Traditionally, consumer researchers have approached decision making process from a rational perspective. This dominant school of thought views consumers as being cognitive (i.e., problem-solving) and, to 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.
Figure 1 The Consumer Information Processing Model Source: Adopted from Kotler (1997), Schiffman and Kanuk (1997), and Solomon (1996)
In this model, the consumer passes through five stages: problem recognition, information search, evaluation and selection of alternatives, decision implementation, and post-purchase evaluation.
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?
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…