Applying cognitive psychology models to marketing research ‘Beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’

7 March
Authors Aditi Garg

As consumer behaviour evolves with the changing paradigms of brands, technology and customer experience, the constructs of understanding consumer perceptions and motivations also need to evolve.

6 min read
6 min read

As consumer behaviour evolves with the changing paradigms of brands, technology and customer experience, the constructs of understanding consumer perceptions and motivations also need to evolve. 

Abraham Maslow gave marketers ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs [1]. Since it’s been widely used by researchers to help interpret consumer behaviour. That was developed in 1943 and used throughout the 20th century.

In the 21st century era, with the transformation in quality and quantity of data, we need more nuanced ways of understanding consumer behaviour. The academic world can be a starting point for this. This is because we can be inspired by and adapt consumer psychology models for commercial marketing research projects.

The marketing world has engaged and adapted neuroscience and behavioural science and developed sophisticated models for decoding real-time data in a digital world. But it’s made less adaption in everyday research work.  

This is because we need to make relevant academic models more mainstream and usable to commercial researchers.

Even the popular concept of ‘Marketing Myopia’ developed by the revered HBS professor Theodore Levitt and the more recent ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman aren’t frequently applied by clients for commercial research. Marketing concepts taught in business schools, like Porter’s Five Forces and the Ansoff matrix, have been more accepted. However, they aren’t always applied to marketing research studies.

In a digital world, the consumer journey is not linear. This means constructs of understanding consumer behaviour will have to evolve. For digital-first brands, the volume of data being generated means they need both advanced statistical analysis and psychological constructs to be able to present data in a framework to relate it to human behaviour – and, therefore, useable by businesses.

Most of the stated resistance towards academic models comes from time and usability constraints. The key concern is that analytical outcomes wouldn’t be something clients can implement.

For one of my recent studies to discover Trends and Growth drivers in Lifestyle categories for an E-Commerce marketplace, I applied the Tri-component model of Attitude formation.[2]

The model discusses the notion that the three aspects of affect, behaviour and cognition impact human experience. The Tri-component model of attitude (also known as the ABC model) was first stated by Rosenberg and Hovland.  

They argued that an attitude has three basic components: Affect, Behaviour and Cognition, and researchers should measure these components in order to understand attitudes. The objectives of the study were to understand the underlying motivations, needs and attitudes of consumers who buy fragrances, cosmetics, personal care products, and health and wellness products via E-commerce marketplaces and brand sites. 

Initially, the Client was hesitant to use the model since it meant the questionnaire had to be designed in a certain way. The Client was concerned about how certain information areas were going to generate the intended outcomes.  

I defended my research design by giving an example of how the model would make the outcome more actionable. We would be able to understand all 3 aspects of consumer attitude formation. That would then enable us to design our communication accordingly. Highlighting emotion in communication where affect is more prominent and being transparent and giving all information where cognition is. The outcome-based approach convinced the Client, and we agreed to use the model. 

At my end, I was particular about translating the entire questionnaire into intended outcomes and highlighting which of the research objectives, as laid out by the Client, would be tackled.

When we analysed the findings from the quantitative research, we decoded what part of the decision-making was being impacted by which component and arrived at the sum total of attitude formation for each of the categories. 

In the  Fragrances category, we uncovered that the affect component plays an important role and the resultant impact it has on decision making as opposed to the conative component being important in food and beverages where set pattern prevents newer entrants or newer ways of buying.

An important information area in the study was the relative importance of product packaging in decision-making. This would enable the E-commerce platform to design the digital product catalogue by balancing product information and displaying images. The model helped us understand that while affect is a large part of attitude formation, cognition also plays an important role, and thus, the product page must be a mix of emotion and function.

The benefit of using models and constructs is that they make analysis very outcome-focused. The challenges are that the Client finds it restrictive and academic and often struggles to understand the theory behind it.

A lot of client’s reluctance is also compounded by the researcher’s lack of awareness and understanding of these models – who often prefer using their own proprietary models. I feel there is a strong need for marketing managers to encourage the use of such models and build a narrative for their application in everyday marketing challenges. 

Researchers should also stay updated on advancements in consumer psychology and make efforts to educate clients on them. It’s challenging to introduce a new model when research results are to feed into business outcomes on a strict timeline. 

I have often found that adapting the model to the client’s information areas and ensuring that the model is not restrictive helps. For clients in a digital-first environment, it's critical to keep using newer ways of understanding and interpreting consumer behaviour. Doing so could be a game changer in your innovation strategy.   

[1] Maslow, A.H. (1943). “A Theory of Human Motivation”. In Psychological Review, 50 (4), 430-437. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

[2] Rosenberg, M. J., Hovland, C. I., McGuire, W. J., Abelson, R. P., & Brehm, J. W. (1960). Attitude organization and change: An analysis of consistency among attitude components

Aditi Garg
Founder at Out of Syllabus