Sunday, November 13, 2011

Top Ten Trends in Consumer Research

Dr. Preeti Krishnan | IBS Bangalore

Top Ten Trends in Consumer Research

“…in the arc of time, consumer behaviour and the ideology of consumption have diffused across the world to every corner, to virtually every individual, to such an astonishing scale that living and consuming are more complexly interdependent than at any other time in human history.” - David Glen Mick
Consumer research endeavours to gain an understanding of the beliefs, emotions, attitudes, preferences, behavioural intentions, and behaviours of individuals. This paper endeavours to present the top 10 global trends in research on consumers as gathered by the author through extensive readings. The objective is to assist marketers and researchers to gain a fresh perspective on where the research is headed across the world.
The following are the top 10 (randomly arranged) trends and directions of consumer research.

1 Consumer Welfare Agenda:

This is the research focus of the US-based Association of Consumer Research (ACR) under the banner of ‘transformative consumer research’. A special roundtable session titled “Disseminating Transformative Consumer Research: Getting Research Results Out of the Tower and Into Consumers’ Lives” was conducted at the ACR 2006 Conference at Florida, USA.

Questions addressed included: (a) Where, how, and to whom should our research findings be communicated? (b) Who should/could be involved in dissemination of the findings? (c) How can relationships be leveraged to facilitate the information dissemination? Research that would benefit consumers has been strongly encouraged by ACR.

Topics related to consumer health, obesity, anti-smoking, etc., have earned a higher probability of presentations and publications. There has been a growing number of journal articles on such topics – some examples are as follows: on eating patterns: paper by Khare and Inman; on credit cards: Bernthal, Crockett, and Rose; on products as remedies: Bolton, Cohen, and Bloom; on anti-drinking: Szykman, Bloom, and Blazing; on health: Moorman.

2 Combining Ideas across Domains:
This is not a novel ‘ground breaking’ trend. Much of consumer research has always been about drawing an idea from one domain and applying it in another. For instance, the placebo effect in medical sciences has been applied to consumer behaviour in the following two journal papers: Shiv, Carmon, and Ariely and Irmak, Block, and Fitzsimons. Such a trend is expected to continue. In another instance, a paper by Ferraro, Shiv, and Bettman on mortality salience was apparently triggered by them reading a Wall Street Journal article about people going off diets after the 9/11 tragedy in USA.

3 Dual-Process Theories of Processing – Integrating the Conscious with the Non-conscious:

Conscious processing involves controlled, rule-based, serial, and aware processing constrained by the working memory. In contrast, non-conscious processing involves automatic, unaware, parallel, rapid, and associative processing by the consumer. Several scholars such as Chartrand and Bargh have noted the ubiquity of non-conscious processing.

This idea has led to much research in both consumer behaviour and psychology (e.g., non-conscious goal pursuit, mimicry, priming effects on behaviour, etc.). More recently, it has been argued that much of consumer behaviour is driven by non-conscious processes. It is believed that combining ideas from non-conscious and conscious research domains can be very fruitful (instead of choosing the one that might be most ‘truthful’ between the two).
4 Neuroscience and Consumer Behaviour:

Sophisticated Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) scans are used in consumer research to identify the brain sections that are triggered during consumption experience. For instance, researchers have combined ideas from neuroscience and brand relationships, using fMRI, to examine how consumers respond to people vs. brands.

ACR hosted a pre-conference titled “Exploring How Neuroscience Can Inform Consumer Research” to explore how neuroscience could inform consumer behaviour and decision-making and to discuss how neuro-imaging would complement other research methods to advance understanding of consumers. Even though not every researcher would be able to access such a methodology, the trend is expected to continue in the years ahead.

5 ‘Affect plus Cognition’ Models of Consumer Behaviour:

There were two critical paradigmatic shifts one in the 1980s and the other in 2001 that have inspired research in emotions/feelings/affect. These shifts are:

a. Experiential Consumption: The study of consumer behaviour has evolved from an early emphasis on rational choice (microeconomics and classical decision theory) to a focus on apparently irrational buying needs to the use of logical flow models of bounded rationality.
b. Feelings Guide Consumer Judgment and Decision-Making: People often make evaluative judgments by monitoring their feelings toward the target which serves as diagnostic pathway to evaluation in judgment and decision making.

Research on affect has now become the ‘in-thing.’ Every ACR and Society for Consumer Psychology conference now has sessions allotted to consumer affect and its impact of choice, coping, etc. The study of emotions as mediators, moderators, motivators, and measures in the consumption process will stay as a research focus in the years ahead.
6 Consumer Research using Visual and Digital Media and Methods:

Research will be conducted using visual techniques – video recording, movies, documentaries, etc. – data collection, presentation, and special issues. ACR conducts regular ‘film festival’ (devoted to research using film technology). There has been a growth in publications that will provide options for ‘visual’ journal articles – not plain text. For example, the journal Consumption, Markets, and Culture which was started in 2005 provides, apart from the text version, a DVD presentation of the research as an accompaniment or a complement to the text. Efforts have been made to provide an overview of video-graphic methods of consumer research.

7 Research on Vulnerable Populations:

Adolescents and children are classified as vulnerable consumers. This section of the population is a growing research priority as they represent the next generation of customers. Recent trends in research involving children include evaluating how children in single-parent households make decisions on consumption on the basis of love, how children process “on sale” and discounts, etc. The ACR doctoral consortium 2004 had a session devoted to the impact of advertising on vulnerable populations. For example, Richard Netemeyer spoke on childhood obesity and positive ad-based campaigns, and Connie Pechmann raised the question – would adolescent-focused antismoking messages within TV shows be effective or would these messages have a boomerang effect?

8 A New Paradigm in Consumer Well-Being – ‘Focus on the Positive’:

Popular well-being related topics in consumer research have revolved around topics such as compulsive consumption, materialism, obesity, nutrition, and health, smoking and substance abuse, hyper-choice, and disadvantaged populations. From this list, it appears that consumer well-being has focused on human weakness, inability to make good decisions, unhappiness, and negative consequences (perhaps because we take our cues from psychology which primarily studies maladaptive behaviors such as depression, anxiety, anger, schizophrenia, fear, etc.). However, the discipline of psychology itself is undergoing a new paradigmatic shift. There is a move towards positive psychology which is predicated on the principle of human strength and the ability to do well, flourish, etc.

For example, Seligman (2002) mentioned that it is not sufficient to just cure depression to keep one from committing suicide, but to provide positive reasons for living as well. Popular topics include: wisdom, creativity, resiliency, hope and optimism, positive esteem and efficacy, sharing and caring, compassion, spirituality and forgiveness, love, gratitude, positive emotion, courage, honesty and trust, open mindedness, future mindedness, etc.

Consumer research has seen a similar shift towards positive consumer psychology. Though such research is still limited, we should see a move towards the positive. Here is a sample of recent research -- Hope: Krishnan (2011), MacInnis and De Mello (2005); Positive Emotion: Roehm and Roehm (2005); Creativity: Moreau and Dahl (2005).

9 Techno-Culture as a Research Domain:

Technology is the new ‘habitat for humanity’ – Technology increasingly pervades our lives through new gadgets and machines, mediating our relation to nature, the social environment, and other beings. Tasks that were once done by humans are being executed by machines. Face to face social life is replaced with commercially and technologically mediated communities.

The growing availability of consumer-generated information on the Internet about products, services, and companies has increased market transparency. Power is shifting from producers to consumers who share their knowledge, experiences, and opinions. Nevertheless, the Internet is only one aspect of the techno-culture. There is an entire plethora of gadgets and gizmos in the market that have changed the way people interact, relate, and buy/use products. For example: mp3 players, games, mobile technology, etc.

10 Online Commercial Behaviour:

The Internet has revolutionized the way people buy products and services. The vast and easy availability of information has made the consumers, perhaps, more po werful than the suppliers. This will continue to have managerial as well as research meaning. There has been substantial research in this area in the last decade and will continue to be an important domain in the years to come.

However, there needs to be more research on consumers who operate in ‘dual environments,’ i.e., online as well as offline. Important research streams include internet pricing, multi-channel retailing, online recommendations and word of mouth, customization, information search and decision making, priming and atmospherics, haptics and virtual product representation, click-stream modelling, internet advertising, trust, etc.

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