Researching buyer behaviour - Marketing Management

The basis for research can start with the ‘seven Os’ of the marketplace outlined earlier. There is also the introspective method where marketers think about their own probable behaviour. Customers can be interviewed after purchasing their goods and questioned, which is termed the retrospective method. Prospective customers can be asked about how they will purchase the product i.e. the prospective method. These methods give insights into how consumers go through the process of buying. More difficult from a research point of view is information on the influences of buying behaviour. These are often not product related and involve less measurable aspects of human behaviour, such as perception and attitudes.

Of particular use in understanding some of the more complex underpinning factors affecting behaviour are the techniques of qualitative research. Much qualitative research has as its objective the exploration of matters like attitudes, perceptions and motives; to this end, during the 1960s marketers began to use techniques of ‘motivational research’. These were derived from the tools and techniques of clinical psychology and were rooted in concepts and ideas of Freudian psychologists.

A ‘black box’ model

A ‘black box’ model

More recently, concentration has been on qualitative marketing research into consumer behavior using focus group discussions and depth interviews.

Focus groups

Focus groups involve a trained moderator guiding a group of selected customers or potential customers through a semi-structured interview. The moderator may have a psychology background, but should be a skilled marketing researcher and interviewer. Normally a focus group consists of between six and ten individuals. The idea is to encourage respondents to discuss factors which will reveal some of their innermost thoughts and feelings regarding a product or service in question. For example, if we were conducting research into consumer attitudes towards, say, the purchase and wearing of ties, the moderator might encourage the group to talk informally about their purchasing in general and then gradually, as the group began to open up and discuss between themselves, focus the discussion towards the product market in question: in this case, ties.

Skill and expertise are required to elicit useful information about the product market in question, without leading the group towards responses that are more in line with the ideas of the moderator than individuals in the group. In other words, care must be taken not to bias answers. A focus group 44 Consumer and organizational buyer behaviour


‘Kettling’ is a tactic of crowd control increasingly being used by the British police force to ensure that example public demonstrations do not get out of control. Essentially, the technique entails the police corralling people by a perimeter of police officers usually to a pre-designated spot where the location makes it difficult or impossible to escape, for example into a cul-de-sac. The tactic was extensively used in crowd control at the G20 meeting demonstrations in London in April 2009. Some demonstrators were kettled for up to eight hours until the police determined the demonstration was over and they could be released.

Before these demonstrations and efforts to police them, not many of the public had heard of kettling. However, the demonstration and the policing of it received extensive television coverage not least because one unfortunate demonstrator who was being moved on by the police subsequently died, an event which was captured on television. As a result, the tactic of kettling, already contro versial in some circles, became a national controversy.

Many people think kettling is unacceptable, over-aggressive, undermines civil liberties, is dangerous and often self-defeating. Others, including senior police officers think it represents a safe and effective means of crowd control and particularly for defusing potentially violent situations.Is kettling effective and should it be used to control public demonstrations or is it essentially undemocratic and potentially dangerous? Should it be outlawed or should more police be trained to use this tactic? If it is going to be used what should be the situations where it is deployed and should there be constraints on its use? The kettling controversy and questions raised about it are typical of issues for which the focus group technique is ideally suited. In fact, shortly after the G20 disturbances, Metropolitan Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson announced a review into the police tactic of kettling. No doubt this review process will include the use of focus group discussions. interview will take anything between one to two-and-a-half hours and it will usually be recorded for later analysis.

It would be common practice if, say, we were using focus groups in the development and launch of a new product in the UK market to conduct anything up to ten focus groups interviews which would be designed to provide a representative sample. At a current average UK cost per focus group of between £2,000 and £4,000, this type of interviewing is relatively costly. Respondents have to be paid as well as the facility that is being used (normally somebody’s home) and of course the focus group moderator. It does, however, provide potentially rich information on which to base marketing decisions. Initially used for exploratory research prior to conducting quantitative research, focus groups are increasingly being used to explore further issues highlighted from initial quantitative research based on more traditional questionnaire research and analysis. Focus group interviewing is so useful that it is used by companies ranging from banks through to detergent manufacturers and political parties.

Although widely used in the USA, the use of focus groups to research consumer attitudes, potential voting patterns, and key issues amongst voters in the UK really came into its own in the run-up to the 1997 General Election. The Labour Party, in particular, made use of this type of research. Partly as a result of their success in the 1997 election, and the role focus groups were felt to have played in this, all the main political parties in the UK now use focus groups extensively on a regular basis to gauge voter opinions on various matters. Although there is some concern about the extensive use of these groups – some argue that it tends to detract from developing and imple menting policies – there is no doubt that in the political arena, as in most other areas of marketing, focus groups are here to stay.

Depth interviews

Depth interviews are used less frequently than focus groups to research buyer behaviour, but can be useful when researching areas which are of a sensitive nature and where a group discussion situation would not be appropriate. The key difference between depth interviews and focus groups is that the respondent communicates on a one-to-one basis, and not in a group, with the researcher. The interview may be semi-structured or unstructured depending on the purpose and nature of the research. In other respects, with regard to skills required of the interviewer, the depth interview is similar to the focus group.

As with a focus group, depth interviews can be used to explore what are more ‘hidden’ aspects of buyer behaviour and choice. Broad trends in society can be monitored constantly. In the UK there is an ageing population, most with occupational pensions, which means there are more opportunities for products aimed at older consumers. Changing cultural perspectives, such as attitudes to women becoming the main wage earners, and men assuming roles traditionally deemed to belong to women, can be monitored, using depth interviews, to enable marketers to use this attitudinal information in a strategic manner. As already mentioned, focus groups are widely used for researching buyer behaviour, but they are not without its limitations and its critics. In particular, some researchers have begun to question their usefulness, particularly for futures research on needs and wants or in assessing attitudes to revolutionary and novel ideas for new products and services.


Critics of focus groups argue that too often participants will knowingly, or subconsciously, tell the focus group leader what they feel he or she wants to hear. Similarly, some argue that there is a danger that group members simply say what they think the rest of the group want to hear. With regard to focus groups being weak at uncovering future trends and needs, the argument is that focus group members find it difficult to imagine or conjecture that product and brand usage will be any different in the future. In other words, there is a tendency for focus group to think along conventional lines.

As a result of these criticisms, some researchers have turned to alternative methods to gain insights into customer needs and wants, especially when trying to detect ideas and responses to new products and services for the future. These methods, now being used in marketing research are collectively referred to as ‘futures research’.

Futures research

This is not solely about forecasting the future. Rather it is the application of innovative research techniques to gain insights into possible future needs and wants of consumers and the implications of these for the marketer with regard to possible new products. As this is a comparatively new approach to research in consumer behaviour, there are no definitive rules about how to conduct it. However, it has already generated several innovative and research techniques that are different from those conventionally used.

One of the leading companies in the UK using futures research at the moment, Brand Futures, uses several innovative approaches to its group consumer behaviour research, often coupled with traditional focus groups. Below are outlined some of the differences in this company’s futures approach compared to traditional focus group methods.

  • Instead of using ‘representative’ consumers, often the company will conduct interviews using panels of individuals who have previously been judged to be ‘thinking ahead’ in their particular field.
  • Often the groups will deliberately include individuals with alternative views to the rest of the group. For example, a group assembled to investigate possible future meat-based food products might include a vegan.
  • New techniques for uncovering attitudes and factors underpinning behaviour are used. One example is a technique known as ‘deprivation’. With this, panel members are asked to go without a particular good or service for a period of time and are then interviewed to see what effect this has had on their behaviour. At the other extreme, another technique is ‘inflation’, where group members are asked to consume a product in much greater quantities than normal, again, with a view to gaining new insights into possible future consumer behaviour.

Using techniques such as these enables the marketer to gain more insights into possible future needs, areas for new product development, brand extension strategies and innovative and creative approaches to marketing existing products.

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