Years ago, Jeff Bezos famously said: “I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”
He went on to explain that what is not going to change is that customers will want low prices, fast delivery, and vast selection. Bezos’ truths address one small part of consumer psychology: consumers’ functional needs. It’s crucial to focus on these core human motivations that shape consumers’ behaviors.
“Consumers are people and people are driven by the same core needs,” explains social psychologist Erica Carranza, Ph.D., vice president of consumer psychology at Chadwick Martin Bailey.
“We all strive to maximize positive emotions, enhance and express our identities, cultivate social relationships, and effectively achieve our goals. Because these are core human needs, brands that help people fulfill these needs drive consideration, trial, loyalty, and advocacy,” she says and adds, “People are thirty-times more likely to try a brand if they expect it to deliver strong emotional, identity, social, or functional benefits.”
And people give different weights to these core psychological needs under different circumstances based upon the context in which they find themselves. This year with the pandemic rearing its ugly head, the deck of consumers’ psychological needs got shuffled but never went away.
People want to feel in control and that they can achieve what they want to achieve. In psychological terms, this is called agency. “It’s about their ability to efficiently and effectively achieve their goals,” Carranza explains.
Consumer behavior is a function of both motivation, i.e. psychological needs, and ability, she goes on to explain. Because of the pandemic – first with so many businesses closed and now with fears of personal safety looming as businesses reopen – they’ve lost some of that agency or ability.
There are still psychological challenges to overcome. Brands have to capture people’s attention online, which is harder to do than when they are already primed to shop. “You’re trying to attract people’s attention, when they’re home attending to something else,” she says.
People want to maximize their good feelings and minimize bad ones. That is the emotional component of consumer psychology, but there are two dimensions that underlie all emotional experiences: valence, or the extent to which the emotions are positive or negative, and activation, or the amount of physical energy associated with the emotion.
In the current context, consumers are feeling lots of negative emotions (valence), which can be expressed (activation) in different ways. Carranza illustrates this by comparing anger to sadness, both negative emotional states, but with different levels of activation.
“Anger and sadness are at opposite poles of activation. When people feel angry, there’s a lot of energy that makes them want to act. When people feel sad, they withdraw. It’s a more of a wearying, debilitating experience,” she explains.
Brands want to stay on the positive side of emotional valence and encourage more activation of those positive feelings that stimulate consumers. “High activation and positive emotion make people want to act. They feel energized, excited, and inspired. There is a lot of energy there,” she says.
Trust is another factor that can activate purchases. If consumers have confidence that the business is going to deliver on its positive emotional promise, they are more likely to buy.
And finally, across these stable consumer psychological motives comes the ever-changing context in which the consumer operates.
“Context shapes how we perceive the environment, the conclusions we draw from it, and the emotional responses we have to it. Motivations remain the same over time, but the means consumers use to satisfy those motivations can change,” says Buycology founder Christopher Gray, Psy.D.
Because of the stressful context in which people find themselves, it calls on businesses to pay more attention to the less activating, but more emotionally-reassuring good feelings Carranza talks about, specifically creating a peaceful, calm, relaxed, comfortable, and secure physical environment.
“It is really important to go overboard in creating a context that is positive, friendly, welcoming, and safe,” Gray says.
This is complicated by the need to wear face masks in stores. Face masks eliminate people’s ability to read facial expressions that are so important in the social context. This can be overcome by more vocalization that communicates friendliness, like a laugh, and more expressive, open body language, such as friendly hand gestures and no crossed arms.
In conclusion, consumer psychology – giving people control, activating positive emotions, reinforcing personal identity and belonging – is the unchangeable foundation on which to build a winning business strategy, all the while being ready to adapt expeditiously as consumers’ social and cultural context changes.