A buyer’s path to purchase is what is known as the buyer’s journey. It is the process every potential customer goes through towards actually deciding on a product or service. The buyer’s journey may take several steps, but generally through three stages: awareness, consideration, and decision.
In this article, let’s look at each of the three stages from an objective perspective. Then, we are going to look at them from the brand or the business perspective to figure out where they are, as though marking them on a map. Finally, we’ll try to see through the customer and uncover what could be an underlying dimension informing and shaping the potential buyer’s awareness towards consideration and decision to actually make the purchase. Understanding these would help improve the marketing process and, more importantly, the sales figures.
The three stages of the buyer’s journey
1. Awareness Stage
The potential buyer’s journey begins when she becomes aware of a problem needing a solution. That problem could come in the form or sensation of pain, a symptom of pain, perhaps some misery, or even a lack, including a lack of a name for the problem at hand. Coming to the awareness of a particular problem could be informed through one’s immediate reaction to an experienced pain or a recognition of a lack found out for oneself, as though through introspection, or from an external source such as encountering an informative advert or content. The goal is immediately defined at this point: to alleviate, to end, or to get hold of the solution to a problem.
2. Consideration Stage
In this second stage, the buyer has defined the problem, or, from not knowing what to name it, has identified the specific language to use that could help describe it. At this stage, an initial search for terms, keywords, and descriptors may have already provided a long list of results. Not all of those, of course, will be considered. The initial results are narrowed down as the buyer at this stage focuses on a specific solution to fix the problem. It could turn out that different brands or companies are offering different versions of the right solution. Those versions are for further consideration.
3. Decision Stage
The buyer further narrows down the list to just one brand, one specific item, service, or package and, finally, makes the purchase decision.
Mapping the buyer’s journey
From the brand’s standpoint, there is what we call the “customer journey.” Basically, it is a roadmap from the potential customer’s brand discovery to purchasing and beyond. From the brand’s perspective, a customer journey begins when a potential customer becomes aware of the brand, as when a shopper sees and enters a store. Anticipating such a scenario, marketing and sales teams usually design activities that would lead such brand awareness to consideration and actual purchase. Beyond that, they also come up with retention and advocacy strategies for customer loyalty. Around these stages, trapdoors, harmlessly called customer touchpoints, are also set up to funnel in more potential customers. However, all these won’t be effective if the buyer’s journey is not included in mapping out the customer’s journey from an objective standpoint.
There could be a beginning of a brand awareness, but brands sometimes spoil the customer journey by aggressively offering either the wrong solution to a problem or the right solution to the wrong problem. What brands interpret as a moment of brand awareness on the way to consideration towards purchase could already be the consideration stage from the buyer’s perspective. The buyer might, in the future, decide to purchase from such a brand after remembering a brand’s product which could fix a potential problem. But the brand just ruined the interaction.
Creating a meaningful customer experience
In order to provide a meaningful customer experience, either the brand integrates the buyer’s journey into their strategic mapping or the brand stretches its map of the customer journey far back to the beginning of the awareness of the buyer’s problem. Customer touchpoints could, then, be pre-positioned in the potential buyer’s environment, just being there and ready to offer when a problem comes up.
A good rule of thumb here is that, usually, only 3% of potential customers are ready and willing to buy now. To them, you can give the solution they’re looking for immediately. For the 97%, though, you may want to limit your interaction to just a soft offer. Your goal for them, in the meantime, is to create top-of-mind awareness. Remember that each customer moves at her own pace, some are among the 3%, and some are among the 97%. Instead of being aggressive and losing potential customers, you may want to prioritize building trust, especially since more and more customers today are including trust among their top criteria in considering brands to purchase from. Show your customers that you care, be helpful, and begin cultivating a relationship where a meaningful customer experience could grow.
The new consumer mind
Today, we see an integration of digital technology into the lives of consumers. It has now become “like an additional body part or a second brain,” as Kit Yarrow writes in Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy (2014). However, “people don’t live their life online or offline－it’s an increasingly integrated experience. Consumers are aching for a seamless, integrated shopping experience across all of the channels where they explore, research, purchase, and share.” (Emphasis mine.)
For Yarrow (2014), “the solution for marketers is to deeply understand the new motivating factors and psychology of consumers as fuel for new ideas.” A deeper dive, then, into the customer’s mind would help us in navigating through the changing customer behavior, even anticipate future behavior patterns.
A deeper dive into the consumer mind
Gerald Zaltman, Professor Emeritus of Harvard Business School, in a Harvard Business Digital interview about his Marketing Metaphoria (2008), talked about deep-level metaphors. He defined it as the “fundamental frames or viewing lenses that we use to orient ourselves with the world around us. They work largely below our awareness and shape and reshape just about everything we think, feel, hear, say, and do.”
In relation to the stages of the buyer’s journey we enumerated earlier, we could situate Zaltman’s “deep metaphors” prior to the awareness stage. For him, those deep metaphors are like a hidden language of thought and action. In contrast, “we often only look at surface-level differences and similarities among customers, but they actually revolve around an underlying dimension or common denominator”: the deep metaphors. As one matures, metaphors associated with the things in one’s environment become deeply embedded into the unconscious. Through a deep dive into the consumer’s mind, those could be harnessed, connected, and associated with a brand’s persona, characteristics, or values.
Zaltman used as an example the value of care, such as how parents would take care to hold and contain their children. Michelin was able to harness the metaphors of caring and containing in their ad which showed a group of children having fun in a large Michelin tire as though in a rubber boat. In another example, Budweiser ran an ad showing men calling male friends on the phone. They are connecting with one another, and each finds a connection with the beer. Coca-Cola also realized that the brand has become a marker of key associations, persons, and celebrations. With a deep dive into the consumer minds’, they also found out that the brand has deepened one’s connection with oneself. And so they ran an ad focusing on that value.
Close more sales: Consider the human element
Today, sales and marketing teams define their target market by identifying their ideal customer avatar (ICA). To better consider the customer’s human element, rather than just demographic and geographic details, is to look deep into the underlying dimension that informs and shapes how one reacts to problems towards finding a solution in the awareness stage and throughout the buyer’s journey. Zaltman (2008) diagnosed a “depth deficit” among marketing firms.
The challenge for brands is to dive deep into the minds of consumers, to be imaginative, to engage in thinking about what could be at the back of consumers’ minds, uncovering even those that they haven’t consciously thought about. If you want to close even more sales, then you may also be interested in recurring revenues. This means having a holistic approach to the buyer’s journey and cultivating customer lifetime value.
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Yarrow, K. (2014). Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy. Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand.
Zaltman, G. and Zaltman, L. (2008). Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal About the Minds of Consumers. Harvard Business Press.
“Inside the Buyer’s Journey: The 3 Stages of the Buyer’s Journey.” MasterClass. last updated February 25, 2022.
“What Is the Buyer’s Journey?” Hubspot. Updated May 12 2021.
“Understanding Your Customer’s Mind.” Harvard Business Review. June 29, 2008.