Strategic Marketing Diary

A blog inviting like minded readers to understand and contribute to the importance of Strategy in Marketing of today's Brands.

‘Conditioning’ The Consumer

A lot of intelligent marketing and branding done today in this cluttered market space depends on understanding human behavior.

A new product or service is bought by a consumer when their behavior towards the product is changed and he/she ‘learns’ about it and understands its usage. Learning as defined in one psychology textbook is “A relatively permanent change in behavior that occurs as a result of practice or experience”. Moreover, this ‘learning’ can be conditioned and that’s where the marketers can weave their magic.

In this blog I am going to explore how effective conditioning can create a very favorable strategy for marketers.

Conditioning; be it Classical or Instrumental if used correctly can elicit a favorable response (in this case – buying the product) without there being a need for it. This is a lengthy process and involves a fair bit of time. Let’s take some popular brands as an example to understand the concept in detail.

The cola’s (Pepsi and Coke) have used Classical Conditioning very effectively over the years. We all know that thirst (An Unconditioned Response) is generated by various environmental and physical factors like heat, sports, workout, dehydration etc. (These are Unconditioned Stimuli). What Pepsi and Coke have done over the years of Marketing and Branding is strategically placed and associated their products with all the above Unconditioned Stimuli like heat, sports, etc repeatedly. They have also used key words in their branding like “Thanda Matlab Coca Cola” (cold means Coca Cola). This has played the part of a Conditioned Stimulus which is placed along with the Unconditioned Stimuli every time (hence the sponsorships for major sporting events). Over time the Conditioned Stimulus (Cola drink) becomes a signal for the arrival of the Unconditioned Stimulus (heat, dehydration) for the brain and we feel thirsty just by seeing a big poster of Coke or Pepsi without actually experiencing any of the above environmental or physical factors. Thus, we don’t only have a Coke/Pepsi when we are thirsty, we feel thirsty when we see a Coke/Pepsi!

In the above example the unconditioned stimulus is always preceded by a conditioned stimulus. After repetition, over time the brain gets conditioned to respond to the lone presence of the conditioned stimulus also.

Another example that comes to mind is the endless ‘SALE’ which runs almost throughout the year in some form or another. Here the unconditioned stimulus (need to buy new stuff) is often paired with a simultaneous SALE period for most consumers. This pattern in the future causes only the Conditioned Stimulus (SALE) to generate a response (Shopping) without there even being a need for it. Hence today every time we hear the word SALE, we feel like shopping even if we don’t necessarily need the product.

Above we saw how classical conditioning is used effectively to increase the purchase frequency without there being a need for the product. Another type of conditioning is Instrumental Conditioning where the action or response of the consumer brings about a change in his environment. This makes the response more or less likely in the future. A classic example would be a store giving ‘freebies’ with the purchase of any product thus conditioning the behavior with positive reinforcement. Since, the action gets additional rewards it may result in repeating the action (shopping at a particular store) more likely in the future!

These are some ways in which marketers use the understanding of human behavior to help sell their products and how strategic marketing can pay rich dividends for brands in today’s marketplace.

Contact me @ to explore these concepts further or if you have any questions.

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8 comments on “‘Conditioning’ The Consumer

  1. Sai Krishna
    March 29, 2013

    Nice article – simple and to the point, and I loved the title of this post. Yes, conditioning has always been the favourite tool to influence and change attitudes, may it be by marketers, psychologists, or leadership trainers. This reminds of an article by me on attitude (A) to behaviour (B) marketing and B to A marketing (courtesy: Arun).

  2. soebcontractor
    March 29, 2013

    Thank you Sai for your feedback.

  3. Brain Molecule Marketing
    March 31, 2013

    OK, this is one model but we know a lot more about brain > behavior processes beyond the old models.

    It is probably a mistake to generalize brain stuff too far “into” marketing concepts. For example, we don’t really know if advertising conditions anything. That needs to be unpack and tested experimentally.

  4. soebcontractor
    April 1, 2013

    Brain Molecule Marketing, thank you for your feedback.

    The point i wanted to make using this blog is the need for strategic marketing and the dividends it can pay for marketers.

    You are right in saying that there is a need for experimental testing before we associate psychology (Brain) to marketing ( there are many people working in this field trying to get you the experimental proof as we speak), however here what i am trying to associate is using the principles of psychology to a change in behaviour which has already been tested and proven ( Ivan Pavlov – Classical conditioning).

    Marketers strive to try and change the behaviour of the consumer towards using their product and hence should consider the classical proven theories of psychology during the implementation of their marketing mix.

  5. bsaikrishna
    April 1, 2013

    Yes, classical conditioning is as old as the hills and it cannot be the sole contributor to attitudinal changes. The difficulty is to really understand the inherent deep motives of the subject and condition the subject in various situations. Smoking cigarettes is one of the classic problems where classical conditioning didn’t have any effect. The point is “classical conditoning is not the solution for all”.

  6. soebcontractor
    April 1, 2013

    Sai i don’t agree with you when you say classical conditioning didn’t have any effect on smoking.

    Smoking without any influence would be an unconditioned response to an unconditioned stimuli. If there is classical conditioning involved ( which is very apparent with smokers), then the conditioned stimuli will evoke the need to smoke without the presence of an unconditioned stimuli. This happens very regularly.

    For example if a smoker for a first few days always lights a cigarette simultaneously while speaking on the phone, then after a few days when he answers the phone he would have the urge to smoke.

    In India smokers go outside the office premises normally to a tea stall for a smoke. I wont be surprised if after some time of this conditioning, the smokers would need a cigarette each time they have a cup of tea otherwise.

    I am not saying that conditioning is the only reason for the above to happen. Its just a part of the reason, but it does have an impact.

    Instrumental conditioning with a negative reinforcement is what might be needed to change behaviour of smokers and get them to stop smoking.

  7. Sai Krishna
    April 3, 2013

    I agree with you. There have been a lot of efforts of negative re-inforcement on smoking and it might have had an effect. I am taking back my words that it doesn’t have any impact, but I meant the impact is minimal in case of smokers as research has proven.

    I feel that the problem with conditioning is it is a little subjective and moreover it is very long-term oriented in most cases. As it is so long term and very subjective, it is very difficult to isolate and quantify that the attitudinal impact is caused by conditioning to some stimuli. So, even though marketers know about it and use it, it is difficult for them to prove the impact through their conditioning.

    In our existing scenario where marketers are always crushed by the quarterly and annual pressures, and to prove the worth of their budgets, most marketers may not be inspired towards this tool. I think this is where the importance of having the long-term strategic vision comes into play.

    It is a nice post and we had some interesting discussions. Keep posting!

    -Sai Krishna

  8. soebcontractor
    April 8, 2013

    Thanks for your feedback Sai. It was indeed a good discussion.

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