We’ve been told a consumer’s path to purchase proceeds in a straight line: awareness, familiarity, consideration, purchase … and if done right, it leads to loyalty. It’s a logical step-by-step progression model and gives brands the confidence to manage customers’ engagement and activate them along each step in their journey.

Illusion Unveiled

The problem is that this linear model is an illusion. Human beings simply don’t work this way — ever. Instead, a consumer’s path to purchase takes a circuitous route, moving forward, going sideways, circling back, overlapping and sometimes, if a brand is lucky, a consumer pulls the trigger. But rarely, if ever, do they proceed along a straight line.

And complicating the matter further, the customer journey has become even more convoluted with the rise of digital shopping, IBM’s U.S. Retail Index claims accelerated five years into one during the pandemic.

Digital Thruway With Roadblocks

Digital shopping reached nearly $1.2 trillion in 2022, up 54 percent over $751 billion in 2019, according to the Census retail report, With retail sales totaling roughly $4.8 trillion last year (excluding motor vehicles and parts, gas stations and food services), online shopping represents one-fourth of all retail transactions. And equally impressive is the influence of digital on brand awareness, familiarity and consideration in the traditional path to purchase model.

Now that the customer journey has been permanently rerouted onto digital rails, it’s become a labyrinth of intersecting pathways with many potential dead ends: Forget a straight line.

And more confounding, the end of the journey may actually be the consumer’s starting point.

Start at the End

Consumer psychologist and founder of Buycology, Chris Gray, suggests another way to plot the customer journey. Start at the end and backtrack to understand the route customers take to get to purchase. The emotional aspects influencing purchase are as important as the digital or physical pathway.

Gray explains, “Consumer behavior is always a means to an emotional end,” he says. By understanding the emotional result consumers’ are looking for, brands can better understand and anticipate consumers’ behavior – their path to purchase.

While we tend to think of consumers driven by material needs –needing something – the emotional needs are stronger and more compelling. And fortunately, emotional needs are reliably predictable. “Consumers are people and people are driven by the same core needs,” explains social psychologist Erica Carranza, vice president of consumer psychology at Chadwick Martin Bailey.

“We all strive to maximize positive emotions, enhance and express our identities, cultivate social relationships and effectively achieve our goals. Because these are core human needs, brands that help people fulfill these needs drive consideration, trial, loyalty, and advocacy,” she says. “People are 30 times more likely to try a brand if they expect it to deliver strong emotional, identity, social, or functional benefits,” she adds.

In the traditional linear path-to-purchase model, the functional benefits of a brand – it’s features and benefits – tend to be the bait brands use to draw customers along their path. But a much more enticing lure is the promise of emotional rewards. That is what consumers value most and that means brands must talk values at every touchpoint in their customer journey.

The brand that speaks customer values best and most consistently is the one where the consumer will arrive at the desired endpoint – a successful transaction.

What Consumers Value Determines What Path They Take

Brands must talk values to the consumer; but the key question is what do people really value? That is actually a loaded question because value is multidimensional operating on three different planes. Let’s break it down:

  • Value is realized through the shopping experience. This includes attributes such as convenience, product assortment and arrangement that makes it easy to find what is wanted, special promotional offers and incentives (which is distinguished from product price), customer reviews and customer service – another highly personal concept, but customers know it when they get it. What a brand wants to sell can’t be divorced from how it is sold. This is why so many brands are going the direct-to-consumer route, rather than relying on multibrand retailers even though these retail partners have a built-in customer bases which can’t be dismissed.

  • Product features deliver value.
    Product-specific features include many different factors depending upon the vertical. For example, both home furnishings and fashion must fit and they must be styled right. Cosmetics and performance products, like housewares, appliances and tools, must work with a minimum amount of effort or time expended. All must be priced right within the customers’ budget. And all products must meet the customers’ standard of quality. No brand can go wrong by offering the highest standards of quality. Everyone wants to buy the best that their budget can afford. Increasingly the trend is toward consumers buying fewer but better things, favoring brands that do what they promise over a long time and won’t end up in a landfill.

  • Corporate values speak to consumers’ values.
    What a brand stands for – the values it upholds – are growing in importance. Brand ethos is not to the exclusion of shopping or product values, but reinforces them. Corporate social responsibility and environmental mission statements aren’t the reason people buy a brand or shop at a store, but they may be the reason why they choose one over another.

Dangerous Curves Ahead

Corporate values can be a slippery slope, however, especially if brands lean into divisive, politically-charged issues where the danger is alienating 50 percent of target customers. Brands should be careful to align themselves with commonly shared societal values all or most of their stakeholders can agree upon.

Trusting a company to do the right thing for them personally and for society at large is what consumers expect. The danger is doing the politically trendy thing today that could change tomorrow. The current view is not to sacrifice the greater good for more profit.

For example, when CVS decided to stop selling tobacco products because it violated the company’s mission of “helping people on their path to better health,” that was a decision even smokers could understand.

On the other hand, it’s a matter of debate with many corporations speaking out against Georgia for its new voting rights act. Walmart set a pragmatic course in a statement made by CEO Doug McMillon stating the company is “not in the business of partisan politics.”

Blazing a New Trail

“Every day, people form impressions of brands from touchpoints such as advertisements, news reports, conversations with family and friends and product experiences,” states a McKinsey study of the new customer journey.

“Unless consumers are actively shopping, much of that exposure appears wasted. But what happens when something triggers the impulse to buy? Those accumulated impressions then become crucial because they shape the initial consideration set: the small number of brands consumers regard at the outset as potential purchasing options,” it suggested.

The majority of impressions that put a brand into a consumer’s consideration set aren’t necessarily or even mostly rationale or objective, but emotional.

Emotions can run hot and cold, but one thing is for sure, consumers on their path to purchase want to maximize the positive emotions and minimize the negative ones. Brands talk a lot about removing friction in consumers’ path to purchase. However, rather than just removing friction, they should be adding joy, meaning and enrichment into every step of the process.

The American Marketing Group can help you plot a profitable path for your customers to follow to purchase. Connect to learn how.

Note; This article originally appeared in The Robin Report.