Why brands must align their marketing with the way customers make decisions

As businesses consider their goals and strategies for the new year, one topic that deserves special attention is the decision-making process of their customers. There is no denying that as the digital landscape evolves, technology continues to change the way we live, communicate, and dare I say, the way we think and make decisions.

The abundance of choice is so apparent to consumers, and the interminable access to information makes them feel empowered and driven to make the best possible purchasing decisions. Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim perfectly highlight this idea in Netflix’s new series “Master of None.”

Video clip contains some PG-13 language.

Naturally, different people in different purchasing situations will arrive at their decisions in a multitude of ways. But let’s try to understand a basic framework for how people often decide to buy. The traditional linear model known as the “purchase funnel” is less relevant in today’s digital environment, as consumers constantly encounter brand touchpoints through many channels on multiple devices.

Rather, the process is more cyclical, with four main phases- consideration, research & evaluation, decision & purchase experience, and post-purchase experience. As I show in the figure below, I visualize this process to be a kind of orbit around a brand, with the effectiveness of its marketing and quality of experience being the gravity that pulls a customer closer to the brand. The orbit’s distance becomes shorter the closer you are to the middle, meaning that as a customer’s brand affinity grows, their decision-making process becomes more streamlined and predictable.

However, every phase also provides the opportunity to drift away from the middle, even out of orbit completely if a competing brand’s gravitational pull is stronger. Let’s deconstruct Aziz’s mission to find the best tacos in New York.

1: Consideration

Aziz is hungry and wants tacos. But from where? Who has the BEST tacos?

2: Research & Evaluation

He gets online and sends texts to friends looking for information to influence his decision. At first he’s brand neutral, so he discovers many different options and spends a lot of time evaluating them all. He encounters multiple positive touchpoints for Tacos Morelos, so he chooses that brand. With excited anticipation for the best tacos in NYC, he’s drawn into a closer orbit.

3: Decision & Purchase Experience

Even at the point of purchase, he’s not finished making decisions. Which tacos on the menu will he enjoy the most? Chicken? Carnitas? It’s important for brands to not only help their customers make decisions, but also to help them feel confident that they’re making the best decision.

4: Post-purchase Experience

There are still decisions being made, specifically, judging the quality of the product and experience. People often seek affirmation in their decisions. So if the brand delivers on its promises and provides a great experience, the customer will feel good about themselves for making the right decision, and their affinity for the brand will grow.

In the scene, Tacos Morelos was a big disappointment, and they most certainly lost Aziz to the competition. But hypothetically, what if it had been a great experience, serving up tasty tacos and exceptional service?

Aziz would likely text his friend who gave him the recommendation, to confirm that they are in fact the best tacos in NYC. He’d then maybe snap an Instagram pic and tag Tacos Morelos, and because it’s a mobile taco truck, he’d follow them on Twitter to get updates on their location. As his brand affinity grows, he’ll welcome greater exposure to the company’s various marketing channels. The next time Aziz wants tacos, he’ll be less likely to invest time and effort into broad research and evaluation. Instead, he might simply visit the brand’s website directly as an evaluation prior to a decision. While on the website, perhaps he’d see a post about their new specials, including tacos al pastor which people on Yelp are declaring to be the best tacos they’ve ever had. This reaffirms the brand’s identity as having the best tacos in the city, and reinvigorates Aziz’s excitement and affinity for the brand.

Customers with a greater degree of brand affinity may bypass the research and evaluation phase altogether and jump directly to a decision when the purchase consideration is triggered.

Companies that seek to understand this decision-making process in the context of their customer’s lifestyle, motivations, and use of technology will undoubtedly become more effective in their marketing efforts. They will attract new customers at a higher rate, discover new opportunities to build brand affinity, and always keep customers wanting to come back for more.