AWA: Academic Writing at Auckland
Title: Learning theories and marketing
Copyright: Alice Wake
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Learning theories and marketing
Learning is a key element of our day-to-day lives and without it we would be starting every day without any previous knowledge. For example, every day we would need to figure out how to make a coffee. Fortunately, the human brain is capable of learning and storing memories for us to use, allowing us to make a coffee with ease every morning. Understanding the learning concept in the marketing industry is extremely valuable. This essay is going to discuss the learning theory and how it is important in understanding consumer behaviour. It will explore the different types of learning theories – conditioning and cognitive – and how these are important for marketers. Finally, this essay will discuss whether the various learning theories are still relevant today with changing consumption patterns, particularly with social media.
Learning is regarded as important in the consumer behaviour theory. Learning refers to “any change in the content or organisation of long-term memory; the result of information processing” (Quester et al., 2014, p. 264). Our memory consists of short and long-term memories which have been acquired through past experiences. The short-term memory is always activated and in-use whereas the long-term memory permanently holds learned items (Quester et al., 2014). Motivation is also important in learning and “provides the motive for the human beings to react and fulfil their needs” (Gopalan, Bakar, Zulkifli, Alwi & Mat, 2017). Motivation is the basis for achievements and aspirations (Gopalan et al., 2017). What people are motivated to learn and have stored in their long-term memory effects their consumer behaviour and decision making. Consumer behaviour refers to understanding how and why consumers do or do not make purchases (Peter, Olson & Grunert, 1999). Duggal describes learning as “the foundation of consumer behaviour” and the process of consumers acquiring information to use for their future purchase decisions (2018, para. 2). Consumers learn from their actions and use this for future decision making (Serpell, 1976). When consumers have a good or bad experience with a product, they associate that experience with the product and this influences how likely they are to purchase the product again (Serpell, 1976). For example, if you become sick after drinking coffee, you associate that negative state with coffee and learn that you will feel sick after consuming it. Therefore, you discontinue to purchase coffee and vice versa with positive associations. These past experiences influence consumers during the decision-making process and determine the end result (Milhart, 2012). The theories for learning claim that information is acquired/learnt, as just mentioned, rather than inherited traits. Marketers are able to make use of this information to understand how consumers learn and how this impacts their behaviour. This is important as learning drives all purchases.
There are two types of learning theories. There first one is conditioning which refers to “learning that is based on the association of a stimulus (information) and a response (behaviour or feeling)” (Quester et al., 2014, p. 266). There are two types of conditioning; classical and operant. Classical conditioning suggests that commercials, where there are components that receive positive reactions, result in positive attitudes towards the advertised product (Gorn, 1982). For example, when music (unconditioned stimulus) that is viewed positively (unconditioned response) is put into a commercial, the audience associates that same feeling received from the music with the advertised product (conditioned stimulus). As a result, the audience then has a positive association (conditioned response) with the product and are more likely to purchase it. An example is an advert for Aveeno with Jenifer Aniston is pictured as the unconditioned stimulus. Research has found that consumer product choices are influenced by the background features in commercials as the positive emotions experienced are associated with the advertised product (Gorn, 1982).
Classical conditioning is useful for marketers as it helps them to understand consumer learning based on a stimulus to better understand consumer’s attitude formation and behaviours in response to commercials. Attitude formation refers to “how people come to evaluate objects in the environment, positively and negatively” (Olsen & Fazio, 2001, p. 413). Research has found that attitudes can be conditioned without the presence of contingency awareness (Olsen & Fazio, 2001). Marketers can use this concept to design more effective marketing to assist in creating positive attitudes with a brand or product. Classical conditioning also builds emotional connections with customers instead of only providing information. Emotions are effective in influencing consumer behaviour as they carry an evaluative component which can also be associated with the product (Quester et al., 2014,). They also help in directing attention which is fundamental for learning (Schunk, 2012).
Although consumption patterns are changing over time, the classical conditioning theory is still relevant. In the last decade, the use of social media has significantly increased, with the internet reaching more than 4 billion users in 2018 (Młodkowska, 2019). Along with this has emerged social media influencers who are “social media creators with loyal audiences” (Młodkowska, 2019, p. 4). Research has shown that influencers are seen as credible and trustworthy by their followers so are now a valuable marketing tool for brands particularly when wanting to reach younger audiences (Młodkowska, 2019). A poll found that 82% of consumers expressed that they would be more likely to follow a recommendation from their favourite influencer (Lim, Radzol, Cheah, & Wong, 2017). Although this new way of marketing is different to traditional marketing (such as television and newspapers), classical conditioning is still relevant. In the case of brand endorsements done by influencers, the influencer becomes an unconditional stimulus. As the influencers are seen as trustworthy, followers develop a positive association with the product.
Operant conditioning refers to a process of learning where consumer responses to a stimulus is influenced by reinforcement or discouragement through rewards or punishments (Quester et al., 2014). Skinner, also referred to as ‘the father of operant conditioning’, found that “behaviour which is reinforced tends to be repeated” (McLeod, 2015, p. 1). Skinner conducted experiments which involved putting rats into a box with a stimulus (light), a system for interaction (lever) and a reward (food) to study behavioural changes using punishments and rewards (McLeod, 2015). Over time, the rats got into a routine of pressing the lever when stimulated with the light as they had learnt that they would get a reward (McLeod, 2015). This learning technique can be applied to humans and has proven to modify behaviours in various contexts such as prisons, schools and mental hospitals (Schunk, 2012). Teachers are able to use this framework to change behaviours of children, such as handing in messy homework, by offering rewards such as stickers that provide positive reinforcement and behavioural change (Schunk, 2012). An example in marketing of this is providing free samples (stimulus) of your product to consumers for them to try, to hopefully provide positive reinforcement and repurchase (desired response). A real-life example is Red Bull who launched a full-scale operant conditioning campaign (Dymond, 2018). This could be seen at the University of Auckland where Red Bull drinks were scattered through university accommodation to bring positive reinforcement and encourage future purchase. This type of learning can be useful for marketers as a way of controlling and predicting the behaviours of consumers (Peter & Nord, 1982). Marketers can offer positive reinforcements to consumers knowing that this will increase the likelihood of them repurchasing (Young, 2019).
With the increase in use of social media in the last decade, although it is being used in new ways, operant conditioning is still relevant today. Social media has become a digital version of Skinner’s box experiment. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and other social media applications provide the ‘like’ and ‘comment’ features which give users unpredictable positive reinforcements which keep them scrolling on these applications in search of this reward (Davidow, 2013). The more deprived users are of this reward (such as a ‘like’ or interesting content), the more they check social media to find that reward (Conditioning and the addictive nature of social media feeds, 2011). Another way it is being used is by other brands who can now identify potential consumers by analysing consumers online behaviour and directly advertising to them through the internet (Davidow, 2013). For example, Burger King can find consumers who have been searching for ways to lose weight and target them with food discounts (stimulus) as they know these people may be more easily persuaded into making a purchase. Another example is brands using Google maps to send product deals (for example, 20% off of a meal) when you are close to their stores (Davidow, 2013). The change in consumption and development of social media has resulted in an opportunity to more specifically target consumers using operant conditioning.
The second type of learning is through cognitive learning theories which refer to “the mental activities of humans as they work to solve problems or cope with situations; involves learning the ideas, concepts, attitudes and facts that contribute to the ability to reason, solve problems and learn relationships without direct experience or reinforcement” (Quester et al., 2014, p. 270). Cognitive learning theories require cognitive effort, cognitive structure, information analysis, elaboration and memorisation (Carmen, 2008). Some cognitive learning theories that are used in marketing include iconic rote learning and vicarious learning. Iconic rote learning refers to the “association of two or more concepts, in the absence of conditioning” and can be accomplished by repeating advertisement messages (Carmen, 2008, p. 1144). Examples include the repetition of McDonald’s “I'm lovin’ it” across their adverts and the Warehouse slogan, “where everyone gets a bargain”. This is useful for marketers as experiments show that cues from adverts help access memories of the brand/product and affect brand evaluations (Keller, 1987). This concept is still relevant today for marketers as now with social media there are more platforms that the adverts can be shared on (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube etc.) to increase the number of viewings by consumers. Vicarious learning refers to consumers gathering information about a product “by deliberate observation of other consumers behaviour which they adapt depending on their own needs” (Carmen, 2008, p. 1144). An example of vicarious learning being used in marketing is seen in the Ab Circle Pro commercials which show the results and rewards of other consumers who use the product. This is important for marketers as consumers like to know what value they will receive from the product and know how effective it is. Consumers often follow by example, as seen in trends, so showing other people's experiences will encourage purchase. This concept is frequently used today in product endorsements, especially in YouTube videos by influencers, where they show how to use a product and talk about how beneficial it is.
Overall, learning theories play a large part in understanding consumer behaviour and decision making. Motivation and memory aid in learning by creating the interest to learn and a location for learnt knowledge to be stored for future use. Information that is learnt has influenced consumers decision making which is why learning theories are so important for understanding consumer behaviour. There are two types of learning theories, conditioning (classical and operant) and cognitive (iconic rote and vicarious learning). Classical conditioning is useful for marketers as it helps them understand and influence attitude formation by consumers. It is a concept that is used frequently through influencers with the increase in social media usage. Operant conditioning is important for marketers as it can be used to predict and control consumer behaviours. It has become a well-used concept in social media and has created an opportunity to more specifically target consumers. Iconic rote learning is still relevant as with the uprising of social media, there are more platforms to share adverts on and vicarious learning is still relevant as it is now heavily used by brands through influencers on social media. Although most learning theories were established many years ago, they are still relevant through changing consumption patterns.
PART B – advertisement
The aim of this advertisement is to increase the positive associations with the customisable shampoo and conditioner by Function of Beauty because they are not yet a very popular or well-known brand so consumers have neutral or non-existent associations with them.
This aim is fulfilled in this advertisement by using the classical conditioning learning theory. The advertisement has a picture of Kylie Jenner as the unconditioned stimulus alongside the customisable shampoo and conditioner by ‘Function of Beauty’ which is the conditioned stimulus. Kylie Jenner is a celebrity that is admired and seen positively (unconditioned response) in the beauty community. As Kylie is in an advertisement with this product, consumers are going to associate this positive feeling from her with the product and brand (conditioned response) and be more likely to purchase it in the future. Therefore, this advertisement will be effective for the type of consumer learning.
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