforcements.

Basically, learning is a process of interactions between four factors: drives, cues, responses, and reinforcements. Let us now have some ideas on this process.

Experts describe consumer learning as a process consisting of several steps. The basic elements of this process be can be shown in the following figure:

basic elements of learning


A drive is a strong stimulus that encourages action by which the individual can reduce his need. Drives are internal. They are the reasons behind certain behavior patterns.

In marketing, a product purchase is the result of a drive to satisfy some need. Thus a drive can be associated with a specific need that the individual seeks to satisfy. Drives basically cause an individual to act. Drives could be both primary/basic and secondary.

Physiological motivators, such as hunger, thirst, sex, sleep, etc. are primary or basic drives. The other type of drives, secondary drives, are learned by the individuals. They are learned through experiences received from social and cultural environments.

Some of the secondary drives are the need for a love and warmth relationship, desire for recognition (Figure-9.1: Showing the Consumer learning Process) and prestige, and the desire for a particular position. Drive or arousal function is essential because it activates the energy needed to engage in the learning activity.

Marketing managers cannot create internal drives in consumers. Some critics imply that marketers can somehow manipulate consumers to buy products against their will. Most marketing managers realize that trying to get consumers to act against their will is not fruitful.

Therefore, a good marketing manager studies what consumer drives and needs already exist and how they can be satisfied.


Cues are basically stimuli that exist in the individual’s environment. They are weaker stimuli that direct the individual’s responses to the drive-by determining how, when, and where it will occur. Cues, thus, trigger drives in individuals. They are capable of providing direction to motivated activities.

Cues influence how consumers respond to a motive. Cues could be the products themselves, their advertisements, signs, colors, price, product design, store displays, or promotional offers. Cues suggest specific ways to satisfy motives.

If consumers’ expectations are consistent with certain cues, those cues can direct consumer activities.

Some marketers try to identify cues with positive associations from other situations and relate them to their marketing mix. Many people, for example, associate the smell of lemons with fresh, natural cleanliness. Thus, marketers of many household cleaning products add lemon scent to their products keeping in mind this association.

Using positive cues is especially common when new products are introduced because consumers have no experience with the product itself. Some firms copy favorable cues associated with a competitor’s popular product hoping that the same consumer response will carry over to their product.


A response is an effort to satisfy a drive. It is the overt behavior the individual takes in reacting to the drives and cues. Not that all learning includes an overt response.

Thus, it includes both overt and covert (hidden or mental) activities. The consumer reacts to a stimulus coming from the environment. The specific response chosen depends on the cues and the person’s experience.

Again, the consumer is not bound to make one response against a particular stimulus all the time. He may make several responses to one single stimulus. “Before learning occurs, our innate characteristics order responses to a stimulus from the most likely to least likely response.

Thus, a hungry baby is more likely to cry or exhibit sucking behavior than other responses. Over time, learning will modify the response hierarchy so that the other responses have a greater chance of occurring. In this way, consumers can adapt to changing environmental conditions that confront them.


Reinforcement is the result of the response. It occurs when the response is followed by satisfaction, that is, reducing a drive. Reinforcement strengthens the relationship between the cue and the response.

It may also lead to a similar response the next time the drive occurs. Repeated reinforcement leads to the development of a habit. It makes the decision process routine for the individual. Reinforcement increases the tendency for the response to re-occur in a similar situation.

Reinforcement depends upon the degree to which the felt need of the consumer is gratified. Reinforcement may be positive, as when the response eases the drive or satisfies the need.

Or, it may be negative as when the response provides no result or an undesirable one. Reinforcement may be even primary or secondary. Primary reinforcements reduce primary drives, and secondary reinforcements reduce secondary drives.

Thus, if a firm decides to produce a product capable of satisfying an important consumer need and individualizes its brand in ways important to the user, then the gratification of desire and reinforcement should follow its purchase.

For the marketing executive, the reinforcement factor is of significance. If a consumer obtains positive reinforcement by purchasing a particular product to satisfy a specific need, it is more likely that he will repurchase the same product when the drive occurs again.

Reinforcement becomes part of the consumer’s experience affecting virtually all aspects of future purchasing behavior.

The learning process can be illustrated by taking the activity of a thirsty person. The thirst drive could be satisfied in several ways.

For example, if the person walks crossing a vending machine and sees a Coke sign – a cue – then he may satisfy the drive with a response – buying a Coke.

If the experience is satisfactory, positive reinforcement will occur – and this man may be quicker to satisfy this drive in the same way in the future. This emphasizes the importance of developing good products that live up to the firm’s advertising promises.

People can learn to like or dislike Coke – that is, learning works both ways. Thus, marketers need to know how consumers learn, learn to avoid or seek products, and remember them.

Learning Theories: Behaviorist and Cognitive Theories of Learning

Learning Theories: Behaviorist and Cognitive Theories of Learning

No universally workable and acceptable learning theory has yet emerged. There are many different theories and approaches to the study of learning.

Here in this text, we shall be interested in the two most common approaches: Behaviorist and cognitive approaches.

Let us examine the approaches at some length:

Behaviorist Approach

Most of us are familiar with the kind of learning that has been termed stimulus-response learning. The stimulus-response theory holds that organisms learn to associate an original stimulus with another adjacent stimulus and then respond to the second conditioned stimulus with the behavior formerly induced by the original stimulus.

According to this theory’s advocates, all human behavior can be reduced to a simple relationship of some stimulus (S) from the environment, creating the desired response (R).

This theory states that learning occurs as a person responds to some stimulus by behaving in a particular way and is rewarded for a correct response or penalized for an incorrect one. When the same correct response is repeated in reaction to the same stimulus, a behavior pattern or learning is established.

This theory assumes that five factors are fundamental to learning. They are drives, cues, responses, reinforcements, and punishments. Though we have discussed most of these factors before, let highlight the essence of them.

A drive is an internal or an external force that requires the person to respond in some way. A cue is a signal from the environment that determines the pattern of response. A response is a behavioral reaction to the drive and cue.

A reinforcement results when the response is rewarding. It can either be positive or negative. Positive one involves experiencing a desirable outcome as a result of engaging in the behavior.

A negative one occurs when a behavior allows a person to avoid an undesirable outcome. Punishment is a penalty inflicted for incorrect behavior.

A connection among the drive, cues, and response will be established if either positive or negative reinforcement rewards the response.

Reinforcement, thus, leads to learning. If a person, for example, is motivated to shop (drive) who has found bargains (positive reinforcement) when going into stores (response) that have sale signs outside (cues) will respond (learn) by going into other stores with sales signs.

Again, a consumer who finds it satisfying to avoid having problems (negative reinforcement) due to poor design or quality by paying higher prices will learn this response pattern.

On the contrary, if a response is punished or not gratifying (a purchase results in a bad experience or dissatisfaction), the consumer’s mind is open to other cues, leading to a different response.

Thus, if a response to a stimulus, such as a purchase, proves unsatisfactory, the buyer may try a substitute product or switch to another brand, making a different response to the same stimulus. He will keep on making responses until he finds one satisfactory.

It is now clear that an individual may try several responses against one stimulus to settle for the most satisfying one, which B.F. Skinner (is known as one of the prominent behaviorist theorists) conceptualized in his learning theory. This explanation of learning may also be termed as Trial and Error learning.

To explain this proposition, let us take an example of an individual who has bought a particular toothpaste brand. Suppose he was satisfied with the brand that he has bought for quite some time. If suddenly his preferred brand becomes unsatisfactory, he will try other brands – that is, other responses.

He will keep on trying different brands until he gets a satisfactory one. Thus, he tries different responses to the same stimulus, makes errors, and learns from the errors which response is satisfactory or rewarding.

Cognitive Approach

This approach to learning encompasses all human mental activities as they solve problems or cope with situations. You should know that not all learning takes place as the result of trial and error. Quite a several learning takes place as the result of consumer cognitive processes.

When we face problems, we look at solutions, that is, try to reach decisions. To arrive at decisions or solutions, we gather problem-related information.

Using our mental structure, we evaluate information so gathered to reach the best possible solution or decision. Thus, our learning is based on our mental or cognitive activity.

Cognitive learning, therefore, is based on our mental activity. This type of learning involves ideas, concepts, attitudes, and facts that contribute to our ability to reason, solve problems, and learn relationships without direct experience or reinforcement.

Cognitive theorists consider the human being an adaptive problem solver. They believe that human beings are very complex creatures who gather and process problem-related information using their senses.

They also believe that not all human learning is stimulus-response learning, but only a few could be of this type. Rather, most of the learning is the outcomes of the mental process.

The cognitive theory emphasizes the symbolic, mental, and inferred human beings process, which is covert, not seen, or exposed. Things that go on in an individual’s mind cannot be seen but felt. Cognition refers to processes involving such activities as thinking, reasoning, perceiving, problem-solving, and conceptual learning.

H. C. Ellis, in his Fundamentals of Human Learning and cognition, says, “more generally, a reference to cognitive processes implies an active role of the human in learning situations, the use of strategies, and ways in which the learner might organize materials to learn and retain them more efficiently. Since it is difficult to think of any human learning situation in which the human is not in some way actively responding, organizing, and reorganizing the materials, human learning will almost always involve some cognitive activity.”

Basic Differences Between the Behaviorist and the Cognitive Theory of Learning

From the discussion above on the behaviorist and cognitive theories of learning, you have realized that two theories differ. The basic differences between them are highlighted below:

  • The basic difference between these two theories of learning is the way they presented the human being. Behaviorists consider human behavior with that of laboratory animals such as rats. They believe that whenever an individual is exposed to a stimulus, they will respond, such as a machine. But, in reality, we human beings do not always respond to stimuli. Cognitive theorists, on the other hand, think of a human being as an adaptive problem solver.
  • Behaviorists think that human beings make responses to stimuli and keep on responding in the same way so long the response is satisfying or gratifying. The cognitivist, on the other hand, consider human beings as complex data gathering and processing organisms. They involve themselves in such activities keeping in mind their goals and aspirations.
  • Behaviorists do not consider learning as a mental process. But, cognitivism considers it as a complex mental or cognitive process.
  • Behaviorists think that consumer responses are related to reinforcement – either positive or negative. Cognitivism thinks that responses are related to motivation and perceived needs.
  • Behaviorists are interested in the overt aspects of learning and behavior. Cognitivism is interested to know the process of learning, the hidden or covert aspect of learning, and behavior.
  • Behaviorists take a partial view of the learning by emphasizing only stimulus, response, and reinforcement. The cognitivist takes a holistic approach in explaining consumer learning and considers the overall nature of the situation and its cognitive structure or mental repertoire.

“Generalization” and “Discrimination” – Two Important Learning Related Concepts Having Marketing Significance

There are quite a few learning related concepts that have important marketing implications. Of these, generalization and discrimination are the two concepts that deserve special attention. Now we shall look at them in turn:


Classical conditioning theorists believe that learning depends not only on repetition but also on individuals’ ability to generalize.

When an existing stimulus-response relationship, a new stimulus that is very similar to the existing one, one tends to respond to a very similar stimulus to the old one. This tendency to respond to a similar stimulus to the old one is known as generalization.

To make this clear to you, let us take the example of Pavlov’s experiment. In his experiment, he used a bell as a conditioned stimulus, which caused the dog to respond, instead of ringing the bell, if In this of Pavlov’s experiment. In his experiment, he used a bell as a conditioned stimulus, which caused the dog to respond.

Instead of ringing the bell, if. Pavlov would make a sound similar to the bell, which could also evoke the same response. This concept is used increasingly by present-day marketers to get a positive response to their new products.

A company may use generalization in family branding by using a single brand name for its different products. Singer, for example, attaches its name to the vast array of products it offers for sale.

Consumers will likely generalize the favorable feelings developed toward one Singer product to another. This concept may be used in product name, features, design, advertising, packaging, and market promotion activities.

A company may select a similar name as one of its competitors whose product is very favorite. It may also add similar features, develop a similar package, or even prepare similar advertising materials as of the market leader.

The purpose is to encourage generalization by the customers. Generalizations of stimuli by the consumers also suffer from many limitations.

If consumers generalize two competing brands, the producing companies should make their brand widely available. If consumers do not find one brand in a preferred location, they will buy the other, as both are similar to him.


If a subject is reinforced for responding to one stimulus and not to another, or for making one response rather than another to a given stimulus, discrimination gradually develops.

The result is that he learns to discriminate between the occasions for making a given response (stimulus discrimination) or between the responses appropriate for a given occasion (response discrimination).

Discrimination thus refers to the process of learning to respond differently to somewhat similar stimuli. In marketing terms, discrimination means the process by which buyers strengthen their attachment to a particular brand.

For instance, if a particular brand of soft drinks feels that consumers should not consider their brand just like every other brand, they should teach consumers to differentiate their brand from other available brands of soft drinks.

Engel, Blackwell, and Miniard defined it as the process whereby an organism learns to make a particular response to one stimulus but avoids making the same response to a similar stimulus.

Marketing Implications of Discrimination Concept

The concept of discrimination is critical from a marketing point of view. Marketers always try to convince customers that their brands are better than other brands. Marketers may ensure discrimination of their brands by consumers in some ways. One way of doing this is through the advertising campaign. Advertising can either symbolically or physically

point out brand differences, which may facilitate discrimination against consumers. A marketer may also use this concept to discriminate his brand through its physical attributes, such as developing a unique product, price it uniquely, packaging it differently or distributing it through a different distribution channel.

A particular brand of a product may also be discriminated against by consumers if the said brand offers distinctive services, unlike competing brands. Discrimination becomes easier for customers if they can easily recognize the differences between brands.

Marketers should, therefore, try to add different features in their brands to facilitate discrimination on the part of the consumers. If different brands in a particular product category are generically equal, marketers can best apply the concept of market positioning to help consumers differentiate their brands.

There could be situations where different products in a particular product category are generically the same, and positioning strategy is ineffective.

In such a situation, discrimination may be facilitated by offering the brand at a lower price or offering different inducements. These offers will give them sufficient ground to discriminate against a particular brand from the competing brands.

Marketing Implications of Retention and Forgetting of Advertising Messages

Advertisers want that their messages should be retained or remembered long by their target audience. Studies of human memory conclude that our memory is selective, and as a result, we cannot retain or remember everything that we learn.

Retention is the amount of learned material that we can recall or remember, and forgetting is the rest – that is the amount of learning material that cannot be remembered. Marketers have quite a few lessons to take from this. These are the researchers’ lessons from their experimental findings on retention and forgetting of advertising messages.

The prescriptions are mentioned below:

  • Advertisers should repeat their messages for consumers to retain those. The benefit of repetition is a fundamental doctrine of learning theory. There is much evidence that the repetition of messages can have positive effects on learning. Repeated exposure to advertisements leads to a positive effect on the advertised product/ brand. Repetition, thus, increases the strength and speed of learning. The more times you are exposed to information, the more likely you are to learn it.
  • Advertisers should use familiar words in their messages to increase the retention of advertising messages by the target audience. Moreover, advertising materials should be prepared using meaningful symbols, words, scenes, and materials. Different studies found a high correlation between meaningful materials and high retention of advertising messages.
  • Third, the audience should be encouraged to learn advertising messages thoroughly from the beginning of message exposure. The reason is that any material learned thoroughly from the beginning is remembered for a long. This can be ensured by preparing an interesting ad.
  • Messages that are learned and remembered may also be forgotten. With the elapse of time, we forget many things that we learned previously. For forgetting to cease, advertisers must reinforce the response. This can guarantee the long retention of their messages by the target audience.
  • Interference has been identified as a major reason for forgetting to occur. This raises the question of commercial clutter. To avoid this problem, advertisements should be prepared in an outstanding manner that will prevent forgetting.
  • Another strategy that marketers should adopt is, increasing the frequency of their advertisement. Increased frequency increases the retention of messages.
  • If advertisers want their messages to be remembered for a long time, they should continuously run their messages instead of concentrating on a particular time period. Let us take the examples of two advertisements, say “A” and “B.” Advertisement “A,” for example, is shown five times a day and continues for 30 days, altogether 150 exposures. On the other hand, advertisement “B” runs one time a day, but 90 days in a go. Research reveals that, though total exposure of advertisement “B” is less (90 times), it will be remembered more than advertisement “A” for “B’s” continuity for a long time period.
  • Another important lesson that advertisers may take is to prepare short and simple advertisements instead of long and complicated advertisements. The reason is that short and simple advertisements are remembered long than lengthy and complex advertisements.

In conclusion, we may say that advertisers should try their best to increase consumer retention of their messages, increasing sales of their products.

Behavior Modification Using Learning Principles

You know that there are two major schools of thought relating to learning – the cognitive and the behaviorist. The first one basically emphasizes the mental process that consumers go through to learn about stimuli. This has received the greatest attention from marketing scholars.

The other one, the behaviorist approach to learning, centers on observable factors and not on the covert aspects, such as motivation, attitudes, etc. This approach is based on experimental findings of behavioral scientists conducted in laboratories with animals.

Though this approach has received relatively less attention from marketing scholars, it suggests several lessons for marketers, including behavior modification.

The experimental study of learning (behaviorist approach) has been dominated by the use of two models or paradigms, known as (1) classical conditioning and (2) operant or instrumental conditioning.

The first of these procedures stems from the work of the famous Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov; the latter derives largely from the work of B. F. Skinner and E. L. Thorndike (of Columbia University’s Teachers College).

The marketers may successfully use these two types of conditioning principles to shape or reshape (modifying) target consumers’ behaviors. The most important areas of their application are advertising and sales promotion.

Using the knowledge of these conditioning principles in either advertising or sales promotion activities, marketers may offer consumers stimuli that may modify or shape behavior that favors the concerned firm.

Before discussing these two conditioning concepts and their application in modifying consumer behavior, you should be given the idea of what conditioning means.

According to Hawkins, Best, and Coney, conditioning refers to learning based upon the association of stimulus (information) and responses (behavior).

They also argue that conditioned learning means that, through exposure to some stimulus and corresponding response, one learns to go together (or do not go together). Let us now discuss the two concepts at some length.

Classical Conditioning and Behavior Modification

From our real-life experience, most of us are familiar with the kind of learning that has been termed classical conditioning.

This is a kind of stimulus-response learning. It holds that organisms learn to associate an original stimulus with another adjacent stimulus and then respond to that second ‘conditioned’ stimulus with the behavior formerly induced by the original stimulus.

Classical conditioning, thus, refers to the process of using a natural physiological relationship between a stimulus and response to bring about the learning of the same response to a different stimulus.

Let us now give you the idea, how the concept of classical conditioning emerged. This learning type was first experimented with by a Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, known as the father’s classical conditioning principle.

He experimented with several dogs, known as famous salivating dogs. In his experiment, he first realized that both men and animals automatically form saliva in their mouths when presented with food.

For example, your mouth will be full of water if any food item is placed there and the animal.

Since he used dogs in his experiment, he first placed a meat pellet into the dog’s mouth and noticed that it started salivating.

He experimented for quite some time and found the same pattern of behavior in his dogs. Salivating here is a natural or automatic response. This response is not conditioned by anything. The animal here has no control over this relationship of food to salivation.

He termed the food item, here, in this case, the pellet of meat, an unconditioned stimulus (UCS), and salivation after the meat is placed, an unconditioned response, or an unconditioned reflex (UCR).

Thereafter, Pavlov tried to link this unconditioned response with a neutral stimulus. And in his effort to link the unconditioned response (previously made against food) with a neutral stimulus, he decided to ring a bell every time before the meat is placed in the dog’s mouth.

He knew that ringing bell would, by itself, create no reason for a dog to salivate. He tried this experiment several times and once found that saliva begins to flow from the dog’s mouth immediately after the bell is rung even if the meat is not placed in the dog’s mouth. He termed the bell here a conditioned stimulus (CS), and the new response to the bell as a conditioned response (CR).

He thus found that a relationship has been established between the bell (conditioned stimulus) and the food, and as a result, the response initially made to the food would now be made to the bell. This new response is a conditioned response.

Pavlov’s dogs came to salivate through conditioning when they heard only the bell – even without food (the original stimulus). The dogs behaved in a modified way as they learned from the conditioning that ringing the bell is somehow connected to food placement in their mouths.

Here learning has occurred as the result of classical conditioning.

This experiment may also be described in brief, as follows “meat paste, and ‘unconditioned stimulus’ (UCS), is placed in a dog’s mouth and automatically elicits a flow of saliva, an ‘unconditioned response’ or ‘unconditioned reflex’ (UCR); and independent stimulus, such as the ringing of a bell, which does not usually elicit the flow of saliva, is presented just before each presentation of food and comes presently to elicit the saliva without the unconditioned stimulus (UCS).”

The new response to the bell is called a ‘conditioned response’ (CR), and the sound of the bell is called a ‘conditioned stimulus’ (CS). The independent stimulus (CS), by being associated with the ‘unconditioned stimulus’ (UCS), elicits a response (CR) resembling the one initially made to the unconditioned stimulus (UCR).

Learning through classical conditioning may best be understood by looking at the following figure:

Classical Conditioning and Behavior Modification

Behavior Modification Using the Concept of Classical Conditioning

Though some argue that consumer behaviors are not classically conditioned as they are voluntary and not related to any conditioned stimuli, as a result, you may become surprised why the concept of classical conditioning has been discussed here.

You may think that consumers are unlike dogs or other animals, and as a result, the discussion of classical conditioning has no relevance to consumer behavior.

But, in reality, many of consumers’ behaviors are classically conditioned. As a result, classical conditioning has some authentic applications to consumer learning and can explain many associations between brand names and other familiar symbols.

Different studies noted that commercials’ ability to form associations by classical conditioning is well established, and as a result, is widely used by marketers. Different examples may explain the application of classical conditioning in modifying consumer behavior.

Let us assume that listening to pop music (unconditioned stimulus) elicits a positive emotion (unconditioned response) in many individuals.

Let us say that this music is consistently paired with a particular brand of tea (conditioned stimulus). After a few trials, it may be seen that the brand itself will come to elicit the same positive emotion (conditioned response).

Thus, this concept may be used successfully by marketers in advertisements or commercials to change or modify consumer behavior, causing them to favor the advertised brand.

Operant Conditioning and Behavior Modification

The other name of operant conditioning is instrumental learning. You have noticed that, in the case of classical conditioning, there is no reinforcement present. The basic difference between classical conditioning and operant conditioning is that operant conditioning is largely a matter of reinforcement.

Of more relevance to students of consumer behavior is operant conditioning. The operant conditioning principle argues that we learn to respond to stimuli and perform operations on our environment.

It implies that we actively manipulate things to produce desired consequences or to avoid undesired ones. The operant conditioning concept holds that learning results not in habitual responses but in mental structures – systems of thinking about our experiences.

For example, if you are hungry in the morning, your thinking might go like this: “I am hungry for breakfast. My parents used to give me bread and butter in the morning. I remember that I liked it and I felt good after eating it. I think I will buy bread and butter.”

This entire sequence occurs almost instantaneously as a single thought, of course, composing a mental structure that you use for thinking about breakfast items. From this, you understand that operant conditioning is basically dependent on reinforcement.

In the above-mentioned individual, he plans to buy bread and butter for his breakfast as his response was reinforced earlier – he was satisfied eating bread and butter in the morning. Like classical conditioning, the operant conditioning method also involves developing linking between stimuli and responses.

The process used to develop a connection between stimuli and responses is different from the classical conditioning method. Here, the learner looks at a response that is correct or appropriate, rewarding him. He selects that response against a particular stimulus, which is reinforced.

This particular response is learned through the trial and error method. An individual makes a response to a particular stimulus as a trial and gets a result from it.

If the result is unsatisfactory, he will try other responses and settle for most satisfactory. As mentioned earlier, this type of learning was first demonstrated by an American psychologist B. F. Skinner.

In his experiment, he placed a hungry animal in a box named “Skinner Box.” There were two compartments inside the box. There were some food items in one compartment, and he placed the animal on the other side.

There was a lever in the animal’s side pressing, which would help the animal find food items and eat that, satisfying its hunger. As the animal was hungry, it started running here and there inside its compartment.

As a result of this, the animal, purely by accident, pressed the lever that facilitates the appearance of food, which the animal ate and was satisfied for the time being.

When it felt hungry again, it did the same thing, and the second time the lever was pressed accidentally. After several such accidents, the animal learned that pressing the lever is connected with food presentation.

From that time onward, the animal directly started pressing the lever whenever it felt hungry. It learned from several trials and errors that this is the most appropriate behavior or response against hunger (stimulus). The animal would display another behavior if an electric shock punished it after the lever was pressed.

Thus, operant conditioning refers to changing the frequency or probability of a response by following it with a reinforcement. David S. Austin and James M. Johnson defined operant conditioning as a process in which its consequences modify behavior frequency.

From the above discussion, it is clear that reinforcement plays a much larger role in operant conditioning. Since there is no automatic stimulus-response relationship involved, the subject must first be induced to engage in the desired behavior, and then this behavior must be reinforced.

Now the question comes, how you can apply the principle of operant learning in your marketing activities. Let us assume that you are the marketing manager of instant noodles producing company, and you want your sales to increase by applying the concept of operant learning.

For example, your product has three features: good to eat, quick to prepare, and less spicy, which you think consumers will like. Now you can take an attempt to influence your target consumers to learn to buy and consume your brand. How can you do that?

There could be quite a few options at your hand. Among others, distributing free samples to many prospective customers and offering special inducements are notable if customers who received free samples like the product (positive reinforcement) are likely to continuously buy your brand.

If, on the other hand, if they are not satisfied with consuming your brand (negative reinforcement or punishment), their chances of future purchases of your brand are reduced greatly. There are quite a few other options available to marketers to facilitate prospective customers’ learning based on operant conditioning.

Some of the important ones are special price discounts, premiums, contests, sweepstakes, bonuses, etc. These allow the customers to try a particular brand taking a minimum of risks and learn about it, which will shape their future behaviors.

By this time, you are aware that operant conditioning is mainly a matter of reinforcement.

How do Reinforcers determine Operant Learning?

Reinforcement has a significant impact on the speed at which learning occurs and the duration of its effect. It is anything that influences the likelihood that a given response will be repeated in the future. But, how reinforcers determine operant learning? Reinforcers determine operant learning in several ways. Let us now have a look at those:

  • An individual is likely to repeat the same response against a particular stimulus if his response is rewarded or reinforced. If, for example, you buy and use a particular brand of hair shampoo and find it very effective, your chance of buying the same brand of the satisfaction using it, you are likely to settle to this particular brand, since you have learned that this is the kind of shampoo you were looking at.
  • If you experience a negative outcome buying and using a particular brand of a product, you are highly unlikely to buy the same brand next time. The reason is that you have learned it to be punishing or unsatisfactory.
  • In another case, if an individual is negatively reinforced or punished for a particular response, but if he is assured of reward next time, he is likely to respond as before. For example, you have bought a particular product from a nearby shop, found it dissatisfactory, and immediately reported it to the shopkeeper. If the shopkeeper apologizes, replaces the product, and assures the most apologizes, replaces you with the product, and assures the most satisfactory service from now onward, you are likely to buy from the said shop again.
  • Companies want consumers to learn about their brands and to retain what they have learned. Marketers generally want to learn to occur and to last for a long. But it does not always work. Sometimes learned responses are disappeared. That is, extinction does take place. It occurs because the reinforcement for the learned responses is withdrawn, or learned responses are no longer used. Extinction of response may occur when the relationship between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus is broken. For example, if you do not get the same type and level of service from a store you used to get before, you may stop visiting that shop and buying from there.

From the above discussion, it is clear that marketers are interested in teaching consumers that their products have attributes that will satisfy one or more of customers’ goals (reinforcing consumers). If they are successful in reinforcing consumers, sales of their products are very likely to increase.

Consumer Habit Formation and Building Brand Loyalty using Learning

The habit of repeatedly purchasing the same brand of a product develops through learning. As learning contributes to brand loyalty among consumers, marketers take a keen interest in it.

Because marketers obviously hope to establish brand loyalty, they band every effort toward associating their products with powerful consumer needs by developing motivating cues and ensuring positive reinforcement.

Of course, superior quality products tend to generate consumer satisfaction; such positive reinforcement encourages habit formation toward purchasing a particular brand.

Whatever the source of their rewards, however, satisfied consumers translate their satisfaction into repeat purchases, just as the negative reinforcement resulting from dissatisfaction pushes consumers toward other brands.

Habits refer to the automatic connection of a stimulus with a response. Habit is established more quickly for weak stimuli, providing that consumers do not have to make discriminations.

Consumers develop habits about a product more rapidly, and the less important the product is to them. But, if the consequences of a wrong decision are important for social reasons, consumers will be slower to develop a habit. Research suggests that if a habit is strong, the response to the stimulus will also be strong.

Brand Loyalty

Marketers are particularly interested in the concept of brand loyalty as they seek to have a steady group of loyal customers for their products or services.

With the increase in brand-loyal customers, the market share of a company keeps on risking. Thus, every single producer of branded merchandise is interested in developing loyalties among its target customers. Brand loyalty is usually taken to refer to repeat purchase patterns.

But it implies, beyond mere repetition, a commitment to a brand, store, or manufacturer, a commitment that can persist for years. Jacob Jacoby and Robert W. Chestnut defined brand loyalty as the biased behavioral response expressed over time by a decision-making unit concerning one or more alternative brands out of a set of such brands, and is a function of psychological processes.

Brand loyalty, therefore, is a particular kind of repeat purchasing behavior that includes a commitment or preference, which is the cause of the pattern of repeated purchases of the brand. Brand loyalty is just what the name implies – loyalty to a particular brand demonstrated by its purchases.

A person who always buys and uses a certain toothpaste brand and who would go to a different store if one store was out of that brand is highly brand loyal. Brand loyalty is an elusive concept, as described below.

There are no socioeconomic characteristics associated with different degrees of brand loyalty for low-price, frequently purchased items.

In the absence of positive evidence to the contrary, manufacturers had better check carefully before assuming that they can distinguish between high-loyalty and low-loyalty families in their particular market by certain socioeconomic characteristics.

Despite all the changes in one’s life, there is evidence suggesting that brand preferences linger on. There is little indication that sex, intelligence, or marital status is related to the persistence of brand preference. Age affects brand preference, for older people seem to stick with the same brands more than younger people.

Most loyalty studies measure repeat sales, but they do not develop into consumers’ attachment for a brand or store. It is clear that a great deal of repeat buying exists, but it is also clear that considerable brand and store switching occurs.

Since any marketing mix ingredient can influence a buyer, brand loyalty must contend with price competition, new products, advertising, product availability, and external forces such as personal influence.

The evidence is not very precise, yet intuitively, people feel some attachment toward brands and stores. There is certainly an element of familiarity and experience that lessens the risk for the buyer.

Certainly, there are many factors to consider in generalizing the extent of and reasons for brand loyalty. It is worth reminding ourselves that single elements in buying are seldom overpowering. Buyers will drop into and out of any brand pattern for all kinds of reasons.

Conclusions Offered by Tucker About Brand Loyalty

W.T. Tucker expressed brand loyalty as biased choice behavior concerning branded merchandise. In his article, “The Development of Brand Loyalty,” published in August 1964, volume 3 of the Journal of Marketing Research, he offered few interesting conclusions about brand loyalty, which should be taken into active consideration by the marketers trying to develop loyalties toward their brands.

The conclusions are summarized below:

Conclusion number #1

Tucker noticed that brand loyalty might develop in some consumers based on the names, not discriminating among brands.

For example, some of the television sets buyers may be loyal to Sony, not because Sony possesses discernible differences in features than other television sets. Therefore, selecting an attractive name is very important for brand loyalty to develop among customers.

Conclusion number #2

He also noted that, though brand loyalty develops based on differences of little worth or importance, it persists for long. It is challenging for competitors to change or modify brand loyalty, particularly if customers are hard-core loyal.

Conclusion number #3

Others equally influence not all consumers in developing brand loyalty toward different products. Some are subject to strong interpersonal influence, while others are not very much susceptible to interpersonal influence. This susceptibility depends on several factors of which an individual’s personality type is critical.

Conclusion number #4

Though Tucker noticed that preferences for specific product characteristics and brand loyalty are two different considerations, they make up an individual’s loyalty toward a particular brand.

Factors Responsible for Variations in Brand Loyalty Among Products

There is still no indication that there is a general loyalty factor in people. Rather it appears that it is related to specific products and brands and special pressures impinging on people. Guest (1964) noted that even early childhood experiences exert considerable influence upon later brand purchasing behavior.

Other studies on brand loyalty revealed some interesting factors. They are summarized below.

One study indicated that price could be considered an important cue to product quality and that perceived quality may be an important determinant of brand loyalty.

A conclusion from another brand loyalty study suggests that consumers tend to be less loyal toward products with many brands available. The number of purchases and expenditures per buyer is high, where prices are relatively active, and where consumers might be expected to use many brands of the product simultaneously.

Consumers are brand loyal in markets where brands tend to be widely distributed and where market share is concentrated in the leading brand.

John V. Farley’s study (1964) suggests that individuals put greater effort into shopping for products important to them and put less effort into products considered relatively unimportant. In the case of imported products, Farley observed that brand switching occurs very frequently.

He also identified that a particular family might become loyal to some brands in a particular product category, depending on its uses. For example, a family buys a particular salt brand for cooking purposes and another brand for other purposes.

Correlates of Brand Loyalty

Researchers tried to identify correlates of brand loyalty through their studies. James M. Carman conducted one such notable study.

He hypothesized that the single most important predictor of brand loyalty is store loyalty. Customers who are store loyal shop at relatively few stores restrict their range of choices, and thus, they are more likely to exhibit greater brand loyalty.

Carman also found that consumers who are not shopping prone will shop in a minimal number of stores and, within those stores, will remain loyal to a minimal number of brands.

Contrary to some findings, Carman also concluded that personal characteristics of consumers explain differences in-store loyalty.

Consumers’ socioeconomic, demographic, and psychological aspects may contribute significantly to their brand loyalty levels. He also observed that consumers most interested in status were the most loyal customers. He further observed that homemakers who socialize with neighbors seemed to exhibit a higher degree of brand loyalty than those who did not.

Carman’s interesting aspect was that a consumer loyal to one brand in a given product category might not display similar loyalties to brands in other product classes. Thus, brand loyalties vary among product classes.

In conclusion, we can say that brand loyalty will be greater among satisfied consumers who have had more experiences with the product category than among satisfied consumers who are new to that product category. Thus, brand loyal consumers express greater levels of satisfaction than less loyal and non-loyal consumers.

Marketers may undertake several steps in developing brand loyalties among consumers. Among others, they may offer free samples, better after-sales service, price or quantity discounts, develop catchy advertising messages, offer counter coupons, arrange more point-of-purchase displays, and develop attractive packages.

Undertaking one or more of the above programs may contribute significantly to developing brand loyalty among consumers.

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