The Traditional Purchase Funnel Is Kaput

Enter the 'always on' consumer

Why does a shopper choose Brand A toothpaste off a supermarket shelf or click the orange “Add to Cart” button under Brand B flat-screen TV on If you sampled or “liked” a new brand of cookie last weekend at Costco—but didn’t buy, knowing your pantry cookie jar is full—might that positive taste and experience inform your decision on your next visit when the jar is empty?

Yellow background and a hand holding a pink illustrated shopping cart.

Illustration: Alvaro Dominguez

For years, marketers have explained the process of consumer choice narrowing from multiple purchase options down to one with the purchase funnel, a model theorizing that decisions are formed in a linear fashion from awareness, to interest, desire and, finally, purchase. Advertising, in various media, shaped opinion along the way.

But I think the funnel is kaput. The psychology of choice is widely agreed to be far more complex, and far less linear. Research into consumer purchase habits, which started in 2005, reveals that consumer decision making about brands is constant. People are always absorbing messages and internalizing those that are meaningful, whether about cookies or TVs.

This “always-on” status means that consumers are constantly gathering information about brands and forming opinions (or what we at MEC call “passive-stage bias”). A misunderstood part of the journey, passive-stage bias plays a powerful role when consumers are actively considering a purchase. Indeed, more than half (53 percent) of the 100,000-plus consumers we queried in 13 markets worldwide for our ongoing MEC Momentum study said that they had a strong idea of which brand they’d buy before they began the buying process.

Having studied consumer buying across 23 brand categories, we found that before they click to buy or grab a product off shelf, consumers have journeyed through four distinct stages: passive, active, trigger and purchase. Whether consumers are more receptive at, say, the active stage or in the trigger phase varies by category and amount of passive-stage basis.

This new understanding allows marketers to understand and assess the factors that influence their consumer throughout the full cycle, including the strength of passive stage bias. Consumers with strong bias consider fewer brands, spend less time in the active stage and are less concerned with price when making their decision. If more than 50 percent of consumers already have a strong idea of which brand they will purchase before they start the buying process, shouldn’t you know how they’re being influenced?

Also consider purchase triggers, or what moves a consumer from a passive stage to an active one. For toothpaste buyers in China, the dominant cause for buying a brand was “I was running out,” followed by convenience (“It was part of my regular grocery shop”). Similarly, need was also the leading cause for Polish consumers shopping for a mobile phone contract. This makes it all the more important for a brand to build equity with consumers during the passive stage, ensuring that when they go into the store or online to make their purchase, they’ve already got your brand in mind.

What drives a consumer from considering a brand to choosing it over others varies by category. Car buyers wanting an environmentally friendly car, our research shows, were five times more likely to buy a Toyota over an Audi, while flat-screen TV shoppers looking for the latest technology were seven times more likely to buy a Samsung over a Hitachi.

Finally, the role of communications at various points of the decision cycle is a key factor. Consumer response to specific touch points and types of ads (i.e., paid, owned and earned) varies depending upon category. Consumers wanting to buy a soft drink are moved equally by viewing a TV ad and seeing a product on a store shelf, while prospective flat-screen TV buyers are most influenced by in-person viewing (owned) and online (earned) reviews. TV ads (paid), in contrast, mattered least.

Armed with this information, we’re better equipped to answer the question of this new always-on marketing cycle. And yes, those Costco samples matter, even if you don’t make a purchase right away.

Pele Cortizo-Burgess is global director, integrated planning at MEC.