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Which came first, consumer behaviour or marketing strategy?

Updated: Jan 13, 2021

As a marketer, marketing strategies and tactics that I recommend for my clients are based on certain understandings, both researched and hypothesized, about the end customer’s behaviour.

The reason being that if you can establish a good knowledge of the consumer behaviour of both your existing and potential consumers, then it puts you at a competitive advantage, allowing you to plan out the marketing activity that will most effectively reach your audience and achieve your relevant objectives - from raising brand awareness to initial and repeat purchase.

However, a question that many haven’t asked before is, which came first? Did marketing strategies set about a series of new consumer behaviours, or did seemingly inconsequential consumer behaviours start to influence marketing strategies? It’s a real chicken-and-egg situation in the marketing world that I thought I’d dig into a little deeper.

What is consumer behaviour?

We need to consider what consumer behaviour really means to determine which came first. Simply put, consumer behaviour as it relates to marketing is the actions and decision processes that people go through when purchasing goods and services for personal consumption.

In summary, the study of consumer behaviour looks to understand what consumers buy, plus why, when, how often, and where they buy it. To get an even deeper understanding and develop a competitive advantage we also want to look more deeply into why consumers choose one product over another.

Why consumer behaviour is important

It’s not going out on a limb to say that understanding your consumer’s behaviours, for both existing and potential consumers, is one of the most crucial elements to designing and effective marketing strategy.

Our understanding of consumer behaviour has developed so much over time that it can now tell us so much more than how consumers choose between alternative brands or their behaviour while shopping. It can also tell us what consumers think of our products, and what marketing messages and pricing strategies they respond to.

Furthermore, the development of technology has given us access to even more information, such as what products or services they are searching for to fill their current needs and their preferred payment methods.

Ultimately, with data and information coming out of our ears about consumer behaviours, we can now create a realistic picture of our consumers’ wants, needs and buying patterns. By harnessing this information we can launch products and services that consumers will have a higher inclination to buy, or make changes to store environments or online shopping processes to optimise the experience - and thereby increase revenues.

This information will also shape the core elements of any marketing strategy such as your key messages: What do you want to say about your product or services? What sets you aside from your competitors? It will also inform your marketing channels: Where are your consumers making their decisions? What’s the best way to reach them?

Which is why I have to admit that understanding consumer behaviour is crucial to any marketer or business owner looking to take their business to the next level.

Would one exist without the other?

As a marketer, you may think that I’m biased in simply stating that marketing came first, however I can and will back it up.

Rather than looking at each component from a practical level, if we’re going to come up with an answer, we need to consider the theoretical studies of both elements; marketing and consumer behaviours.

Research into marketing activity, its implications and subsequent theories date back as far as the early 1900s. Yet, marketing researcher Howard developed the first consumer decision-model as late as 1963. This model was then developed further to become the ‘Theory of Buyer Behaviour’ and has gone on to inspire more recent theories and understandings of consumer behaviour that we all implement today.

Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that - before consumer behaviour was officially studied and theorised - it was of course in practice. Shoppers weren’t walking around aimlessly picking up products off the shelves without any thought or inclination as to why. It simply took time to become an integral element in developing a successful marketing strategy.

As for whether one can exist without the other? Well, I can safely say that developing a marketing strategy without a solid understanding of consumer behaviours would be a challenge. Possible, but a challenge nonetheless. I’d also add that I think it would drastically impede the effectiveness of any marketing strategy if the information wasn’t available.

Consumer behaviour will always be in effect and likely always has, so it seems consumer behaviour came first. We’ve been human beings with the power to make consumer decisions long before we’ve been marketers.

But I believe that over time these behaviours have developed and changed as a result of effective marketing and, in turn, our greater understanding of consumer behaviours continues to develop and greatly inform and shape our marketing strategies.

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