‘ice cream cone’ by Shruti Saini in Tribeca Park

Consumer Choices in the Age of Connected Consumption — Disloyal, Non-Linear, & Non-Singular

“What do you do to relax after a long day?”

Take a moment to reflect on what your answer would be.

When this very question was posed over a casual dinner, one friend’s response was particularly striking to me.

She spent a few moments considering it and then proceeded with her answer:

I might take a hot yoga class… That feeling afterwards is amazing. You can’t beat it…. or I might just offload my bags, plop down on my couch, and throw on the Real Housewives. They always help me take the edge off… or… I’ll listen to a podcast… sometimes I might have a glass of wine… and some days I’ll go shopping”

I smiled politely when she finished. Yet, unbeknownst to her, the consumer marketer in me was silently and dramatically freaking out on the inside.

Exercise. Reality TV. Podcasts. Alcohol. Shopping.

Well, come on. That doesn’t make any sense.

Products and services have swim lanes. They are strategically positioned to satisfy different mindsets and desires in distinct moments. Why was she colliding the disciplined brand worlds that we marketers have so neatly created for our products and brand experiences?

She was mistaken. She wasn’t acting rationally. And consumers have to be rational.

Basic economic theory stipulates that people are rational beings who make rational choices.

Always.

Rational, rational, rational.

Exercise. Reality TV. Podcasts. Alcohol. Shopping. Online. Offline. Oh boy.

It was one of those embarrassing “well duh” moments that can often allude us until we encounter an unadulterated experience and the naked realization then hits us. That’s exactly what happened to me in the moment of reflection that followed.

She was merging brand worlds because there was absolutely no reason for her not to.

She was merging brand worlds because in the real world there are no distinct swim lanes that consumers feel obligated to be aware of or navigate through.

With her honest response she had single handedly reminded me that our framing of consumer behavior has gotten completely rocked in recent years. Consumer decision making doesn’t follow a horizontal or vertical ladder of selection (even though we’d like it to), it’s more like a game of chutes and ladders. Decisions are being made at curves, slants, angles, sometimes sideways, and at most times in a highly non-linear fashion.

If we assume the premise that people have always made and will continue to make decisions to most efficiently satisfy a need, then our definition of what constitutes consumer decision making and brand choice hierarchy must evolve, along with our definition of what comprises ‘rational’.

If we make choices to satisfy a need then what’s available to service that baseline criteria has undergone a drastic alteration in recent years. A primary culprit being massive product & service proliferation — a groundswell of options that have stimulated a strain of deductive behavior that might masquerade as irrationality to the observer, but is actually planked by rational logic.

Because what might be considered irrationality is a tapestry of interconnected decisions grounded in sensible and coherent consumer motivations. Motivations that actually support versus contradict decisions that may appear to be seemingly at odds.

This is true because behaviors are ultimately justified by the availability of market forces & solutions that provide resolution to the needs consumers are seeking.

In the case of my friend at dinner, she unwittingly disclosed to us through her manifold answer that she was seeking a feeling in the form of a feel good high. And that feeling, that high, could come from very different sources. Sources in the forms of varying products and experiences that traditionally would not be viewed as classic competitors or even part of the same consideration set.

A simple desire confronted with such a complex and varied solution scope.

Motivations matter. We can often skate over uncovering the basic intrinsic reason for why someone is propelled to do or engage in a behavior — their baseline motivation which converts into an attitude which then provokes a behavior.

This is a crucial step and a critical observation of human truths. On our quest to rapidly define a segment and sell in we can gloss over it, which might make us wonder why our product or service isn’t as top of mind as we’d like it to be, why our consumers don’t repeat purchase at the rate we’d like them to, and why the choices they do make appear to be in conflict with what we’d expect.

Take for example the act of a person deciding to cook dinner for him or herself. It could be due to many different reasons, some of which might be:

· I want to eat now and don’t have the patience to order in and wait for the delivery.

· I want to save money and be resourceful and make a meal out of what I have in my fridge.

· I want to lose myself in the act of chopping vegetables that can impart a therapeutic sensation.

· I want to be more consciousness of what I eat for health reasons so I prepare my own meal.

Convenience. Saving. Therapy. Health.

It could be for any one of the aforementioned reasons or a combination thereof, the above serving as just a preliminary sampler of suggestions, some emotionally driven others more functional.

And just as these motivations might be multi-fold, the single solution of “cooking” as the answer to any of the queries could also be multi-variate.

A person’s decisions, although conflicting to some on the surface, are sound. They’re sound because the needs and desires which evoke them are logical and based on internal reasoning, even though they might not coalesce so neatly externally.

Exercise. Reality TV. Podcasts. Alcohol. Shopping.

And that is just a starter list, add to the mix the rolodex of entertainment, connection, & information that can all promote relaxation in the form of digital rejoinders, i.e. Instagram, FaceTime, Snapchat, and the ice cream shop of apps that come in every flavor from Sports, Art, Travel, Dating, Fashion, Film, News (real, fake, and otherwise) and we quickly arrive at scenarios where consumers are reaching for sometimes solo but often times several options at once to achieve their desired payoff across different brand fields.

Consider this — who is NBC, the cable TV network, most threatened by? A competing TV show or sports game on at the same time as its hit show This is Us… or, an episode of Sex and the City?

Well, if someone has just stumbled upon Sex and the City, she or he might be missing in action for the next month or so as binge watching of seasons 1–6 occurs.

NBC is not only competing with the other lineup of shows on during ‘appointment television’ prime-time, they’re competing with the full stable of entertainment from the content vault that was ever created and available to download and stream.

Same holds true for Cheers, The Practice, Frasier, Friends, the list goes on… all ‘off air’ but very much on consumers’ minds thanks to their resurrection via streaming, and in some cases syndication.

And that competitive set is only against the vector of TV entertainment, also competing during weekday prime-time is the vast array of online & offline modalities that all distract and demand time, attention, & finite motivation mind-share.

This presents a distinct set of challenges and opportunities for brands. Namely to capitalize on facets of consumer disloyalty due to optionality and to cement relevancy in interconnected consumption pockets that would otherwise be untapped.

The ‘Consumer Job to Be Done’ theory encourages us to understand what core need consumers are “hiring” brands for — this philosophy becomes even more nuanced as the consumption experience is now even more starkly disloyal, non-linear, & non-singular.

Disloyal in that “go-to” consistent behavior diminishes as consumers’ repertoires expand. Longitudinal and latitudinal product availability has rewarded consumers who exhibit curiosity. The quality of many offerings has risen prompting trust and trial barriers to lower. One day the cure might be a scoop of ice cream of a favorite flavor from a certain incumbent brand, on another day it might still be ice cream but from a smaller challenger brand offering a unique ingredient benefit. Flavor compelled the first purchase whereas a specific ingredient propelled the second. Trust can be engendered, or lost, in both circumstances, you don’t have to be an established entity to wield a disproportionate default trust threshold, yet trust alone will not solely guarantee initial or follow up conversion. I can trust a brand, it can address my needs, but I can still be disloyal depending on my mood, mindset, and my primary motivation of the moment.

Non-linear in that brands are competing within a widened and expansive spherical landscape of varying product manifestations, all attempting to service the same motivations. Industry, sector, and product lines have become highly blurred. Competition is not only what flanks you on shelf, it’s what competes in your consumers’ mind-share as a resolution for a given tension — and that has expanded exponentially. That scoop of ice cream might find an unlikely competitor in the form of non-dessert fare. If you’re seeking something cold, sticky, sweet, that melts in your mouth you might be looking down the freezer aisle, but if you’re looking for something to indulge in that makes you feel good & smile, the assortment can be endless and is not limited to the frozen section, let alone to the grocery store.

Non-singular in that consumption is holistic. Brands are consumed expansively & experientially, which means brand consumption is not in a vacuum, it’s situational to other brands and can take on varied patterns & formats, i.e. the scoop of ice cream can be “consumed” with music in one instance, perhaps with a TV show in another, and maybe even on-the-go walking back from hot yoga class listening to a podcast in yet another. Brand marketers need to recognize that it’s often not a matter of “or” lone brand consumption anymore, but one of “and” that paints the most accurate rendering of engagement — what I call the connected consumption moment.

As consumer marketers attempting to persuade trial of brands, we need to re-balance who we are as brands and the value we provide in the total setting of what consumers are fundamentally seeking.

The assembly of available & accessible product options and connected consumption behaviors induced by interlocked consumer habits provides us with a context of brand immersion which has magnified in breadth & depth and has gone beyond singular product usage.

In a consumer world defined by connected consumption underscored by disloyalty, non-linearity, and non-singularity, one constant human truth is that human motivations, although not always predictable, are static in their presence. Actions are all underscored by them.

Understand someone’s motivation and you’ll unlock your relevance.

It was my birthday this past Spring and I decided that I was going to celebrate with friends. I sent everyone a group text. It wasn’t to meet at a bar. It was to go to a cycling class.

Whereas in the past I would have arranged a meet up at a bar, I decided to organize a meet up in a different context. My motivation to celebrate with friends was still met, but in a completely different setting and environment. In this instance, exercise was competing directly with alcohol.

After our cycling class we actually went out for drinks. Although alcohol lost in the first round of decision making, it came back as a champion and met our criteria set in the second. And we had no qualms with co-mingling two different ‘brand’ experiences. Our behaviors and consumption habits didn’t follow a specific pattern that was set into motion by our first encounter. In some instances they might be provisional to an origin motivation or initial behavior, in this case they were not.

Consumers don’t think of their decisions as unilateral or made in silos because there is no such thing as one-dimensional unconnected behavior.

Whether you’re developing your brand strategy & positioning, crafting an integrated end to end marketing campaign, re-staging your communications content and partnerships model, or embarking on constructing your innovation product pipeline, it will be helpful to reground in three key consumer tenets on your quest to drive relevancy with an increasingly complex consumer profile:

Who are your Consumers and what are they seeking?

o Know the motivations driving choice because consumers are disloyal. Consumers are rationally irrational because underlying attitudes and outwardly behaviors do not have to be in synch to occur. Consumers are disloyal because the payoff to satisfy a desire comes in many forms that offer low barriers to risk & trial. It’s not about making them rational. And it’s not about making them loyal. It’s about understanding their motivations and meeting their needs. And when you can consistently meet a need & evolve your core to meet evolving needs you start to seed repetitive behavior, trust, and the preliminary tendencies of commitment. Although your brand’s purpose should always be the compass of your identity and guide what you believe, stand for, and deliver — evaluating what consumer motivations you’re truly addressing with your offering will equip you with a stronger survival & response system to identify & maintain that relevancy.

Who is your real Competition based on Consumer Criteria?

o Widen your scope because competition is non-linear. A multitude of solutions exist to a single problem. Look up and out. Know who you’re competing with. To breakthrough effectively you have to seed yourself appropriately. Redefine the parameters of what you need to deliver. Both functional and emotional. Widen your criteria set of what exists to meet that need. That space is evolving. What is your brands’ role in that ecosystem? Revisit the context surrounding someone’s desire to turn to you. What is the consumer criteria and what within your solution system has to evolve to satisfy those motivations? Remodel and redefine your universe based on the consumers’ consideration set.

What Underlying Consumer Needs are you addressing?

o Think circumstantially because product consumption is non-singular. Consumers are engaging in Connected Consumption. Beyond your traditional competitive mix, what are those potential substitutes and complements to your brand offering that contribute to the total consumer experience? It starts with understanding the nature in which someone turns to you. Position who you are as a brand within the larger multi-disciplinary framework of your consumer’s life. Situating yourself as secondary will allow you to unlock what your primary role should and ought to be.

Start with understanding what motivations consumers are seeking to satisfy, unpack what they’re turning to (or not) for resolution of those needs, and dissect what role your brand plays in that interlocked consumption moment. Why should you be part of the answer? Why are you relevant? When and why is that scoop of ice cream that we discussed earlier a consumer solution and in what circumstances does its competition vary?

And finally, as an exercise in empathy, ask yourself the following question and, both critically and with sheer rationally irrational honesty, really reflect on the “why” and the underlying motivation behind your response:

“What do you do to relax after a long day?”

***

Shruti currently works at Anheuser-Busch as Sr. Director, Strategy & Insights. She is responsible for identifying consumer-centric growth opportunities, translating these into key brand strategies, and developing portfolio wide innovation. Prior to AB, Shruti held previous marketing strategy positions at General Mills, PBS, CBS News, & Merrill Lynch and was a featured brand & media strategy contributor for The Huffington Post. She has a broad diversity of background, expertise, and industry knowledge in the realm of brand marketing and consumer design, with 8+ years of marketing experience at Fortune 500 companies. Shruti received her MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA degree in Economics from Harvard College. All opinions are her own.

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