Maintaining Growth in Non-Profit Consumer Research

Alan R. Andreasen, University of Illinois
ABSTRACT - Consumer research in non-profit marketing is quickly approaching its maturity phase. The papers in the present session, therefore, can be evaluated both in terms of their own goals and in terms of how they contribute to one or more of five strategies that are offered for prolonging the growth phase of any new product.
[ to cite ]:
Alan R. Andreasen (1983) ,"Maintaining Growth in Non-Profit Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 633-635.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 633-635


Alan R. Andreasen, University of Illinois


Consumer research in non-profit marketing is quickly approaching its maturity phase. The papers in the present session, therefore, can be evaluated both in terms of their own goals and in terms of how they contribute to one or more of five strategies that are offered for prolonging the growth phase of any new product.


In the dozen years that have followed Kotler and Levy's proposal that marketing broaden its boundaries beyond its traditional interests (Kotler and Levy 1969), contributions by academicians to non-profit marketing have followed the life cycle pattern typical of many new products in the groves of academe (Andreasen 1978). The early 1970's marked a long introductory period with articles appearing only sporadically in the literature. The latter part of the decade, however, saw clear evidence that a growth phase was taking place. In this period there was a quantum increase in the amount of writing and research, in the diversity of application areas and in the approaches taken to the managerial issues in these areas.

However there are some signs that a flattening out of that growth au:d entry into the maturity phase of the product life cycle may be near at hand. Several criteria Kotler (1982, p. 299) proposes for identifying this phase are being met. There is increasing competition among authors and their models and more attention is being given to slight differentiation in "products" in the literature. This is particularly true in application areas such as health care where there has been a longer and more intense history of research and writing. With the introduction of several new textbooks and journals to serve what is still a relatively limited market, some overcapacity may be appearing.

If this maturity phase is an imminent possibility, yet one that those of us in the field would like to at least postpone, it is timely to ask whether there are ways in which we can prolong the growth period. Since the papers presented at this conference can be considered as examples of the work being done in nonprofit consumer research, one may ask to what extent they do or do not contribute to growth in this area. After a brief summary and evaluation of each paper in terms of its own objectives, we shall return to this broader question of how these papers contribute to the entire field.

Search for Nutrition Information

The first paper by Feick, Herrmann and Warland develops and tests a model designed to explain search behavior for nutrition information and unify past research. Their approach adapts Stigler's model of search behavior positing that people will search more if the ratio of returns to costs of searching is higher. An empirical test of this model indicates that search is, indeed, positively related to expected benefits (getting best values, improving personal health), as well as interest in developing sound nutritional habits, involvement in shopping for and preparing foods and self-reported knowledge about nutrition. Contrary to the Stigler model, determinants related to costs were not found to be significant.

A difficulty with this research apart from the fact that it did not support the Stigler model was that it demonstrated associations only. On the other hand, in their discussion of implications of the research, the authors seem to imply that they found causations. For example, the research showed that those who searched for nutritional information either needed to or wanted to use the information. The authors conclude, then, that if one could increase consumers' needs or wants for nutrition information (e.g., by emphasizing its monetary or health values or by encouraging consumers to become more involved in food purchase and preparation or in improving their diet) they would search more. Yet only experiments manipulating these factors or panel studies showing that one indeed preceded the other could prove the causation on which these proposals are based.

A final problem with the research was the relative neglect of social factors and of socio-economic characteristics in explaining the search process. Questions were asked about the consumers own nutrition awareness and behavior but the study ignored the nutrition-involvement of other members of respondent households. It is entirely possible that other family members may (implicitly or explicitly) --demand-- that the consumer seek e.g., because a teenage needs good nutrition or a husband is on a diet. Or the interest of a specific family member in nutrition may provide a role model or simple pressure on the respondent to seek out information (for example, in the case of the newly-vegetarian college student). These sociological variables could, in many cases, explain search behavior better than the individual variables on which the authors focussed.

Finally, several simple socio-economic characteristics were neglected that could also strongly affect the need for nutrition information and the willingness to search for it._ For example, as already suggested, the presence of children (perhaps in certain age groups) could affect interest in information. Social status may affect the nutrition values one holdsCfor example, middle-class values may emphasize careful dieting, eating right, being fit, etc. more than do lower class values. Stage in the family life cycle or simply age may also affect interest in nutrition. And educational attainment might affect the ability to find and use such information.

In summary, then, while suggesting the possible role or several new variables in explaining search, this paper really does not present an important new model for the non-profit consumer behavior scholar because of the omission of key explanatory variables and the obviousness of some of the variables that are included. The results neither support the Stigler model nor suggest a new general model that might be adaptable to many non-profit contexts. Further, because of the above problems and because of the associational rather than causative nature of the research design, the model does not offer insights that a non-profit practitioner could use with great confidence.

Three-Dimensional Information Acquisition

This paper by Hoyer and Jacoby presents results of a new laboratory methodology for learning about consumers' information acquisition strategies. In addition, the study was to provide substantive information about the actual strategies used in gathering contraceptive information. Three features of the experiment, however, hindered it from achieving either goal. First, as the authors recognize, the experimental procedure did not include an element introducing the cost of search and thus the strategies chosen by the subjects only apply to an unrealistic cost-free environment. Second, the experiment's subjects themselves were undergraduate females in Introductory Psychology. One must question whether these subjects were either experienced enough or serious enough about the experiment to yield data projectable beyond the laboratory itself.

The third feature of the study is related to its outcomes rather than to its methodology. In one sense, the study was a "success' by failing in that the authors found that the technique wasn't very useful when one of the key dimensions is reduced to a single point (e.g., in this case, where one source dominates the results). The authors propose further research with the methodology in contexts where several sources are typically used.


This paper by Zeithaml and Graham again uses a convenient student sample arguing (but not justifying) that consumers inexperienced with the purchase of professional services were desired.-- For this reason, their finding that the respondents did not store reference prices is not unexpected. Because of their inexperience in the three professional service categories (dental, legal and medical), subjects' strategies for acquiring the needed price information can only be considered to be speculative.

Preventative Health Care Consumer Socialization

This paper by Hudson and Brown attempts to introduce the concept of socialization into the analysis or how consumers adopt sound preventative health care practices. It is a potentially useful approach for both theorists and practitioners. For the theorist it introduces several concepts from the sociological literature that supplements the orientation toward individual consumer psychology that is the dominant paradigm in non-profit consumer behavior studies (as witnessed in the other three papers in this session). By emphasizing that the behavior one wishes to influence here is really a role accumulated over many years, the paper points out that it is often the environmental conditions that must be manipulated by change agents to serve a desired role redefinition. The socialization approach highlights the importance of timing and sources of the influence and on shaping a pattern of behavior rather than inducing discrete one-time actions as is often the case in other models or studies. The learning theory underlying the socialization approach requires attention to environmental stimuli and rewards and less attention to cognitive processing.

For practitioners the emphasis on shaping role patterns brings theoretical development more in line with the kinds of tasks actually faced in the field.

Two weaknesses of the paper, however, are that (a) it insufficiently builds on past research and model building in the health care area (for example, the work of Zaltman and his colleagues or Venkatesan and (b) it provides no test either logical or empirical to establish the superiority of the proposed model over alternatives. One is left only with personal recognition of the usefulness and relevance of some of the model's components as an indicator of the model's potent: al value.

Extending the Growth Phase

Although each of the papers in this session has its own weakness, one may ask whether the approaches represented here are or are not likely to extend the growth phase of research and writing in non-profit consumer behavior. Kotler has suggested that there are at least five strategies that may be employed to "sustain rapid market growth as long as possible" (Kotler 1981, p. 296):

1. Improve product quality and add new features and models.

2. Search out new markets to enter.

3. Look for new distribution channels to gain additional product exposure.

4. Shift from building product awareness to bring about product acceptance and purchase.

5. Lower price to attract the next layer of price sensitive buyers into the market.

By definition, papers at an ACR conference are not seeking new distribution channels (strategy number 3). On the other hand, such a strategy might well be appropriate for those papers that represent pilot efforts to apply marketing concepts and methodology to various non-profit areas where for one reason or another the paper does not represent a significant contribution to the marketing discipline itself. If such papers are included in marketing or consumer behavior forums such as ACR, it may well be that traditional marketing scholars will be "turned off" from non-profit marketing as areas for serious research and theory-building being one pervaded by simple, often not-very-successful applications of proven marketing technologies. Further, if such papers have important methodological flaws, the area may become identified as supporting 'quick-and-dirty" studies with which many marketing scholars would not want to be identified. As happened with ghetto marketing studies, it may be a case of bad research driving out good (Andreasen 1978).

In the present context, while the papers on nutrition information seeking and reference prices do make modest contributions, their methodological shortcomings raise the possibility of discouraging others from working in the area. At least, they are unlikely to spur new research. Thus, it may have better furthered the growth of non-profit marketing research had the papers been directed to journals or conferences in the applications areas where appreciation of the innovativeness of the approaches would overcome questions about the quality of the work.

The second strategy suggested by Kotler to prolong growth is to upgrade quality and add new features. In my judgment, the socialization paper does attempt to do this and with some success. By emphasizing the objective of many non-profit consumer behavior programs to change life styles, the paper shows both marketing scholars and non-profit practitioners how a fresh perspective not tied to the more common models of individual psychology can be useful and insightful. The paper should spark more research in this area.

A third strategy suggested by Kotler is seeking out new markets. The papers presented here all involve applications in areas where marketers have recently been relatively active, i.e., health care and professional services. While not faulting the authors for their choice of an area to study, one might be interested to see future research applying (a) reference price notions to the purchase of public utility services or education, (b) socialization concepts to adult education, crime protection, seat belt usage, etc., or (c) information acquisition protocols to other preventive health areas, e.g., smoking, cancer and blood pressure control.

Shifting emphasis from product awareness to product usage is a critical strategic alternative at this point in time. As already noted, consumer behavior concepts have already been introduced to most nonprofit applications areas. The problem, however, as graphically illustrated by the papers under review here is that too many consumer behavior scholars pay little or no attention to whether their work will ever by useful to practitioners in the areas they are studying. None of the papers here appeared to begin with this orientation. Those that did consider it, seemed to do so after the fact--in the mandatory 'applications" paragraphs. In my opinion much faster growth in the non-profit area would occur if more scholars explicitly considered the potential uses of their work in the field before undertaking their research. In my experience, I have found that the non-profit area is populated with very practical, frequently undertrained managers who are highly conscious of their budget limitations. As a consequence they are very skeptical of anything we might generate either research or theory that is not clearly of some practical use. This is an environmental mandate that we too often ignore.

Finally, lowering the price" is a strategy that in the non-profit context might be translated into "lowering the cost' of the product. One of the costs many nonprofit managers see in our research and writing is the mental exertions necessary to penetrate our jargon and esoteric methodologies. Fortunately, with the possible exception of the information-acquisition laboratory study, the papers here are well written, brief and reasonably free of academic jargon. Were there not other problems with the research in each, they might be quite eagerly read by those with day-to-day nonprofit management responsibilities. Certainly, keeping this cost' of acquiring the "product" low is another strategy to which scholars must pay much more attention if the growth phase in non-profit consumer research is not to be prematurely terminated.


Andreasen, Alan R. (1978), "The Ghetto Marketing Life Cycle: A Case of Under-achievement," Journal of Marketing Research, XV (February), 20-28.

Kotler, Phillip (1982), Marketing Management (4th Ed.), Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Kotler, Phillip (1982), Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hail, Inc.

Kotler, Phillip and Sidney J. Levy (1969), "Broadening the Concept of Marketing," Journal of Marketing (January), 10-15.

Stigler, George J. (1961), "The Economics of Information," The Journal of Political Economy, 69 (June), 213-225.

Venkatesan, M. (1978), "Consumer Behavior and Nutrition: Preventive Health Perspectives, in H. K. Hunt (ed.), Advances in Consumer Research, Volume V, Ann Arbor: Association for Consumer Research, 518-520.