Buyer behavior is based on a complex process by which consumers choose, acquire, use, and dispose of goods and services in order to fulfill their needs and desires. To understand why a buyer makes a purchase, it is important to understand his/her needs and motivations. This knowledge enables the seller to better develop a strategy for convincing the potential buyer that the product or service will meet his/her needs. In addition, in order to better target one's marketing strategy, it is important to understand the buying situation, including the routineness with which the particular purchasing decision is made as well as the importance of the decision to the buyer. When the buyer is an organization, it is also important to recognize that although there may be one decision maker, there are typically many parties who can influence the final buying decision.
No matter how good the product or service, no matter how satisfied the employees, no matter how well the communications within an organization, if the customer does not buy what the business is selling, these factors are irrelevant. Although people may band together for all sorts of reasons -- the need to feel a part of a group, the need to contribute to the welfare of society, the need to connect with friends -- businesses are by definition commercial, industrial, or professional enterprises that seek to make profit. Even nonprofit organizations need to make money in order to continue to provide their service that they are offering to their market. The question, of course, is how is this best done?
Interest in understanding buyer behavior has been going on since there first were buyers and sellers. Philosophers have long wondered why consumers buy things. Aristotle, for example, wondered about consumption and its effects on both the individual and society. Eighteenth-century philosopher Adam Smith pondered the same and concluded that in the end, resources would be optimally allocated.
However, business organizations are interested in more than philosophical musings about buyer behavior: They need to know what makes a consumer purchase a product or service and how to reach the consumer and convince him/her to buy. Toward this end, the study of buyer behavior has become more systematic in the past few decades; applying insights from the social sciences in an attempt to help businesses better understand the consumers in the marketplace and determine ways to best reach them.
One of the areas of study that has been applied to the prediction of buyer behavior is motivation. There are several approaches to explaining this important determinant of human behavior. Instinct theories emphasize the innate biological impulses that motivate behavior (e.g., a bird flies south for the winter; a human automatically tries to protect his/her children). Drive-reduction theories are based on the assumption that behavior is a response to biological needs for the organism's physiological system to remain stable and that organisms learn to reduce the drives or motivating tendencies that arise from those needs (e.g., if thirsty, one looks for something to drink). Arousal theories posit that organisms are motivated to seek and maintain an optimal level of arousal in various physiological systems (e.g., a cat enjoys playing with a catnip mouse; a human enjoys the adrenaline rush of wind surfing). Incentive theories of motivation are based on the assumption that behavior is performed in response to the possibility of rewards or punishments (e.g., the dog learns to sit up to get a treat; the child learns to do homework assignments after school in order to watch TV in the evening).
One of the most enduring and popular theories of motivation that has been applied to the understanding of buyer behavior is Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In this theory, Maslow hypothesizes that people are motivated by different things at different times in their lives depending on what needs have been met or not met. This theory also hypothesizes that needs lower on the hierarchy (such as physiological needs for food, shelter, and warmth) must be satisfied before higher-level needs (such as love and self-actualization) can be satisfied.
As shown in Figure 1, the most basic level of needs is physiological needs. This category includes the needs to satisfy hunger and thirst, sleep, and sex. From a buyer behavior point of view, this means that a salesperson would most likely be unsuccessful in selling a new luxury car to someone who is living from paycheck to paycheck and is struggling to put food on the table: The need to eat is more important than the need to impress one's friends. Once the physiological level of needs has been met, people become more concerned with safety needs. These needs include the need to feel safe, secure, and stable in life (e.g., having a job so that one not only has food for today but can also buy food for the foreseeable future). At this level of need, people want to feel that their world is organized and predictable. From a buyer behavior point of view, this could mean that someone is unlikely to buy a house if s/he is working a temporary job with no future prospects. In this situation, there is no way to predict whether or not one will be able to continue to make mortgage payments. Once the security and safety needs of the individual are satisfied, the next level of needs is for belongingness. This level includes such factors as the need to feel accepted and part of a group, to love or feel affection and be loved in return, and to avoid loneliness and alienation. From a consumer behavior point of view, if someone is at the level of belongingness needs, s/he is less likely to invest in the purchase of a status item than if these needs have been met because of the lack of a group to affirm their status. The next level of needs in Maslow's hierarchy is the esteem needs. These include the needs to achieve and to be competent and independent. In addition, the needs at this level of the hierarchy include the needs for self-respect and to develop a sense of self-worth as well as the need for recognition and respect from others. From a buyer behavior point of view, someone at this level in the needs hierarchy would be likely to buy the aforementioned luxury item as a symbol of his/her status because the lower level needs have been met.
The final level on Maslow's hierarchy of needs is self-actualization. This is a complex concept that basically means the need to live up to one's full and unique potential. Associated with self-actualization are such concepts as wholeness, perfection, or completion; a divestiture of "things" in preference of simplicity, aliveness, goodness, and beauty; and a search for meaning in life. People at this level in the hierarchy would be less interested in the acquisition of things but would more likely be interested in acquiring things that enable them to reach other goals such as learning, spiritual development, or enjoying the wonders of nature.
One of the implications of Maslow's hierarchy of needs for understanding buyer behavior is that one has to approach selling the same thing in different ways depending on where the buyer is on the hierarchy. For example, one would be unlikely to sell a world cruise to someone who was at the physiological or safety levels of motivation. However, at the belongingness level of the hierarchy, the trip could be marketed as a group venture to be enjoyed with friends or fellow college alumni. At the esteem level, the trip could be marketed as a luxury item that will make one the envy of one's friends. Neither approach, however, would work well at the level of self-actualization. At this level, the trip would more successfully be sold as a way to broaden one's horizons, learn new things, or experience the beauty of foreign lands. The trip in all three cases could be the same. However, the way it is marketed would differ depending on the needs of the individual.
There are several other things that can be learned from Maslow's hierarchy of needs that have direct application to understanding buyer behavior. First, one can move not only...
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