Experts’ View: Consumer Behavior

August 10, 2016 | Consumer Behavior

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Food and how it is consumed has become an interesting subject for scientists. “The factors which trigger hunger pangs, the study of the size and nature of the products we eat and consumer motivation (either conscious or sub­conscious) are topics which are more and more subject to serious study in the neuroscience field. The results of this research are attracting a lot of interest from industry professionals—some work has been published in the press but it is often subject to sensation-seeking, emotional bias and great difficulty in vulgarizing complex phenomena.

To summarize (without oversimplifying), the most important mechanisms to note are the following three: the pattern of feeding processes, the mechanism of fear and the pattern of rewards.

Before going any further on, it is important to remind ourselves that our brain is composed of two sides which can generate two different types of activity: one rational side and one emotional side, one is the cognitive brain (reasoning and rational thought), and the other is the subconscious brain (emotions and feelings).

The basics of the feeding process

The feeding process can be represented as a succession of three stages (figure 7):

  • Reception of the hunger stimulus by the integrating center of the brain (1) Search and selection of foodstuff (2) Ingestion and digestion of foodstuff
  • These operations call for both rational and emotional choices to be made. The American professor, Brian Wansink, explains that humans make around 20,000 decisions per day and that 200 are related to food intake. However, only around fifteen of these choices are made consciously enough to be remembered later.
  • Discriminating and determining factors, therefore, influence our behavior and a non-negligible part of those are dictated during our childhood, sometimes unconsciously. These factors shape what we consider as good, neutral or bad— not only for taste but also for our health and well-being.

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Even false messages can become “truths”

Our upbringing, family customs, school life, the media, and advertisers all shape our references.

Depending on the country and the age, bread can be considered as a healthy food (high effect of satiety, low fat content and rich in fiber), while others may see it as the food to be avoided at all costs: carrier of allergenic substances (such as gluten), a vector for eating sweet (preserves or chocolate) or fatty products (butter).

The younger the individual receiving the message, the stronger his/her belief will be. Many criticisms of bread are unfounded (e.g. unbalanced product), or only represent specific population groups (e.g. celiac) and not the majority. Often all bread is put in the same boat and criticized generally (e.g. sugar and fat content in white baguette bread). However, even though they are false, these declarations have an impact on the opinion of the general public and influence their choices.

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Fear is an emotion, which can influence our food choices

A second neuroscience-related approach is the “circle of fear” and its impact on eating.

Fear is an emotion which consists of projecting a future danger or threat which we will either be unable to cope with or which will cause a lot of suffering.

The danger or the threat may originate in our personal experience or come from things that we have been told or thought we have been told. Fear can be based on real life or imagination—sometimes feeling just as strong as, if not stronger than, real life.

Fear is useful to man and to children. It leads to caution and learning how to avoid danger. To simplify things it inhibits thought and enables us to focus on vital reflexes, which result in two basic reactions: fight or flight.

On the other hand, it can be negative in some cases as it generates atypical or disproportionate behaviors (vertigo, unconsciousness or paralysis) either individually or collective panic (e.g. the stampede effect).

Mastering this fear means going through several stages. These include the awareness of individual and collective resources for coping with the supposed danger and learning in order to avoid dangers and to acquire reflexes which enable us to get back to a rational state from a state of emotional paralysis.

Controlling fear through a deeper understanding

The understanding of the circle of fear can help us to comprehend perception more effectively and especially consumer fears related to food in general and bread in particular. This fear is amplified by the following specific factors:

  • Bread is ingested and therefore considered by the customer as having a strong and direct impact on his or her well-being or health creating a high level of apprehension.
  • The distance between production and consumption locations produces doubt. For example, homemade bread is seen as sure, bread made by a well-known local baker is “controlled” and bread made outside the town (or country) by strangers, is seen as suspicious. Meaning that the further away from home the bread is produced, the stronger the apparent feeling of suspicion.
  • Demands related to preservation, ease of use (packaged products, sliced products), and availability/geographic proximity give a “non-natural” look to bread which is not helped by some mandatory labeling. For instance, a flour oxidizing agent is often noted on bread labels which is really vitamin C. Despite the fact that the consumer will buy vitamin C-enriched fruit juice, they will consider the exact same substance as a suspicious additive in bread.
  • Changing trends and their marketing equivalents: Bread which is enriched in X or Y can lead some consumers to think that white bread is deficient in X or Y. Whereas the intent is to use bread as a mechanism for carrying vitamins and oligo-elements which are not bread improvers per se.

Likewise, many bread-related fears are held for little real reason or with unjustified amplification (how many of us have been sick because of bread? How many of us are gluten intolerant?) We can ask the question whether some fears have not been fabricated or amplified by stakeholders who have ulterior motives: scientists wanting the limelight? Laboratories in order to offer their services? The media to sell paper? Manufacturers who wish to offer alternative solutions. Ultimately playing on consumer fears can benefit some but can hurt others.

Other than for the aforementioned rationale, there is no reason why bread should enter the circle of fear: it’s a low-risk, ancestral product. It is important to put things back in their place and context so consumers can act rationally and not emotionally.

Bread: Is it an addiction?

The last point that I would like to make is about the “reward circle” which plays a crucial role in the choice of foods (and also in the behavior of animals—including humans).

This circle has three steps:

  1. Desire
  2. Action
  3. Satisfaction

RewardCircle

A drop in blood sugar generates hunger, which is a form of desire. Food intake will stop this stimulus, which in turn, replaces this feeling with a feeling of pleasure. This natural and necessary cycle repeats itself every day of our lives. However, it can become a vicious circle when the consumer discovers (often unconsciously) that sugar will generate a feeling of pleasure, which is both almost immediate and also more intense than other foods. On the other hand, these dependence-related phenomena, like certain addictions, can lead to the need to consume larger and larger quantities of the product just to achieve an equivalent level of pleasure. In this way, children can enter a vicious circle at a very young age. They become programmed with a sensorial signature which conditions them for life and which binds them to repetitive consumption of certain products like soda, candy, and other processed foods.

Mechanisms which are not alterable but which can be strongly influenced

Some clients ask whether these behaviors can be modified (the feeding process, fear mechanism, and circle of reward). The answer is no as the digestive process, related actions and their sequence are practically impossible to change.

However, it is possible to alter the stimuli and its references. For example, a food­related scandal or new scientific information can have an impact on perceptions that have been held for years, even decades, and cover a much wider area than where the product was originally distributed.

Marketing specialists have long understood this principle and that is why they closely follow research into what motivates choice and consumption of food.

To conclude, food and how it is consumed has become an interesting subject for scientists. By understanding the by 3 main factors that trigger hunger and consumption: the pattern of feeding processes, the mechanism of fear and the pattern of rewards, we can manage to overcome many of the accepted ideas about bread.

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