Fall 2019 > Research Excellence

Mapping Out the Consumer Experience Journey

With the evolution of new technology and digital devices, today’s consumers are no longer the conventional consumers of decades ago, who simply took what was offered to them. They are wiser and more connected social sharers who carry out their own research, interact through avenues of open digital communication, share feedback that may influence each other’s purchase decisions, and make purchases around the clock.

Prof. Angela LEE, Mechthild Esser Nemmers Professor of Marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and an IAS Senior Visiting Fellow, is an experimental theorist and consumer psychologist. Her research focuses on consumer motivation and affect, cross-cultural consumer psychology, and the nonconscious influence of memory on judgment and choice. She shows how various factors constantly affect the decisions people make in the consumer experience journey and how marketers can better understand and target their consumers.

Understanding is the Key

The consumer experience journey, also known as the customer journey, is the road map of a consumer’s (or customer’s) experience of interacting with a brand or service. McKinsey & Company (McKinsey), a consulting firm in the US, stated that consumers, who are increasingly well-informed, play a prominent role in a company’s marketing success. McKinsey proposed a circular consumer model characterized by “two-way dialogue” (Figure 1) and emphasized that “while touch points matter, it’s the full journey that really counts.”1 “Touch points” here refers to the ways in which a consumer interacts with a business or brand.

In the past, marketers played a dominant role in the communication process from the brand’s perspective; it is now time for brands to see things from the consumer’s perspective. “Companies should not be thinking only about how to reach consumers and what to say to them to get them to make purchases,” said Lee. “Companies should consider their consumers’ entire experience journey, from what motivates them to how they search for information, and from purchase to repeat purchase, making sure that consumers’ needs at each stage are well taken care of. The goal is to create a consistent, satisfying, and enjoyable experience for customers throughout their journey.”

However, this is easier said than done.

“This is getting harder, because consumers are getting more sophisticated and demanding, with better education and higher disposable income,” Lee explained. “They are able to connect not only with companies (brands) but also with other consumers through social media. All of these challenges make it difficult, yet increasingly important, for companies to create an enticing consumer experience journey.”

Without considering consumers’ motivation, cognition, and emotion in their experience journey, companies are likely to fail. Lee pointed out that apart from product knowledge and attitudes regarding a brand, other factors influence consumers’ purchase and brand choice decisions.

The hierarchy of needs theory proposed by the psychologist Abraham MASLOW in 1943 may offer some clues. According to this theory, human needs can be classified into three major types: basic (physiological, safety), psychological (love and belonging), and self-fulfillment (esteem and self-actualization). People take certain actions to fulfill these needs (Figure 2). Marketers frequently draw on Maslow’s hierarchy to develop their advertisements targeting consumers’ needs at different levels of the hierarchy.

“It turns out that the basic needs of food, water and shelter continue to drive people’s consumption behavior in the form of self-regulatory goals long after these basic physiological needs are satisfied,” said Lee. Regulatory focus theory, a theory of motivation and self-regulation proposed by Prof. E. Tory HIGGINS, suggests that people’s fundamental need for nurturance fosters a promotion goal, while their fundamental need for safety is conducive to a prevention goal.

These two distinct types of regulatory focus—promotion and prevention—influence people’s decisions, according to Higgins. Those with a promotional focus are goal-oriented and sensitive to positive outcomes, and they prioritize advancement and achievement, whereas those with a prevention focus tend to be vigilant, seeking safety and security, and focus on duties, obligations, and responsibilities.2

“Nurturance needs give us a promotion goal, whereas security needs give us a prevention goal,” Lee explained. “Together, these goals form the ‘self-regulatory goals’ that guide our behaviors to serve fundamental needs and, most importantly, achieve our consumption goals.” Taking the example of buying a car, Lee suggested that buyers with a salient promotion goal will focus on the car’s performance, whereas those with a salient prevention goal will pay more attention to its safety features.

Figure 1

Figure 2

An Ongoing Process

With a consumption goal, are consumers ready to open their wallets? Not necessarily.

Lee explained that once a consumption goal has been recognized, what comes next is the information search stage, in which consumers search for information on different options. “At this stage, it’s useful for companies to understand what influences consumers’ search behavior and attitude formation. It is important to know that their decisions are affected by their thinking (cognition), their thoughts about thinking (metacognition), and their feelings (emotion).”

“Cognition is about processing and interpreting information about the product, which is simple and straightforward,” said Lee. In contrast, “metacognition is thinking about one’s thinking processes.” If something is easy to process, we may think that it is more truthful or likable. As consumers, we often attribute the ease of processing information to certain characteristics of the product, such as aesthetics or efficacy. Lee went on to explain that feelings and emotions influence purchase decisions by affecting the way people think, and by motivating them in different ways. “For example,” she said, “happiness prompts people to think more abstractly, whereas sadness makes people think more concretely.” As abstract thinking facilitates the processing of similarities, happy consumers are more likely to perceive a line extension as similar to the parent brand. They will also be more satisfied with their second choice should their first choice not be available. “Emotions are also motivating,” noted Lee. “Negative emotions motivate us to do things that make us feel better, and positive emotions motivate us to do things to keep feeling good.”

However, companies must not assume that nurturing and encouraging a positive attitude toward their brand will necessarily induce consumers to choose their brand, as there are other factors in the consumer decision journey that affect the purchase of goods and services. Likewise, companies should not think that the more choices, the merrier. Lee described a study conducted in a supermarket to illustrate that sometimes less is more.

“There were either 6 varieties or 24 varieties of jam on the display stands. The stand with more varieties attracted more customers to approach and check out the jam, but fewer customers bought them. While fewer customers visited the 6 varieties stand, ultimately many of them made a purchase.” This experiment showed that although an extensive selection sounds attractive, it may result in a choice overload effect, a cognitive process in which decision making becomes impossible due to the availability of too many options.

Furthermore, customers’ purchase decisions do not always reflect their true preferences. Lee explained that sometimes preferences are based on misperception. In another study, people estimated a hamburger with a side of broccoli had fewer calories than the hamburger alone. “This shows that choice is affected by what and how options are presented,” said Lee.

To marketers, consumers making a purchase may seem like a milestone. However, it is not the end of the consumer experience journey. Lee pointed out that encouraging people to buy again and become loyal customers is crucial to the brand’s success in the long run.

“Loyal customers are those who feel connected with the brand; they think that the brand represents them well, and the brand becomes part of their self-identity. Studies have shown that if consumers strongly identify with a brand, such that it is in effect a ‘part’ of them, they will defend the brand if it is under attack.”

Lee stressed that other factors, such as cultural, environmental, and individual differences and experiences, all play a part in how consumers make purchase decisions and how they engage with products and brands. Therefore, it is vital for marketers to align their marketing and communication strategies to cater to their customers’ fundamental needs, and appeal to their thinking and feeling at different stages in the consumer experience journey, creating a path on which marketers and consumers travel side by side.

Prof. Angela Y. LEE

Prof. Lee received her BBA in Marketing and Travel Industry Management from the University of Hawaii, an MPhil in Economics from the University of Hong Kong, and a PhD in Management from the University of Toronto. She joined the marketing faculty at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University in 1995 and is currently the Mechthild Esser Nemmers Professor of Marketing. Her expertise is in consumer learning, emotions and goals.

With research focuses on consumer motivation and affect, cross-cultural consumer psychology, and nonconscious influences of memory on judgment and choice, Lee’s publications appear in both marketing and psychology journals and she is the co-editor of Kellogg on China (Northwestern University Press, 2004). She was the recipient of the 2006 Stanley Reiter Best Paper Award for her research on self-regulation and persuasion, and the 2002 Otto Klineberg Award for the best paper on international and intercultural relations. She currently serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Marketing Research. She is a past president of the Association for Consumer Research and serves on the board of the American Marketing Association.

In 2009 and 2015, Lee was elected to be a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology and a Fellow of American Psychological Society respectively. She was also named as Marketing Science Institute’s (MSI) Young Scholar in 2001.