Context Effects on Consumer Choice, Brand Awareness and Decision Making

C. Whan Park, University of Pittsburgh
[ to cite ]:
C. Whan Park (1993) ,"Context Effects on Consumer Choice, Brand Awareness and Decision Making", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 395-396.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 395-396


C. Whan Park, University of Pittsburgh

Several important themes underscore recent research into the effects of goals and context on consumer choice, including the observations that choice is goal - dependent, goals are context - specific, and both benefits and usage situations can perform as important cues which influence the make-up of consumers' consideration sets. It is important that work continue in this area in order to better specify the roles of goals and context in the various stages of consumer choice - particularly the consideration set formation stage - and to better identify the general implications of this line of research for both researchers and managers. Since Huffman discussed each of the three papers (Warlop and Ratneshwar, Holden, and Granoic and Shocker), I will primarily highlight the implications of current research in this area as well as specify a potential future research agenda.

There appears to be some ambivalence and/or confusion as to the proper relationships among consumption goals, benefits, and usage situations. In many cases consumption goals seem to be thought of independent of usage situations. They are more or less equated with consumption benefits. However, given the premise that product/brand choice is consumption goal-driven, it seems clear that usage situations must be explicitly incorporated into the definition of goals. Without considering usage situations as an integral part of the consumer's consumption goal, it is difficult to conceive of product/brand choice as goal-driven. Therefore, I propose that goals are a function of two key elements: benefits and usage situations. A consumer's goal can be most accurately defined and described in terms of the specific benefits sought in light of the specific usage context. For example, consider a consumer's need to quench his or her thirst. Without any additional information to define the usage context or the specific benefits sought, the consumer's consumption goal lacks specificity and product choice is not likely to occur, given this lack of specificity. However, if the usage situation finds the consumer at a baseball game on a blistering, hot day, and the consumer desires a product solution (set of benefits) that is flavorful, refreshing, and low-calorie, then product/brand choice is more likely to occur - in all likelihood from a consideration set which includes diet soft or fruit drinks, and/or low-calorie beers. On the other hand, a thirsty consumer at a football game on a cold, windy day is more likely to consider alternatives such as coffee or hot chocolate. Note that the specific benefits sought and the specific usage situation can help specify the consumer's consumption goal and have a resulting impact on consideration set formation and choice. The point is not usage situations or benefits by themselves are ineffective predictors of choice. Rather, both usage situations and benefits constitute the consumer's consumption goal - and it is these goals that may be the most influential factors affecting consideration set formation and choice.

Defining consumption goals as consisting of both benefits and usage situations is important. Because many versatile products provide a range of benefits that are applicable across various usage situations, this conceptualization of goals means that alternatives in consideration sets need not be members of the same product category - suggesting opportunities for certain brands to pursue sales growth by proactively competing with brands from other product categories.

This view of consumer goals also prescribes that the most effective cues for influencing the storage and retrieval of consideration sets from memory may be those that are explicitly "goal-related." Therefore, the goal itself may be a critical encoding and retrieval cue which facilitates the inclusion of certain products in consumers' consideration sets. In particular, consumption goals as effective encoding cues for potential product-level consideration sets may be of principal importance because effective retrieval is unlikely to occur without effective encoding in the first place.

However, in order to understand this encoding process, it is necessary to examine the actual process of goal specification. Consumption goals are not always initially formulated in a specific form or at a relatively concrete level of representation. As such, consumers can often be expected to engage in a "goal-editing" process which changes the composition of their consumption goals from being relatively abstract to being more concrete or specific prior to making a product or brand choice.

Benefits and usage situations, as the key components of goals, underlie this process. As shown in Figure 1, the relative specificity or abstractness of benefits and usage situations combine to determine the overall specificity of the consumer's consumption goal. The examples provided by Figure 2 illustrate the varying levels of goal specificity.

When usage situations and benefits are abstract, consumers may modify and edit their consumption goals, making them more choice relevant. This editing may involve benefits and usage situations, as demonstrated in Figure 2. The manner in which consumers refine both benefits and usage situations to make the abstract goal concrete may, in turn, offer important implications for developing effective encoding strategies that increase consideration set membership for the brand. The challenge of researchers is, thus, to determine how to best utilize goals, consisting of benefits and usage situations, as effective encoding cues which facilitate consideration set formation, and successful product level competition. Research strategies that manipulate the relevance between a brand and certain consumption goals, and measure the resulting impact on consideration set membership, should be a part of future research efforts.

The papers in this issue are useful in the continuing exploration of the effects of goals and context on consumer choice. They constitute the beginning of a serious research agenda that must focus further attention on the processes and implications of goals and context in consumer decision making.