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Unconscious Mental Processes in Consumer Choice: Toward a New Model of Consumer Behavior

  • Sublime Behavior Marketing

Abstract and Figures

Theories of consumer behavior often posit that consumers are rational agents making conscious decisions about the branded products and services they purchase and use. It is assumed that consumer decisions are preceded by an explicit formation of attitudes and needs that determine the brand of choice. However, research from the domain of automaticity proposes that the majority, if not all, of human behavior either begins as an unconscious process or occurs completely outside of conscious awareness. These automatic processes, including behavioral mimicry, trait and stereotype activation, and nonconscious goal pursuit, also impact attitudes, beliefs and goals without engaging consumers’ conscious minds. Habits, a special type of automaticity, are behaviors completely controlled by contextual stimuli; habits occur outside of goals and intentions. In light of the evidence for the primacy of unconscious behavior, this article proposes a new model of consumer behavior that dynamically incorporates both conscious and unconscious mental processes to represent how consumers make brand decisions in the context of their daily lives.
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© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Neale Martin
Management & Entrepreneurship
Department, 1000 Chastain Rd.,
Kennesaw, Georgia 30144-5591,
O r i g i n a l A r t i c l e
U n c o n s c i o u s m e n t a l p r o c e s s e s i n
consumer choice: Toward a new
model of consumer behavior
Received (in revised form): 15 th January 2011
Neale Martin
is a Professor of Innovation Management at the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta,
Georgia, and CEO of Sublime Behavior Marketing, a consulting and education fi rm. His book Habit: The 95 % of
Behavior Marketers Ignore updates the principles of marketing in light of research from cognitive psychology and
neuroscience that suggest that most of human behavior is under the sway of unconscious habits. As a speaker,
trainer and consultant, Martin has been helping companies adjust their strategic marketing in the face of rapid change
since 1995.
Kyle Morich
is the co-founder and Vice President of Sublime Behavior Marketing and has worked as the primary editor and
researcher for Neale Martin s book Habit: The 95 % of Behavior Marketers Ignore . Morich graduated from the Goizueta
Business School at Emory University in Atlanta, and before founding Sublime spent several years as a management
consultant specializing in product segmentation analysis and marketing organization optimization for clients in the
consumer packaged goods industry. He is also an amateur triathlete, and completed his fi rst Half-Ironman distance race
in the fall of 2010.
ABSTRACT Theories of consumer behavior often posit that consumers are rational
agents making conscious decisions about the branded products and services they
purchase and use. It is assumed that consumer decisions are preceded by an explicit
formation of attitudes and needs that determine the brand of choice. However,
research from the domain of automaticity proposes that the majority, if not all,
of human behavior either begins as an unconscious process or occurs completely
outside of conscious awareness. These automatic processes, including behavioral
mimicry, trait and stereotype activation, and nonconscious goal pursuit, also impact
attitudes, beliefs and goals without engaging consumers conscious minds. Habits, a
special type of automaticity, are behaviors completely controlled by contextual stimuli;
habits occur outside of goals and intentions. In light of the evidence for the primacy
of unconscious behavior, this article proposes a new model of consumer behavior that
dynamically incorporates both conscious and unconscious mental processes to
represent how consumers make brand decisions in the context of their daily lives.
Journal of Brand Management advance online publication, 18 March 2011;
doi: 10.1057/bm.2011.10
Keywords: consumer behavior ; habits ; unconscious behavior ; marketing ; branding ;
consumer behavior model
Martin and Morich
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
in modeling a wide variety of complex
systems from the weather to cotton prices
( Lorenz, 1993 ). We argue that the prepon-
derance of marketing concepts, theories of
consumer behavior and models of both
have been profoundly shaped by the
assumption of a conscious consumer built
into Howard and Sheth’s (1969) original
work. This assumption was perceived as the
normative interpretation of the human
condition until countervailing research
from the past 10 to 15 years began to reveal
that human behavior often occurs outside
conscious awareness and intent.
In the rst part of this article, we will
review the implications of this primal
assumption on the eld of marketing. In
the next section, we will review research
from numerous disciplines that conclusively
demonstrates the fallacy that consumers
are primarily rational agents making con-
scious decisions. The subsequent section
proposes a new model of consumer behavior
that dynamically incorporates both con-
scious and unconscious mental processes
in both purchase and use.
The implications of the assumption
of the rational, cognitive consumer
The pervasiveness of Howard and Sheth s
original assumption of a rational consumer
can be seen in current textbooks on
marketing and consumer behavior:
The consumer decision making process . When
buying products, consumers generally follow
the consumer decision-making process:
(1) need recognition, (2) information search,
(3) evaluation of alternatives, (4) purchase, and
(5) postpurchase behavior. ( Lamb et al , 2010 )
We defi ne consumer behavior as the
behavior that consumers display in searching
for, purchasing, using, evaluating, and
disposing of products and services that they
expect will satisfy their needs. ( Schiffman
and Kanuk, 2009 )
Chaos theory and academic inertia
First, we assume that buying behavior
is rational in the sense that it is within
the buyer s bounded rationality; that is,
his behavior is rational within the limits
of his cognitive and learning capacities
and within the constraint of limited
information. ( Howard and Sheth , A Theory
of Buyer Behavior (1969))
This initial assumption posited by John
Howard and Jagdish Sheth in their seminal
work A Theory of Buyer Behavior has shaped
and infl uenced the theoretical and practical
approach to consumer behavior for 40
years. The idea that consumers are rational
agents making conscious decisions has
formed the foundations of multiple studies
of consumer behavior ( Bargh, 2002 ), yet
recent research from across multiple disci-
plines clearly demonstrates that most human
behavior is not cognitively motivated and
is instead the result of unconscious mental
processes ( Bargh and Chartrand, 1999 ;
Dijksterhuis et al , 2005 ; Dijksterhuis and
Nordgren, 2006 ; Bargh and Morsella, 2009 ;
Wood and Neal, 2009 ; Dijksterhuis et al ,
in press ). Howard and Sheth s assumption
of rational behavior can be seen as a logical
extension of Homo economicus , a term
widely used in economics for more than a
century to describe the nature of humans
as rational actors narrowly focused on their
own self-interest ( Persky, 1995 ).
A core principle of chaos theory is sen-
sitive dependence on initial conditions
( Gleick, 1987 ). Scientists discovered that
very small differences in the starting point
of a process with numerous iterations create
signifi cant and unpredictable results. The
key insight of chaos theory is that the con-
ditions at the beginning of a complex
process powerfully determine the future
state of the system. Often referred to as the
butterfl y effect, this process has been found
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Unconscious mental processes in consumer choice
The assumption that need recognition is
the beginning of consumer behavior is cer-
tainly logical. This logic appears to be the
way we experience the world. A consumer
becomes aware of a need, and then starts
looking around for ways to fulfi ll that need.
He gets thirsty, goes to the fridge and looks
at the cans of soda, jugs of water, containers
of juice and bottles of beer and decides
which product would best slake his thirst.
Marketers, in turn, create organizational
structures to match this perceived reality.
Market research affects what features and
benefi ts consumers are seeking in their bev-
erage choices by surveying the preferences
of thousands of people each year. Product
Development works tirelessly to create the
attributes that market research identifi es
as critical to consumers, and then tests these
concepts out on subjects. Once a con-
vincing majority of test subjects indicate a
strong willingness to purchase, the new
product is introduced to the marketplace
(under ideal situations anyway). Then
Advertising spends millions of dollars clev-
erly communicating those attributes in an
attempt to make consumers aware of their
unmet needs, infl uence their purchase deci-
sions and induce trial of the new product.
A logical process ow is built around a
logical understanding of how the consumer
behaves . This organizational design around
a rigid understanding of consumer behavior
was not without precedent. Another long-
standing decision-making framework, the
Hierarchy of Effects ( Attention, Interest,
Desire and Action ), was designed less as a
concrete map of consumer behavior but as
a means to standardize the tactics of sales-
people. From Frederick Sheldon, author of
the Art of Selling : the customer is
persuaded to make a purchase because you
follow the right method. You do not try
to make him take action before you have
stimulated his desire; and you do not try
to create desire until you have secured his
interest (see Barry, 1987 ).
But what if consumer behavior is not
the result of a consciously perceived need?
What if the behavior of going to the fridge
and grabbing a cold bottle of beer was a
completely unconscious process, driven by
automatic responses to stimulus cues within
the environmental context? What if rational
thought and perception of a satisfi ed need
only showed up later in a process that psy-
chologists refer to as post hoc rationalization?
Signifi cant research across multiple disci-
plines indicates that this scenario the
consumer is not consciously aware of his
actions is the more likely case.
This counterintuitive reality in which
unconscious processes drive the majority of
daily behavior calls into question the very
foundation of our traditional marketing
approach. Surveying consumers assumes
that they can consciously identify why they
choose a particular beverage, they are aware
of the attributes and the critical thresholds
for those attributes, and even remember
what they chose. If the information uncov-
ered by market research is unreliable, then
product developers may create the wrong
product. And all the money spent on adver-
tising is falling on deaf ears and blind eyes
of unconscious consumers engrained in
their habitual shopping behaviors.
Post-purchase evaluation must also be
questioned. Satisfaction of needs and wants
is often used as the very defi nition of mar-
keting ( Chartered Institute of Marketing,
2010 ). The current assumption is that the
consumer considers her options, makes a
conscious choice and then evaluates whether
this choice resulted in a satisfactory out-
come. But if the purchase or usage behavior
was not driven by conscious intent, then
how useful is measuring satisfaction?
Marketers defi ne satisfaction in terms of
a confi rmation or disconfi rmation of expec-
tations ( Fornell, 1996 ). If a product or
service matches expectations, it results in
satisfaction. A failure to meet expectations
results in dissatisfaction; and if a product
Martin and Morich
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Fearing the unknown
Discussions of the unconscious motivations
and behaviors of consumers tend to invoke
Vance Packards 1957 book The Hidden Per-
suaders and the purported success of James
Vicary s subliminal advertising carried out
in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Vicary stated that
he had fl ashed words on the movie screen
at 1 / 3000 of second ( Drink Coca Cola ,
and Hungry? Eat Popcorn ), and the sales
of soda increased by 57.8 and 18.1 per cent,
respectively. Although this experiment was
later found to be a hoax and attempts to
replicate the experiment showed little to
no impact of subliminal messages, the
lasting effect has been an inherent distrust
of consumer research that deals with the
unconscious mind ( Bargh, 2002 ). It is not
uncommon today to see pejorative references
to the study of unconscious consumer
behavior, such as brandwashing , within
major publications such as the New York
Times (for example, Singer, 2010 ).
Unconscious behavior associates fre-
quently with studies of our brain s primitive
stimulus response reactions, such as condi-
tioning a subject to blink automatically to
a tone that had been previously paired with
a puff-of-air to the eye ( Woodruff-Pak and
Steinmetz, 2000 ). Other popular descrip-
tions of the brain s unconscious processes
include emotional ( LeDoux, 1996 ) and
irrational ( Ariely, 2008 ) terms that mini-
mize the importance, richness and com-
plexity of mental processes that are not
available to unconscious inspection. The
popular portrayal of the unconscious as
illogical and unable to handle exible, com-
plex decision making, combined with the
regular assertion that attempts to infl uence
these nonconcious processes is manipula-
tive and immoral, has hindered the expan-
sion of unconscious research into commercial,
consumer-centered applications. As such,
exceeds expectation, a consumer might be
very satisfi ed. Achieving customer satisfac-
tion is believed important to getting repeat
purchase and loyalty ( Fornell, 2007 ). How-
ever, after years of prioritizing customer
satisfaction, there is little evidence to sup-
port the linkage between satisfaction and
future behavior ( Neal, 1999 ).
The only measure of satisfaction that
seems to predict repurchase is delight , a
mercurial measure at best. If delight results
from exceeding expectations, consumers
likely revise their expectations in light of
this feedback, making the future chance
of failing to meet expectations more and
more certain. But because delight in u-
ences repurchase positively, many compa-
nies have delighting customers as part of
their advertising, not realizing that elevating
customer expectation makes delight that
much more diffi cult to achieve.
Once again, the realization that the
consumer s behavior is not the result of
conscious intention explains much of satis-
faction s shortcomings. If a particular con-
sumer behavior was unconscious, there was
no preliminary setting of expectations to
compare against product performance.
The fl awed assumption of ever-conscious
decision making is not limited to marketers;
consumers assume the same thing as well.
Researchers asking consumers about their
preferences, intentions to purchase and
satisfaction will receive answers. Unfortu-
nately, for these researchers, the bulk of
these responses represent the post hoc ration-
alization of the consumer, an attempt to
rationally explain behavior that was largely
unconscious ( Dijksterhuis et al , in press ).
Need recognition, search, evaluation and
satisfaction are all natural extensions of the
idea that consumers are rational agents
making conscious decisions to purchase and
use products. The infl uences of these con-
cepts are pervasive through every aspect of
marketing and are implicated in some of
marketing s most persistent shortcomings.
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Unconscious mental processes in consumer choice
the majority of consumer research remains
focused on consciously motivated and
deliberately executed purchase and usage
decisions ( Bargh, 2002 ).
In reality, consciousness is, in evolu-
tionary terms, notably late to the informa-
tion-processing party. For millions of years,
unconscious systems controlled intelligent
life ( Steen, 2007 ). Subjective experience
from within a conscious system prevents us
from truly imaging an unconscious life ,
yet each day trillions of creatures, including
humans, perform a wide range of behaviors
unconsciously ( Bargh and Morsella, 2009 ).
Defi ning consciousness itself proves to be
a diffi cult task, with philosophers and neu-
roscientists alike struggling to understand
its limits, qualities and the extent of its con-
trol over our actions ( Dennett, 1991 ; Crick
and Koch, 1998 ). Although arguments on
the nature of consciousness are valuable, for
the purposes of this article we agree with
Steen’s (2007) general de nition of con-
sciousness as a combination of attention,
perception, memory and, most importantly,
As mentioned in the introduction, the
cognitive bias of consumer research begins
with need recognition as the starting point
for consumer behavior. Continuing through
the purchase process, market researchers
then assume that before people buy, choose
or decide on a product or service, they
engage in conscious information processing
( Chaiken, 1980 ; Petty et al , 1983 ). Informa-
tion processing then may lead to attitude
formation, and those attitudes, in turn, to
decisions. Although useful, the assumption
of information processing is also dangerous.
Painting a picture of a conscious shopper
basing her decisions on the pros and cons
of a product and service ( Dijksterhuis et al ,
2005 ) removes or dramatically minimizes the
possibility of variables outside of conscious
awareness infl uencing or motivating behavior.
Minimizing the infl uence of unconscious
behavior as a factor in consumer decision
making ignores millions of years of brain
evolution ( Steen, 2007 ). Our human ances-
tors used their conscious minds to hunt,
whereas their unconscious minds moni-
tored the surroundings for danger and
predators. The same dual-brain systems
exist today, only now we use our conscious
mind to talk on the phone, whereas our
unconscious minds drive our two-ton auto-
mobiles down crowded highways ( Martin,
2007 ). As much as unconscious behavior
may imply a lack of control or, to some, a
denial of free will, we could not survive
without it.
Over the past three decades, researchers
across multiple disciplines have greatly
improved our understanding of uncon-
scious behavior, yet consumer research
continues to rely on models that support
consciously made, deliberate choices and
decisions. The integration of unconscious
research into models of the consumer deci-
sion-making process is long overdue.
Applying automaticity to consumer
Unconscious behavior, by defi nition, is not
available to direct conscious introspection.
The study of automaticity , or the automatic
processes executed by the unconscious
mind, focuses on how environmental
features (A) trigger automatic processes (B)
that result in some outcome (C) ( Figure 1 ).
According to Bargh (1994) , automatic
behavior is defi ned by four components: a
lack of awareness, unintentionally initiated,
effi cient and effortless, and out of personal
control. However, not all four need to be
present for a process to be automatic, and
they rarely are. An accomplished guitar
player does not need to consciously mon-
itor his strumming; the play is automatic
(marked by effi ciency). He is, however,
certainly aware that he is playing the guitar,
started playing on purpose and could stop
at any time.
Martin and Morich
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
We will introduce research from two
broad areas of automaticity that directly
affect the study of consumer behavior. We
will review some of the automatic processes
that unconsciously impact the attitudes,
beliefs and goals that lead to consumer
outcomes. We will also discuss habits, a
certain type of automaticity that generates
unconscious behaviors outside of goals and
Automatic processes that impact
attitudes, beliefs and goals
New product introductions fail at a spec-
tacular rate of 80 per cent ( Cooper, 2001 ),
whereas the best companies manage to get
their success rates somewhere around 50
per cent. Understanding the factors that
drive consumer purchase decisions is the
Holy Grail for marketers, brand managers
and product designers. A blueprint of a
consumer s attitudes, beliefs and goals
would provide endless opportunities to
create the perfect products and services
and deliver billions of dollars in annual
Yet the tools market researchers prima-
rily deploy, such as surveys, focus groups
and laboratory tests, rely on consumers to
consciously access and explain their opin-
ions and needs. Some researchers are begin-
ning to incorporate observation techniques
and deep interviewing to access insights
beyond the conscious level. And as automa-
ticity research has demonstrated, consumers
often do not have access to the internal
mechanisms that drive their decisions.
The average grocery store is a building
with nearly 50 000 square feet of space and
over 45 000 SKUs on its shelves (see the
Food Marketing Institute, 2008 ). A fully
conscious consumer, rationally assessing her
needs before making a decision (comparing
prices, evaluating food labels, considering
alternatives and so on), would be quickly
overwhelmed by sensory overload and cog-
nitive limitations. Yet in an average shop-
ping trip, a mom needs just 25 min to
identify and purchase the 30 or so items
she needs. All but a few of these items have
likely been purchased with very little
awareness into the processes that drove her
decisions. These choices are introspectively
blank ( Dijksterhuis et al , 2005 ). This cog-
nitive effi ciency occurs over time as behav-
iors are repeated in stable contexts.
Bargh (1994) describes three categoriza-
tions for lack of awareness. First, the person
is unaware of the stimulus that drove the
process. Second, the person does not know
how the stimulus is interpreted and catego-
rized. Third, the person is unaware of what
specifi cally infl uenced his judgments and
feelings and mistakenly applies some other
salient cause that she is aware of. The
problem with consumer research is that
consumers often fall into this third category.
A shopper will rarely indicate that she
does not know why she purchased a
certain brand of detergent or chose apples
instead of oranges. She will more likely
come up with a plausible reason that may
have had no actual impact on her purchase
Features (A)
Processes (B) Outcome (C)
Social situations
Other people
Attitude activation
Evaluation & emotion
Behavioral mimicry
Trait & stereotype activation
Nonconscious goal pursuit
Figure 1 : The diagram of automatic behavior ( Chartrand, 2005 ).
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Unconscious mental processes in consumer choice
Three particular forms of automaticity
behavioral mimicry, trait and stereotype
activation, and nonconscious goal pursuit
indicate that consumer attitudes, beliefs
and goals can be modifi ed or changed
through environmental features and other
factors outside conscious control.
Behavioral mimicry
Laboratory experiments, PET scans and
fMRI have found evidence for mirror
neurons , groups of neurons that become
active when we perceive the behavior of
another. These neurons activate the same
areas of the premotor cortex that are active
when we perform the behaviors ourselves
( Fadiga et al , 1995 ; Decety and Grezes,
1999 ; Iacoboni et al , 1999 ).
As our behavior and our perception of
others behavior co-occupy many of the
same brain regions, perception often affects
our behavior directly and unconsciously.
Called the Perception Behavior Link , we
very often do what we see ( Dijksterhuis and
Bargh, 2001 ). This link affects behaviors
ranging from basic motor movements to
elaborate intrapersonal behavior patterns
( Dijksterhuis et al , 2005 ). One form of imi-
tation is the automatic mimicry of the
observable behavior of others.
Mimicry occurs throughout almost every
facet of human interaction. We imitate
speech, facial expressions, postures and
gestures ( Chartrand et al , 2005 ). We mimic
the laughter of others ( Young and Frye,
1966 ), and although we deride the tackiness
of television shows that use canned
laughter to punctuate their jokes, laugh
tracks induce more laughter from viewers
( Bush et al , 1989 ). The clich é on how
yawning is contagious is actually true
( Provine, 1986 ), and we wince when we
see others in pain ( Bavelas et al
, 1987 ).
Infants two to three weeks old imitate
simple movements such as sticking out their
tongues and blinking their eyes ( Meltzoff
and Moore, 1977, 1983 ). In turn, mothers
mimic their babies, opening their mouths
as their babies begin to feed ( O Toole and
Dubin, 1968 ). Mimicry also occurs between
complete strangers. Chartrand and Bargh
(1999) paired strangers in a discussion on
photographs and had confederates either
rub their face or shake their foot. Partici-
pants paired with face-rubbing confederates
rubbed their faces more and those paired
with foot-shaking confederates were more
likely to shake their feet. Participants were
unaware they were mimicking the other
It appears that mimicry almost functions
as social glue , binding groups together
and encouraging harmonious relationships
( Lakin et al , 2003 ). It increases our liking
and rapport in our relationships ( Chartrand
and Bargh, 1999 ), as well as how we treat
others. Van Baaren et al (2003) conducted
an experiment in a restaurant environment
to examine how verbal mimicry would
infl uence the diners tipping of their
waitresses. They discovered that when a
waitress mimicked her customers (by
repeating their orders word-for-word), she
received signifi cantly higher tips than when
she did not (by paraphrasing their orders).
Mimicry also impacts consumption.
Johnston (2002) demonstrates that people
tend to eat more ice cream when someone
across the table from them eats a larger por-
tion of ice cream. But the more important
question for marketers is does mimicry
infl uence a consumer s preference for a
product? In another consumption experi-
ment ( Tanner et al , 2008 ), participants had
two bowls of snacks in front of them (gold-
sh crackers and animal crackers). A con-
federate across the table also had these two
snack options. When the confederate ate
more goldfi sh crackers, the subject tended
to eat more goldfi sh, and when the con-
federate ate more animal crackers, the sub-
ject consumed more animal crackers.
What s more, the subjects indicated a higher
Martin and Morich
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
either politeness or rudeness , and were
then told to go speak with another exper-
imenter in another room. Upon fi nding
the experimenter engaged in conversation
with another person, those primed with
rudeness were more likely to interrupt
his conversation than those primed with
politeness . In another study ( Zemack-
Rugar et al , 2007 ), participants were primed
with the emotions of guilt and sadness
to determine whether the emotional con-
cepts could infl uence shopping indulgence.
Despite feeling no affect on their moods,
participants primed with sadness words
were more likely to indulge in a personal
item (such as a CD / DVD player) than
those primed with guilty words (who
purchased more responsible items, like
school supplies). In an attempt to impact
mental performance, Dijksterhuis and van
Knippenberg (1998) primed some of their
participants with the stereotypes of college
professors ( intelligent words). With the
concept of intelligence subliminally
primed, participants tended to perform
better on a set of questions taken from
Trivial Pursuit, answering more questions
correctly than those who had not been
primed. On the contrary, when the stere-
otype of soccer hooligans had been primed
( low intelligence ), participants performed
Bargh et al s experiments with elderly words
and Dijksterhuis and van Knippenberg s con-
trast of professors and soccer hooligans
show that an individual tends to assimilate
the behavior traits of a different group
when exposed to stereotypes of that group.
We actually see the opposite effect when
an individual is exposed to the traits of
another individual. In a recreation of the
Bargh experiment by Dijksterhuis et al
(1998) , individuals primed with a specifi c
example of an elderly individual (in this
case, the Dutch Queen Mother) walked
faster than the control group. This behav-
ioral contrast occurs because our brains
preference for the cracker choice they mim-
icked, regardless of previous preferences.
The study of mimicry indicates that there
is a basal human instinct to copy the
behavior of those around us. This imitation
occurs unconsciously and can even sway
our opinions and preferences toward other
objects and people. Consumer research that
does not account for mimicry is missing a
fundamental process that drives consumer
attitudes and behavior.
Trait and stereotype activation
Perception of others behavior often goes
beyond simple mimicry, activating traits
and stereotypes automatically. Referred
to by social psychologists as priming , the
activation of these higher-level constructs can
lead to subsequent behaviors ( Dijksterhuis
et al , 2005 ).
The classic study of priming on behavior
( Bargh et al , 1996 ) exposed some partici-
pants to words related to older people, such
as gray, bingo or Florida . These prime words
were exposed subliminally, through the use
of a scrambled sentence language task.
Upon completion of the task, the partici-
pants were told the experiment was over
and instructed to exit the room and walk
to the elevator to leave the building.
Unknown to the participants, a confederate
observed the participants and timed how
long it took them to leave the offi ce and
reach the elevator. The data showed that
those primed with the words relating to
older people took longer to walk down
the hall than those who completed neutral
language tasks. The participants displayed
behavior that incorporated the elderly
Other priming examples show that this
subconscious activation of traits can have a
wide infl uence on our behavior, emotion
and mental performance. In another exper-
iment by Bargh et al (1996) , participants
were primed with words that described
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Unconscious mental processes in consumer choice
implicitly compare its traits with that of
the primed example. We tend to naturally
contrast ourselves with individuals we see
as different from us.
The researchers took this fi nding one
step further to determine whether subjects
who identify themselves as part of a group
performed contrasting behavior when
primed with qualities of an opposite group
( Spears et al , 2004 ). The researchers took a
group of Psychology majors and had them
take questionnaires that reinforced their
membership with their group (f o r ex a m p l e ,
Most of my courses are in the Psychology
Dept .). They were then told that they
would be helping with a creativity test ,
where the students had 7 min to color a
picture. They were also told that the
coloring exercise would need to be per-
formed twice for accuracy, and that another
unrelated piece of research from another
experiment would occur during the two
tests to give them a break (apparently, col-
lege students will believe almost anything
for course credit). The buffer experiment
was another scrambled sentence test. One
group of students was told fellow Psych
majors composed the sentences, whereas
the other was told that the sentences came
from Economics majors. Each sentence was
designed to prime the idea of neatness
( Margot sorts her old papers ). Once
completed, the students took the second
coloring test.
What the researchers found is that behav-
ioral contrast can occur at the group level.
The psych students who received the sen-
tence test designed by Economics majors
were primed to perceive Economics majors
as neat. As a result, their second coloring
tests were signifi cantly messier than the
students who got a sentence test built by a
Psych major (measured by how much
coloring occurs outside the lines).
Trait and stereotype priming has impli-
cations for consumer research. Advertisers
often use imagery and written words to
communicate to an audience. Consider
makeup commercials. Would a woman
watching television have a different reac-
tion to a Mabelline commercial featuring
multiple anonymous pretty people rather
than a specifi c celebrity example of beauty?
Perhaps the anonymous approach would
create more feelings of beauty, whereas
comparison to the celebrity would create
the opposite effect ( I m so ugly compared
to her ). Advertising and other mar-
keting methods can have powerful priming
effects, but little research has gone into how
the visual stimuli and written claims sub-
liminally infl uence consumer behavior.
Nonconscious goal pursuit
Priming of certain traits and stereotypes has
provided numerous indications that the
manner in which a consumer performs a
behavior can be affected at an unconscious
level. The third realm of automaticity
research, nonconscious goal pursuit, pro-
vides evidence that goals can also be primed;
that is, the entire path from goal activation
and goal setting to goal completion occurs
without conscious introspection ( Dijksterhuis
et al , 2005 ).
The idea behind nonconscious goal
pursuit began with the observation that
once a goal has been activated, such as
driving to work, the process proceeds auto-
matically ( Bargh, 1990 ). It was argued that,
just like other mental constructs, goals
could be automatically activated by cues
from the environment. Chartrand and
Bargh (1996) tested this notion when they
attempted through unconscious means to
replicate the results of a previous study on
conscious goal activation ( Hamilton et al ,
1980 ). This previous study found that
people process information about others
they meet depending on whether they are
given the goal to form an impression, or
the goal to memorize the information.
Those given the goal to form an impression
Martin and Morich
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
is often associated with creativity and inno-
vation, that personality would subcon-
sciously prime the goal to be more creative.
Analysis found that even though none of
the participants had any idea they had been
primed with the Apple or IBM brand logos,
those who had been primed with the Apple
logo were more creative. Apple-primed
participants came up with more unusual use
ideas and those ideas were independently
judged to be more creative than those
primed with IBM. Brands have personalities,
and these personalities can have an uncon-
scious impact on consumer behavior.
Behavior can be unconsciously infl u-
enced through the perception of others
behavior. We unconsciously assimilate the
traits and stereotypes of others as we per-
form behaviors. Even our goals can become
activated and pursued unconsciously. The
consumer behavior models that posit only
conscious information processing and the
deliberate formation of attitudes, beliefs and
intentions lead to purchase decisions do not
accommodate this reality.
Habits: Behavior on autopilot
Some researchers treat habits and automa-
ticity as the same, but habits distinguish
themselves as a specifi c type of noncon-
scious behavior, which are activated by
environmental cues and occur outside of
goals and intentions. Habits form as the
brain learns through frequent repetitions to
associate particular behaviors (for example,
buying a brand of cereal) with internal (for
example, hunger) or external (for example,
brand name or logo) cues within a partic-
ular contextual situation (for example,
stocking up at the grocery store). In the
future, perception of the context will
directly activate the associated habitual
behavior in memory ( Wood and Neal,
2009 ).
Habits have roots in the neuroscience of
the mind. The brain relegates decisions to
actually remember information about a
person better than those asked to memo-
rize. Chartrand and Bargh also had par-
ticipants meet new people and measured
how well each participant remembered
information about these new acquaintances;
only their experiment contained an impor-
tant difference: the goal of forming an
impression and the goal of memorizing
information were presented subliminally,
through priming. The results were the same
as the previous study. The unconsciously
primed goals had achieved the same effect
as the conscious ones.
Nonconscious goal pursuit has been fur-
ther explored in a number of experiments.
Social goals, such as achievement and
cooperation, can be activated unconsciously
( Bargh et al , 2001 ). Environments also
automatically prime nonconscious goals.
In one study, participants led to believe
they would be visiting a library would
randomly begin whispering ( Aarts and
Dijksterhuis, 2003 ). Goals can be activated
by environmental cues outside conscious
awareness, and they can be pursued uncon-
In a goal-priming experiment that is
perhaps the most applicable to consumers,
Fitzsimons et al (2008) set out to explore
what unconscious infl uence, if any, brand
names could have on goal pursuit. Con-
sumer researchers have found evidence that
consumers instill brands with human-like
qualities ( Aaker, 1997 ), and that it has been
theorized that these brand personalities
can affect consumer behavior in the same
way that the personality traits of other
people impact attitudes and goal pursuit.
The experimenters subliminally primed
participants with either the Apple or IBM
logos. Participants were then given a two-
part test that contained a mindless text
reading exercise and an unusual uses test
( how many ways can you use a paper
clip? ) that measured creativity. The team
hypothesized that because the Apple brand
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Unconscious mental processes in consumer choice
the basal ganglia to free resources up for
the conscious mind for more creative
purposes. Neurological research shows that,
as a behavior is repeated, goal-oriented
structures in the brain have reduced activity
and systems linked to stimulus control and
automatic responses increase in activity.
The brain physically changes while inter-
preting the environment following habit
formation ( Yin and Knowlton, 2006 ).
Human brains shift control of human
behavior to environmental contexts. After
forming a habit, goals, intentions, attitudes
and beliefs have no role in behavioral
Neal et al (2009) demonstrate this in a
clever experiment involving moviegoers
and popcorn. Participants in the study rated
a series of movie trailers. They were also
given a bag of popcorn; some of the pop-
corn was fresh, whereas other bags were
1 week old. Participants who rarely ate
popcorn, predictably, liked the stale pop-
corn less and ate much less than those who
had fresh popcorn. However, participants
who habitually ate popcorn at the movies
were different. Although they expressed a
disliking for the stale popcorn, they still
consumed just as much popcorn as those
with fresh bags. Liking and preference did
not infl uence their consumption; rather,
the movie theater context triggered the
popcorn-eating behavior.
Repetition is a central feature of
consumer life. Consumers buy the same
brands across multiple shopping trips
( Seetharaman, 2004 ), spend the same
amount of money with each visit to a retail
store ( Vogel et al , 2008 ) and eat similar
foods for each meal every day ( Khare and
Inman, 2006 ). Quinn and Wood (2005)
showed that nearly 50 per cent of people s
behavior is repeated almost daily and
usually in the exact same circumstances and
at the same time. And in most situations,
they are thinking about something else at
the time.
Automatic processes drive the bulk of
consumer behavior, and that the majority
of these automatic processes are habits. The
next section proposes a new model of con-
sumer behavior that incorporates habitual
behavior and other automaticity to refl ect
the dynamics, and often unconsciousness,
of consumer behavior.
Into the void
As existing consumer behavior models are
built on the foundation of a conscious agent
making rational decisions (Part 1), and we
now understand this assumption is highly
awed (Part 2), a new model of consumer
behavior is necessary. This section proposes
just such a model. The underlying frame-
work of this model is that of a dynamic
consumer with a rich history of experience
who is utilizing conscious and unconscious
mental processes to accomplish a wide range
of goals.
Most market research focuses narrowly
to answer specifi c questions and to reduce
complexity that might confound the study.
Integrating fi ndings across studies is diffi cult
because there lacks a mechanism to dynam-
ically combine results. Consumer insight
organizations might hire an ethnographer
to study product usage at home, as well as
sponsor research delving into the elasticity
of product pricing, while simultaneously
testing the emotional engagement for a
new product advertisement. Each study
generates signifi cant data with potential for
illuminating discoveries; however, the fi nd-
ings must be considered in isolation because
there is not a single functional model of
consumer behavior that can tie these con-
cepts together.
Most prior research in consumer behavior
has been compromised by incorrect assump-
tions about the underpinnings of consumer
behavior. For decades, companies have
Martin and Morich
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
adding an unconscious element to existing
models is insuffi cient consumer behavior
is not a rigid, linear process. The goal for
creating a new model of consumer behavior
is to provide both academics and practi-
tioners with a model that both ts more
closely to actual behavior and the automatic
processes that drive it. The model provides
a practical method for advancing marketing
theory and practice, while also providing
consumer researchers with an integrated,
holistic view of the consumer.
Level of automation
The central problem with early conceptu-
alizations of consumer behavior is the pre-
supposition of conscious thought preceding
action. Instead of positing the decisive
beginning of consumer behavior as a
conscious evaluation of needs, the Martin-
Morich model begins with a new perspec-
tive on how the consumer behaves in the
wild ( Figure 2 ). To accurately evaluate
relied on consumer insights generated from
surveys, customer interviews and focus
groups. Each of these techniques is inca-
pable of revealing the motivations behind
behaviors that were driven by unconscious
habits consumers cannot consciously
access the part of the brain that initiated
the behavior ( Beilock and Carr, 2001 ;
Foerde et al , 2006 ). When a consumer is
asked a question about the purchase or use
of a product, she assumes that a rational
explanation exists for their behavior and
proceeds to make one up on the spot
( Bem, 1972 ; Neal et al , 2009 ). This biased
information process populates a company s
models, strategies and basic understanding
of its customers and is often unquestioningly
the basis for new product development,
advertising campaigns and merchandising.
Traditional marketing models miss the
dynamic, organic process of human
behavior. Owing to the primacy and
potency of unconscious behavior, simply
Figure 2 : The Martin-Morich model of consumer behavior.
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Unconscious mental processes in consumer choice
consumer behavior, we must rst under-
stand how consciously or unconsciously the
consumer is interacting with the brand,
product, website or store her level of
automaticity. The marketer should assess
the consumer s level of automation along
a continuum of consciousness to uncon-
sciousness that is broken into the categories
of Autopilot, Pilot or Co-Pilot mode.
A consumer continuously operates in the
world with some degree of automaticity.
The more familiar the environment, the
more routine the behavior, the higher the
level of automaticity (autopilot) the con-
sumer uses to navigate the situation. In
contrast, the more novel the setting or
problem, the more the conscious mind
attends to the circumstances (pilot) ( Ouellette
and Wood, 1998 ). The conscious mind
rarely, if ever, initiates behavior. Rather,
conscious awareness is dependent on the
unconscious mind s ability to interpret and
process its surroundings.
Autopilot mode represents habitual pur-
chase and usage behavior, and is the state
of being that enables a person to complete
tasks that are not linked to conscious intent,
needs or goals. As the conscious mind can
only think of one thing at a time, it offl oads
as much as possible to the unconscious
mind (Nilsen et al , 2008 ). Through repeat-
edly solving problems in stable situations,
the unconscious mind can master a wide
range of complex behaviors ( Bargh, 1989 ;
Ouellette and Wood, 1998 ).
Habit research from multiple disciplines
reveals that most behavior involves uncon-
scious responses to cues in the environ-
ment, meaning the vast majority of time
consumer behavior falls into the autopilot
category. This defeats marketing efforts that
assume or require conscious recall or
processing of information. For example,
marketers have tried for years to improve
upon the lackluster performance of new
product introductions, but failure persist-
ently hovers at around 80 85 per cent.
New products that test well in market
research often wither and fail in the mar-
ketplace ( Cooper, 2001 ). A testing envi-
ronment places subjects in a novel situation,
which engages the conscious mind to make
rational evaluations of the new product.
However, when the consumer is back in
her natural shopping environment, she
returns to autopilot and is likely to not even
notice the new product. Even if she does
notice it, she will be unlikely to purchase
the new product unless her automatic
behavior path is disrupted. Similarly,
product use or consumption behavior fol-
lows the same dynamic process.
A consumer who is consciously attending
to the purchase of a product or service is
in Pilot mode. This may involve weighing
costs and benefi ts and making comparisons
with competing products, as well as com-
paring purchase to non-purchase outcomes.
Pilot mode is more likely to occur when a
consumer is in a novel purchase situation
or if some element of the routine purchase
behavior has changed, such as price, fea-
tures or distribution channels, which acti-
vates the consumer s conscious awareness.
In addition, purchases that involve high
risk or high expense will engage conscious
processing ( Dijksterhuis et al , 2005 ).
Although most models of consumer
behavior assume the customer is in Pilot
mode at all times, fully conscious decision
making is a rare, and eeting, experience.
When a consumer encounters a novel
situation, the conscious brain becomes
active ( Wood et al , 2005 ). Novelty relates
to both the environment one is in and the
particular situation one is experiencing. A
novel environment, such as the fi rst visit to
a store, activates many conscious mental
Martin and Morich
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
such as buying a name brand when pur-
chasing new technology.
Consumer behavior cannot be evaluated
without understanding where the consumer
is along the continuum of automaticity
during purchase or usage. Some marketers
assume that consumers were making rational
and conscious decisions, yet a large per-
centage of consumer behavior is occurring
unconsciously. As a result, advertising,
pricing and, indeed, the entire concept of
the marketing mix are often ineffectual.
This does not imply that conscious
processing is unimportant. On the contrary,
the model posits that there is an active
interplay between conscious and uncon-
scious processing. However, as the model
illustrates, the conscious consumer mind is
always working to automate its behaviors.
Marketers benefi t from respecting the large
and active role unconscious behavior plays
in every consumer action, and adjust their
marketplace approaches accordingly.
Context and cues
Familiarity drives automaticity. If the mind
perceives an environment as familiar, the
perception enables the unconscious to
automate behavior. If the consumer per-
ceives the environment as novel, the con-
scious mind actively engages to interpret
its surroundings and fi gure out what to do.
The human mind assesses familiarity and
automates behavior through the perception
of context ( Wood and Neal, 2009 ).
Habits form when a behavior is repeated
and rewarded inside a stable context. By
frequently performing an action in a con-
stant setting, the unconscious mind learns
to associate that environment, and the var-
ious stimuli within it, with that particular
behavior and its outcomes ( Ouellette and
Wood, 1998 ). Once the behavior is
habitual, the mind no longer needs con-
scious goals or intentions to launch the
behavior ( Triandis, 1977 ; Verplanken et al ,
1994 ; Ouellette and Wood, 1998 ; Ferguson
processes, giving the consumer a strong
conscious engagement with her surround-
ings. A novel situation, such as seeking
out low-fat foods at the grocery store in
reaction to a recent doctor visit, similarly
engages the conscious mind and the con-
sumer becomes aware of his behavior.
These instances of novel consumer experi-
ences fully engage the shopper with the
setting and information around him as
he attempts to rationally decide on an
However, even in novel situations and
environments, just because the mind is
aware of what is going on does not neces-
sarily imply control over its actions.
Behavior often leads, not follows, conscious
intent. For example, Americans almost uni-
formly enter a store and go to the right,
rather than left or straight ahead ( Sorensen,
2009 ). The conscious mind may believe
that the right-hand turn was made to head
for the fruits and vegetables, but the reality
is that the body was heading there anyway,
healthy diet or not. This section of the
model illustrates the challenge even when
thinking about a new product, what
consumers do is still largely a result of
unconscious mental processes. And most
of the time customers are shopping, they
are not thinking .
In many familiar situations, consumers
experience a relatively narrow range of
choices that do not require a fully conscious
evaluation, yet are too complicated to be
relegated to automatic habitual choice. In
these cases, consumers are likely to use
heuristics (simple rules) to partially auto-
mate behavior ( Shen and Wyer, 2007 ; Xu
and Wyer, 2008 ). For example, when a
product is on sale, consumers may have a
heuristic that causes them to purchase mul-
tiple units. Co-pilot mode may also be
activated in situations of mild complexity,
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Unconscious mental processes in consumer choice
and Bibby, 2002 ; Danner et al 2008 ; Ji and
Wood, 2007 ). Unconscious recognition of
a context and contextual cues is enough to
initiate a habit ( Wood and Neal, 2009 ).
However, contexts form actively, not
passively, and humans are not automatons
blindly reacting to cues in the environment.
Consumers align their contexts with higher-
order goals, and internally generated con-
siderations can break the linkages between
contexts and behavior ( Aarts et al , 1998 ).
The model illustrates this dynamic by
separating context into three layers: the
meta-Context, the contextual event and
the sub-context.
The meta-context is an overarching, goal-
oriented framework that consumers use to
organize their worlds. For example, most
consumers have a Going to Work meta-
context. On a typical weekday morning,
they engage in multiple tasks routinely:
waking to an alarm, showering, shaving,
washing hair, drying hair, styling hair,
putting on makeup and deodorant, choosing
clothes, eating breakfast and driving or
taking public transportation to work and
so on. Most days, each of these tasks
is performed completely on autopilot
( Verplanken et al , 2005 ). The meta-context
framework surrounding these tasks defi nes
their parameters and thresholds and helps
dramatically reduce the number of con-
scious choices that have to be made.
A meta-context is a fi lter that shapes
consumer perception. Going to Work
defi nes the subset of a wardrobe that is
acceptable for the workplace. Similarly, it
may outline a particular way hair is styled
and the foods prepared that are eaten for
breakfast. These parameters, determined
by corporate policy (dress code) and as part
of the logistics of getting to work (amount
of time available to prepare breakfast), make
consumers more effi cient by reducing
choices and establishing thresholds of
awareness that determine what stimuli the
consumer perceives ( Anderson, 2003 ;
Danner et al , 2007 ; McCulloch et al , 2008 ).
In dressing for work, the jeans and running
shoes get ignored only the work clothes
are given consideration.
Meta-contexts can be universal, cultural,
segment-specifi c or individual constructs.
They are a critical component of habit
formation because they help the uncon-
scious mind narrow down the thousands
of cues in an environment to the ones rel-
evant to the situation at hand. A product,
brand or message that does not resonate
with the parameters established by a con-
sumer s meta-context will be ignored as
Contextual event
A contextual event is a situation-specifi c
behavior (task) associated with a meta-
context. In most of the research on habit
formation, the literature s defi nition of
context is equivalent to the Martin-Morich
Model s concept of the contextual event.
These contextual events are a framework
for the brain to perform a habitual behavior
within a context. The unconscious mind
assesses the physical environment, the time
of day, the day of the week, and all of
the accompanying stimuli surrounding
the consumer and is cued to launch one
or many habitual behaviors ( Neal et al ,
2009 ).
A contextual event is not a behavior
itself, but a marker for the brain to perform
an associated behavior. All the routine
tasks that occur within the Going to
Work meta-context are contextual events.
Standing in front of the bathroom sink
could launch a range of behaviors that
might include shaving, putting on makeup
and brushing teeth. Opening the refriger-
ator door will cue some consumers to reach
for fruit and yogurt, whereas others will
Martin and Morich
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
pull out bacon and eggs. Sitting in the car
will send the driver automatically along his
usual route to the offi ce. The brain has an
innate ability to unconsciously recognize
contextual events and respond with the
associated habitual behaviors ( Yin and
Knowlton, 2006 ).
A habitual behavior cannot exist without
a contextual event. As a marker for a situ-
ation-specifi c behavior, the contextual
event is one of the most important sections
of the model for marketers to grasp. Each
contextual event represents potentially
hundreds of brand choices which tooth-
paste to brush with, which cereal to eat,
which radio station to listen to and so on.
Once a consumer links a brand with a con-
textual event, the habitual use of that brand
can be very hard to disrupt, even if the
brand is not viewed as superior. However,
if a brand does not establish its connection
to a particular context or create a new
context for its purchase or use, it will not
become habitual ( Ouellette and Wood,
1998 ). At best, the consumer will have
to consciously decide to use it every
time, a cognitively expensive and unlikely
Marketers have long operated under the
simple illusion that the consumer views
brands in isolation, such as a painting
hanging on an art gallery wall. The reality
is a far messier organic process where
products are integrated into behavior,
typically outside of conscious awareness.
Just because behavior is largely unconscious
does not imply that consumer actions do
not align with intentions and goals. Humans
have a highly evolved adaptive mechanism
that allows them to alter even the most
highly habitual behaviors if the mind
perceives potential signs that a behavior
may not align with internal requirements.
Sub-contexts are vectors of concern that
typically lie below conscious awareness, but
can be elevated to conscious consideration
and interrupt habitual behavior ( Macrae
and Johnston, 1998 ).
Typically, factors such as convenience,
economy, family, morals and health serve
as sub-context vectors. Each habitual
behavior in a given context more or less
aligns with a consumer s sub-context
requirements. For example, in the time-
compressed contextual event of grabbing
breakfast before heading off to work, con-
venience often trumps nutrition (a health
sub-context). But if the health vector is
elevated into a concern, say from a tight-
tting pair of jeans or ten extra pounds
on the bathroom scale, then the consumer
may consciously attend to her breakfast
choice and eschew the hi-carb bagel for a
piece of fruit instead.
An elevated sub-context vector may just
temporarily impact behavior, or can induce
lasting change. Think of a sub-context
vector as a tuning fork. A single hit will
emit a vibration for a short period of time,
and then go silent. The conscious reminder
to make better breakfast choices will fade,
and behavior will return to the bagel, the
habitual choice. But if the vector is con-
tinually struck, the disruption in habitual
behavior may be long enough to produce
enough repetitions of alternative behavior
and result in new habits being formed. The
economic recession that began in 2008 is
playing this scenario out right now. The
near-constant reminders of the economy
vector have brought many consumers
spending habits into conscious awareness
for so long that the behavior of limiting
discretionary spending and trading down to
store brands has become habitual. These
new habits will likely extend far beyond
the actual recession.
Marketers need to understand their con-
sumer s underlying sub-contexts and
actively monitor the marketplace for mes-
saging that might resonate to elevate these
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Unconscious mental processes in consumer choice
areas to conscious awareness. Then mar-
keters must work to align their brand with
what is going on in the world that might
be elevating behavior to conscious awareness.
The utility of viewing context in three
parts is that academics and marketers can
get a far better understanding of consumer
behavior by understanding the conscious
and unconscious elements of that behavior.
Without this level of understanding, it is
unlikely that companies will develop prod-
ucts with the correct attributes to lead to
habitual use.
Through repeated exposures, the uncon-
scious mind begins associating various
stimuli within a context with behaviors and
their outcomes. With repetition, the process
turns stimuli in the environment into cues
that automate behavior. Eventually, cues
trigger behavior within a context inde-
pendent of conscious intentions and goals
( Wood and Neal, 2009 ). This creates sig-
nifi cant cognitive effi ciency, enabling the
conscious mind to contemplate novel
problems or attend to other matters ( Nilsen
et al , 2008 ).
Any stimulus that occurs in concert with
a contextual behavior can potentially
become a cue. Cues can be internal or
external. Internal cues can be moods,
thoughts, feelings or state changes perceived
by the mind. External cues can be anything
perceived by the senses. The smell of
popcorn can be a powerful cue for many
moviegoers, but a dark movie theater can
also become a popcorn cue ( Neal et al ,
2009 ). Brand names, logos, packaging,
jingles and slogans can become cues in the
shopping environment ( Warlop et al , 2005 ).
Even a time of day, other people, or an
entire context could become a cue ( Wood
et al , 2005 ; Wood and Neal, 2009 ).
Cues can form through pairing, as in
classical conditioning. Advertisers use this
technique relentlessly, putting brands in the
hands of beautiful models and celebrity
endorsers ( Gorn, 1982 ; Stuart et al , 1987 ).
Consumers can learn cues through operant
conditioning where a consumer is actively
working with a product to solve a problem
or create a benefi t ( Nord and Peter,
1980 ).
Cues are essential to habit formation, and
critical to any successful marketing effort.
When cues are managed well, they can lead
to nearly addictive responses, as with the
RIM BlackBerry. The auditory or vibra-
tory sensation is so powerfully associated
with the receipt of an email that corporate
users have the device in their hand before
they are consciously aware of the stimulus.
However, marketers often neglect to
take control of cues to activate behavior.
A consumer shopping on autopilot is not
consciously thinking about her need states
and the value offered by a particular product
choice, but automatically responding to the
cues around her. Without associated cues,
a marketer must actively sell their brand at
every purchase occasion.
In January of 2009, Tropicana orange
juice launched a major package redesign,
replacing the familiar straw in an orange
with a glass of orange juice that promi-
nently displayed the words 100 per cent
Juice . Sales declined 20 per cent between
1 January and 22 February, when the old
packaging was reintroduced ( Zmuda, 2009 ).
Disrupting the cues that consumers use to
automate behavior is fraught with peril.
Behavior, feedback and learning
Habits form through the repetition of
behavior in a stable context ( Ouellette and
Wood, 1998 ). Throughout these repeti-
tions, the mind is assessing the behavior and
its resulting outcomes. By gathering this
conscious- and unconscious-level feedback,
the brain learns whether or not to perform
the behavior in the same context in the
Martin and Morich
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Any action that a consumer takes in
response to a product or service, even inac-
tion, amounts to behavior. Behaviors typi-
cally occur within a context and in response
to internal or external cues: to purchase or
not to purchase; buy the usual brand or try
something new; stock up or hope the
product is on sale next time. Most of the
time, consumers make these decisions
without any conscious consideration. By
adulthood, most consumers have a vast
storehouse of scripted behaviors for con-
textualized situations. This repository
allows consumers to move quickly through
a grocery or department store, as well as
the kitchen and the pantry.
Behavior can be simple or inordinately
complex. Although it is hard to compre-
hend, the vast majority of behavior is initi-
ated by the unconscious mind. The
conscious mind might be aware a choice
was made, but in the words of Dijksterhuis
et al (2005) These choices were introspec-
tively blank . This perspective means that
no conscious thought processes occur that
a consumer can review to explain why a
choice was made.
However, just because no conscious
thought process is available does not mean
the behavior is not fueled by intention. Every
behavior begins as a choice fueled by reason.
The conscious brain is highly involved in
early behavioral learning, making decisions,
executing actions and assessing the results.
Over time, this activity dies down, and
unconscious habits take over ( Thorn et al ,
2010 ). Habits are simply shortcuts developed
by the mind from past successful behavior.
The feedback process helps the brain deter-
mine which behaviors are successful.
Feedback is the mind s perceived conse-
quence of a behavior. After a consumer
makes a purchase or uses a product,
anything that comes afterward might be
interpreted as feedback from that action.
This feedback interpretation occurs at both
the conscious and unconscious levels.
Immediate feedback effectively trains the
unconscious mind, whereas the conscious
mind can bridge the gap between a delayed
response and a behavior ( Schultz, 2006 ).
However, the closer in time the feedback
is to the behavior, the more likely the con-
sumer will associate this as cause and
Feedback comes in three essential a-
vors: reinforcing, punishing or neutral.
Reinforcement is feedback that makes a
behavior more likely to occur in the future.
Punishment is feedback that makes a
behavior less likely to occur. Neutral feed-
back provides no information that will
affect the behavior, either because the
response was not strong enough to alter
future likelihood, or the brain ignored the
response ( Pryor, 1984 ).
Reinforcement and punishment are
often regarded in absolute terms: reinforce-
ment is a reward with sensory appeal, for
example, a cookie, and a punishment is an
uncomfortable or painful experience. But
reinforcement and punishment are not
always so obvious the terms only refer to
the effect on future behavior when the
feedback is received. Both can be positive
or negative. The annoying buzzer on an
alarm clock is a negative reinforcer. The
irritating sound stops when a sleeper per-
forms the behavior of hitting the off or
snooze button. A shocking cell phone bill
is a positive punishment. Its introduction
decreases a customer s propensity to use as
many minutes in the future.
Marketers used to think that a measure
of satisfaction would be an indicator of
future use, but that metric does a poor job
of predicting future purchase ( Neal, 1999 ).
Instead of striving for customer satisfaction,
marketers should strive for customer
reinforcement. By reinforcing consumer
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
Unconscious mental processes in consumer choice
behavior, marketers increase the chances of
repetition and, in turn, the chances of habit
formation around their brand.
The brain learns from feedback generated
by a behavior, and that learning impacts
future performance of that behavior. A
feedback response interpreted by the brain
can either strengthen habitual behavior or
disrupt it. A reinforcing experience with a
brand makes repurchase more likely,
whereas a punishing experience makes
future purchase less likely ( Nevin et al ,
1987 ). Reinforcement and punishment also
impact how conscious the consumer will
be the next time she performs a behavior
in a context. For non-habitual behaviors, a
reinforcing round of feedback will strengthen
context and cue association and increase the
level of automation. Punishing feedback
disrupts automation and re-elevates behavior
to conscious scrutiny.
For already habitual behaviors, only
intermittent reinforcement at moderate
levels is required to maintain the behavior.
In fact, constant reinforcement or abnor-
mally large rewards can be a disruption
( Pryor, 1984 ). Constant reinforcement cre-
ates a tit-for-tat scenario where the mind
is consciously seeking an outcome.
Abnormal rewards engage the conscious
mind and focus the brain on the behavior,
and future reinforcement that does not
match the jackpot previously received
could be seen as a punishment ( Dickinson
et al , 1983 ). Marketers should be aware that
learning for non-habitual customers differs
from that of habitual customers. A strategy
that leads to automation in one group may
be disrupting the other.
A critical component to learning, as well
as to recall, is the role of emotion. Research
from several disciplines reveals emotion as
critical for storing and recalling memories,
forever altering the belief that rational deci-
sions devoid of emotional considerations
are better . Indeed, researchers now under-
stand that decision making requires emo-
Emotion is a catalyst. When behavioral
feedback is paired with an emotion, the
consumer is more likely to learn from that
behavior ( Baumeister et al , 2007 ). In the
model, emotion amplifi es the effects of
reinforcement and punishment. With the
proper use of emotion, marketers can
encourage faster learning, more repetition
and habit formation (see Innerscope
Research, 2010). More importantly, if mar-
keting communications does not evoke an
appropriate emotional response, it is less
likely the message will be attended to,
stored in memory or recalled.
However, the role of emotion is not
confi ned to the feedback loops that modu-
late the Level of Automaticity. Instead,
emotion is posited to exert infl uence
throughout every level of the model. Emo-
tions affect our behavior, what cues we
attend to and ignore, what we choose to
remember, and what we choose to recall.
Moving forward
The need for a new model of consumer
has been evident for a while, but ironically
the feedback mechanisms that exist for aca-
demics and practitioners has made it diffi -
cult for a coherent new model to emerge.
Academic publications have to be narrowly
focused for substantive contributions to
advance our understanding of specifi c phe-
nomena. By referencing prior referred arti-
cles to assure a continuous refi nement of
our understanding of any specifi c topic,
most academics are forced to narrow their
vision, making it diffi cult to feel suffi ciently
well versed across marketing disciplines to
propose anything as wide reaching as a
new, integrated model of marketing. Prac-
titioners are similarly narrow in their focus
Martin and Morich
© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1350-23IX Journal of Brand Management 1–23
around their own product category, brand
or specialty. In addition, the rich mix of
interdisciplinary literature that undergirds
this type of model would prove daunting
for a professional with full-time responsi-
This model may enable practitioners and
academics to approach the complex and
ever-changing world of consumer more
effectively and effi ciently by explicitly
undertaking to understand the role of the
unconscious in any behavior of interest.
Simultaneously, we hope that the model
will help researchers use qualitative methods
in confi rmatory, as well as exploratory,
The authors acknowledge and are grateful
for the cooperation and encouragement of
clients including Procter & Gamble and
Campbell Soup in the development of this
article and accompanying model. The
authors alone are responsible for all limita-
tions and errors that may relate to the study
and the article.
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