Attitudes are widely regarded as one of the most important drivers of purchase behavior, so it’s no surprise that savvy marketers strive to understand and influence their target customers’ attitudes. In the interconnected landscape in which our consumers live, work and play, this includes not only understanding and influencing attitudes toward our own products, but also attitudes toward the category, competitors’ products, influencers, and any other elements surrounding a purchase decision.
What exactly are attitudes? Attitudes reflect either favorable or unfavorable evaluations of an “attitude object.” In the context of marketing and consumer behavior, an “object” can be a product, brand, service, price, package, advertisement, or any other aspect of consumption. Ultimately, attitudes motivate consumers to either buy or not buy particular products or brands.
Understanding attitudes begins with understanding the consumer behavior theory that underlies attitude formation and change. Throughout my research for a courseware I wrote last year, Consumer Behavior: A Marketer’s Look Into the Consumer Mind, I spoke with various psychologists. They often differed in their findings regarding attitudes; however, I identified general alignment on the following:
- Consumers learn attitudes from a variety of sources, ranging from direct experience to word of mouth to marketing.
- A consumer’s personality is one of the most critical drivers of attitudes. Given the individual nature of personality, attitudes, too, are highly individualistic and differ greatly from one consumer to the next.
- Though attitudes are often consistent with behaviors, they can be situational. For example, while we may not have a positive attitude toward our local hospital system, in times of dire need, we may choose to seek treatment at that hospital if the situation warrants it.
Marketers seek to understand attitudes so that they can persuade consumers to form positive attitudes towards our products and services. One way of doing this is by understanding the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM), developed by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo. The ELM theorizes how humans process stimuli (for example, marketing materials) during two different routes of persuasion, and how doing so may lead to effective attitude change. It suggests that people react to stimuli in one of two ways:
1. The Central Route: When presented with information, users scrutinize that information, spending time analyzing and considering the merits of the information presented. Attitudes are formed or changed based on the careful consideration of the stimuli presented.
2. The Peripheral Route: When presented with information, users make simple inferences about the merits of the information based on a variety of factors, such as the attractiveness or production quality of the messages. Users spend minimal time processing and evaluating the message itself.
Creating Marketing for Two Routes of Persuasion
As a marketer, it’s important to understand in which situations, and for which types of products, the central and the peripheral routes will be followed, as well as which route is more predictive of future behavior.
Cacioppo and Petty suggest that persuasion will occur via the central route when a person is both motivated and able to process information about the attitude object. They also determined that persuasion via the central route is both more enduring and more predictive of a future purchase decision. In contrast, persuasion will occur via the peripheral route when either or both of the previous conditions are not met — when someone is not motivated or able to process information (or both).
Hence, the ELM has strong implications for marketers. It would be reasonable to assume stimuli that are processed via the central route are both more enduring and more predictive of future purchase decisions, so a marketer might jump to the conclusion that they should always create communications that appeal to the central route. But we shouldn’t discount the value of the peripheral route, and the impact stimuli processed through it can have on awareness, consideration, and ultimately purchase decisions.
When creating ads, marketers should assess the consumer’s motivation to process information, ability to process information, and the media being used before deciding if an ad should appeal to the central or peripheral route.
Motivation to Process Information: Remember, persuasion via the central route occurs when a consumer is both motivated and able to process information. There is a whole host of products, primarily low-involvement products like a pack of gum or a No. 2 pencil, about which consumers are unlikely to be motivated to process information and, therefore, advertisements that use the peripheral route may be more appropriate.
Ability to Process Information: Some consumers may not be able to process information in certain situations, making communications that use the peripheral route to persuasion the better choice. For example, a mother of three driving a carpool every morning may not be able to fully process a detailed radio advertisement about a new car she is considering due to the clamoring of the children in the car. Here, an advertisement that appeals more to the peripheral route may be preferable because it will still drive brand awareness and could even be more memorable.
Choice of Media: Even if your consumer has the motivation and the ability to process information through the central route, it may not be the best option for your marketing materials. Consider an Instagram advertisement — a highly visual advertisement with limited space for text. Instagram may not lend itself to creating advertisements that enable consumers to process them via the central route given the limited ability to explain product or service features or compare it to the competition. Some highly effective forms of media simply lend themselves better to more visual, emotionally compelling advertisements that consumers process through the peripheral route.
Creating multichannel marketing campaigns with advertisements that favor both the central and peripheral routes is good practice, and doing so with a purposeful eye toward attitude change may enable you to persuade your consumers to form more favorable attitudes towards your products and services.
Radhika Duggal is the CMO at Snapcommerce, a financial services and healthcare leader focused on Gen Z and millennials, and the author of Consumer Behavior: A Marketer’s Look Into the Consumer Mind.