Brands enter people’s lives through myriad touchpoints, all of which contribute to building a bias toward the brand in the consumer’s mind – in other words, hooking them early. Here Chris Worrell of Wavemaker looks at the evidence for bias building.

Last year McKinsey updated its Consumer Decision Journey loop and in an article, entitled The New Battleground for Marketing-led Growth, it suggested that ‘hooking them (consumers) early’ is the strongest path to growth – to us at Wavemaker this was not new news and we are glad McKinsey has seen the error of its ways and caught up!

We’ve been studying the purchase journey for over four years, examining 350,000 individual purchase journeys across 65 categories and 35 countries, using a proprietary methodology. Consistently, across categories and territories, our research quantifies the importance of ‘hooking them early’. We call this building bias in the Priming Stage. The stage of the purchase journey so important to marketers yet so often overlooked. The Priming Stage is everyday life, where people care more about the royal wedding, their summer holiday or what to have for dinner than they do about brands.

But importantly they are still building associations and biases towards brands, positive and negative. They are being primed.  This priming comes from many sources: advertising, of course, but also conversations, using a product, a review, a smile at check in, or a frustrating website experience. This myriad of fragmented sources all build (or weaken) the bias for a brand in the Priming Stage.

The foundation of brand success is building bias in the priming stage. Why?  Because it quantifiably impacts people’s behaviour in the Active Stage – when someone is triggered into market for a product or service.  People with strong bias for a CPG brand in the Priming Stage are five times more likely to buy it in the Active Stage (than someone with little or no bias), similarly for durable goods brands, rising to nine times more likely for services brands.  People do different things too.  Among buyers of Ford cars for example, 25% of those with strong bias compared prices in the Active Stage versus 42% of those with some or no bias to Ford.

Hooking people early is incredibly important because it’s where they spend most of their time; on average people are in market (in the Active Stage) for less than 7% of the purchase cycle, across categories and markets.

This Priming Stage is increasingly undervalued, forgotten or wilfully ignored – lost in a sea of immediacy as brands seek to convert ‘in market’ shoppers.  Digital has exacerbated this, by prioritising a focus on existing or known customers, on loyalty and short-term sales, but brand growth comes from reaching people we don’t know and don’t know that much about.

Building bias is subtly but importantly different to ‘initial consideration’.  The idea of a consideration set was first suggested in 1969, the same year a separate study tried to determine the average size of a consideration set across categories.  It found most consideration sets were three to five brands with an average of four. Then the biggest retailer sold around 7,000 different products. Today Amazon UK sells 201,000,000 different products.

Given the same ratio, a consideration set today should be 115,000 brands. Aggregating all the purchase journey research we put the average consideration set closer to three.  It has gone down, not up. The more important measure of bias is even lower. People tend to have just one brand that they have a strong idea they will buy.  Other brands play a role in confirming and contextualising the purchase decision, but it’s bias built in the priming stage that is critical, not featuring on a consideration set once a consumer has decided to buy.  Consideration over simplifies and rationalises a complex and often subconscious process.

McKinsey also suggested that loyalty is ‘slipping’ and consumers ‘can’t help but shop around’.  Loyalty is an easy word to drop into a brief or strategy, but it over-simplifies reality.  We call any act of repurchasing Surface Loyalty, but it’s what happens under the surface that is more interesting.  By examining Wavemaker Momentum data we’ve been able to identify and quantify five different sub-types of loyalty:

  1. Instinctive loyalty: tunnel-vision loyalty where only one brand is considered
  2. Powerful loyalty: a strong likelihood to repurchase but using other brands as benchmarks or reference points
  3. Polygamous loyalty: active consideration of (and, over time, purchase of) multiple brands
  4. Inert loyalty: repeat buying driven by lack of interest and apathy
  5. Safety-first loyalty: loyalty driven by fear – loss aversion. A desire to change but “chickening” out at the last minute

Not surprisingly, the dominant type of loyalty varies cross categories and for different brands in a category. It is an over simplification to suggest that some categories are loyal and others not.  

So in short, here are three key purchase journey questions marketers must ask:

  1. Are our communication programmes building long term Priming Bias for our brand? Don’t get fixated by short term sales, building bias in the Priming Stage has a quantifiably larger impact on the bottom line
  1. How strong is Priming Stage bias for my brand, how does it benchmark against the category and what could drive an increase in bias?Question consideration as a metric.  Bias is a far more accurate representation of brand health and translates into direct action in the Active Stage
  1. Which audiences represent the most likely source of growth for my brand, and how can I most effectively reach them? Understand what loyalty really means. Repurchasing doesn’t equate to loyalty and a multitude of factors drives most purchases, conscious and subconscious

The purchase journey is critical to brand and business success and sits at the heart of our planning process, guiding everything from budget mix to content creation to touchpoint allocation. Having the right purchase journey model is even more critical.