What are the implications of consumer behavior for CPG and DTC marketing strategy?

If you’ve done any kind of marketing for your CPG or DTC brand, you know the frustration:

You run ads, post a ton on social media, write blog posts, do giveaways...but the sales just don’t come. Or they do, but the numbers are lower than you expected.

When this happens, your first thought probably isn’t, “What are the implications of consumer behavior for marketing strategy?” (Because really, who thinks in keywords?)

But it should be.

Why?

Consumer behavior is at the root of all these problems.

And unlocking the mysteries of how your customers behave is the key to creating marketing that gets results instead of banging out campaigns that do nothing but waste your time.

Here’s what you need to know to understand and leverage consumer behavior.

What does consumer behavior actually mean?

At its most basic, consumer behavior is the way people buy and use products.

Of course, there’s a lot involved in this. Your customers go through a cycle of thoughts, emotions and actions during the buying process—a process that’s pretty much never linear.

It’s not even rational most of the time. Unless they’re buying something they really need, people’s purchasing motivations can range from being impulsive to fulfilling a deep desire. (Or FOMO. FOMO happens a lot.)

Dopamine plays its own sneaky part in consumers brains to perpetuate the cycle. What starts as a want or a nice-to-have turns into a desire, the desire drives the purchasing process and acquiring the desired product gives a feeling of satisfaction and reward.

Vector graphic of women shopping on a smartphone
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Personal beliefs and values also influence purchasing decisions. What people care about and how they think a product will improve their lives has an impact on what they’re willing to invest in and how much they’re comfortable spending.

🛒 In short, consumer behavior includes:
  • What, why and when consumers buy
  • What consumers like and don’t like
  • How consumers make decisions
  • What influences their decisions
  • How those influences work

And then there’s what your customers do with your product after they buy it.

It’s easy to assume you know how your product fits into your customers’ lifestyles, but post-purchase behaviors are just as nuanced as the initial buying process.

Marketers have different theories and models for making sense of the details along this crazy and circuitous buying journey, but what it comes down to is that people’s purchasing habits are highly individual. Their lives, beliefs, needs and experiences influence how they buy, what they buy and how they feel about their purchases.

What does consumer behavior have to do with marketing?

Understanding the implications of consumer behavior for marketing strategy—and tapping into them—is the secret to streamlining your marketing. Experience is everything in CPG and DTC. To provide the best experience, you need to know as much about your customers as possible.

Which includes their always-fluctuating (and sometimes baffling) behaviors.

David Hoos, a career marketer with over five years of experience in the DTC world, understands the benefit of getting inside consumers’ heads this way.

“The more you know what your consumers trust and value and can align with that, the better your marketing will be,” he says.

Eli Weiss, Director of Customer Experience at prebiotic soda brand OLIPOP, adds: “Brands spend so much money acquiring new customers and developing new products, yet [they] seldom take the time to understand why customers choose them, what they dislike, and what they would love in the future.”

If you don’t pay attention to these behavioral insights, you could waste a lot of time, money and energy on marketing that doesn’t work or get sidetracked by tactics that aren’t right for your brand.

The benefit of selling mainly through online channels is that you have direct access to a wealth of information about everyone who’s ever bought from you.

Vector graphic of man and woman looking at sales analytics
Data vector created by stories - www.freepik.com

What your brand needs to know about consumer behavior and marketing

How does leveraging that connection transform your marketing?

Instead of shooting in the dark with a bunch of generic tactics, you can meet your customers wherever they are in their buying journeys and talk to them with the same language they use. You have the insight you need to position your products as part of your customers’ everyday routines.

Ryan Paul Gibson, founder at content lift, experiences this firsthand when working with clients:

“I ran a research project for a chain of boutique coffee shops. We determined they were wasting a third of their marketing budget on tactics and activities that did not influence the ideal customer.”

Gibson, who has over 20 years of experience in marketing, branding and communications, discovered that the company was attempting to market expensive equipment and a high-end coffee experience to customers who really just wanted a simple, low-cost way to brew a great cup of coffee at home.

Through customer interviews, Gibson uncovered language and imagery the company could incorporate into their marketing to speak directly to this kind of customer—and it worked. The company experienced so much DTC growth that they had to take on additional team members to handle it.

That’s the power of behavioral information.

Woman talking to customer support representative (vector graphic)
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Getting these insights doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, either. You can leverage the customer data available from Shopify, Amazon, Google Analytics and your social media platforms.

Numbers can’t communicate nuance, though, so you also want to directly contact, connect with and talk to your customers through surveys and calls.

All it costs is time (or, if you don’t have the bandwidth, the price of hiring a freelancer to do the research for you).

Reaping the benefits of consumer behavior research

Once you’ve gathered your customer behavior information, it’s time to apply it to your marketing strategy and start to see some powerful benefits:

  • Using behavior to inform marketing answers why your customers do what they do and allows you to create connections in a way that “spraying and praying” can’t. (It also gets you out of the endless cycle of trying to undercut the competition, which never works anyway.)
  • Behavioral data makes it possible to target your marketing and streamline the purchase process to remove friction. This breaks down barriers that stop people from completing orders or becoming repeat customers.
  • Understanding your audience shows you what you can do to improve over your competitors. It gives unique insights into where they’re falling short of consumers’ expectations and how you can provide a better product or experience that makes your brand stand out.
  • Studying behavior shows you what types of content captures your audience’s attention and prompts them to engage. This data points you to the platforms on which they’re most likely to interact with what you create.
  • Comments and feedback on your own and similar content reveal the language your customers use. From this, you can pull common words and phrases to create high-converting copy and CTAs.
➡️ Making consumer behavior an integral part of your marketing plan pretty much gives you a blueprint for what should work.

That being said, there are no guarantees in marketing. But, by paying attention to how your customers behave and making adjustments in response, you’re more likely to start off on the right track and see positive marketing results.

What consumer research to do (and how to actually do it)

It’s one thing to wonder what the implications of consumer behavior are for marketing strategy. It’s another to actually do the research—and a lot of brands aren’t doing it.

At least, not in as much depth as they should.

Analytics only give you a small window into what’s going on, and demographics aren’t much use without context from real-world details.

As Gibson points out: “All the quantitative data we get from Google and endless dashboards just tells you ‘what’ happened and a bit of ‘how.’ It doesn’t answer the ‘why’ question.”

So, what should you be doing to get those detailed answers?

Related: How to Position Plant-Based Foods Using Nuance and Consumer Research

How to find out more about how your customers behave

Getting information about your market the classic way—hiring a firm—can cost tens of thousands of dollars and might not result in relevant, actionable insights. If you’re in a rapidly changing market, the report you get could even be outdated before you have the chance to put it into practice.

With that in mind, it’s worth considering how you can gather valuable information by using resources you already have or investing in outside resources that fit your budget.

💡 5 inexpensive ways to find out more about consumer behavior:
  1. Look at sales analytics
  2. Audit your content (and your competitors’)
  3. Read reviews
  4. Dig into online communities
  5. Talk to your customers

1) Look at sales analytics

Review sales data from your own platforms along with publicly available market research and statistics. Include everything about the sales process:

  • Keywords people use in organic and on-site searches
  • Pages, posts, social media content and ads that generate the most sales
  • Content and ads that perform poorly
  • Which products people buy the most, buy again or return the most
  • Demographic data like age, location and device type

Also look for data that signals potential problems with the shopping or checkout process, such as pages with high bounce rates, repeated customer service requests and frequent abandoned carts.

2) Audit your content (and your competitors’)

“Audit“ is just a fancy way of saying “go through your content to see how it’s performing.” Pro tip: Do this for every social platform you’re on (and your blog, if you have one).

Take note of what your customers interact with the most and where they spend the majority of their time. Read comments and replies to see where conversations are happening—and what people are saying. This shows you what tactics are building awareness and drawing more eyes to your brand, not just what’s driving sales.

Do the same with competing brands’ content to see what resonates with their customers and where you can take cues for improving your own marketing.

3) Read reviews

Take advantage of the “read reviews that mention” section on Amazon to find common words your customers use when reviewing your products. This can reveal patterns in their experiences, both positive and negative.

While you’re at it, check out what people think of the competition. You could find some valuable information about how your products and customer experiences stack up.

4) Dig into online communities

Ever heard the advice to “go where your customers are?”

This is how to find out where that actually is.

Look pretty much anywhere that people gather to talk about topics relevant to your brand:

  • Facebook groups
  • Instagram hashtags
  • Twitter
  • Subreddits
  • Discord servers
  • Clubhouse
  • Pinterest

Tools like SparkToro can help you find additional information about the accounts your customers follow, publications they read and podcasts they listen to.

Keep a record of all this information as you find it. Include the name of the community or publication, the platform, the URL and any notes you need for clarity. You can use a spreadsheet, Notion, Airtable or any tool you’re comfortable with to collect the data all in one place and add to it whenever you find something new.

It’s also worth taking a peek to see how similar brands in your niche interact with and provide value to customers in their communities. If they don’t have communities—or their communities are inactive—there could be an opening for your brand to provide an engaging space for their customers, too.

5) Talk to your customers

Yes, directly to them. Pick five to 10 people from across your customer spectrum: superfans, subscribers, first-time buyers, repeat buyers, people who have returned one or more products and people who have interacted with customer service.

Get on the phone or Zoom with them, and have conversations.

But don’t just ask product-related questions. Ask about relevant parts of their lives and routines, including:

  • How they research and shop for products
  • How and when they use social media
  • Habits directly related to your product and its purpose or function
  • How (or if) they use similar or related products

Document everything, even the stuff that seems irrelevant. The comments that appear the most random can turn out to be nuggets of gold.

By the time you’re done, you should understand more about your customers’ lifestyles, struggles, fears and goals, as well as how they buy the products they use most often.

Start doing consumer research for marketing now—don’t wait!

Weiss encourages brands to get started with this process sooner rather than later.

“Brands often hold off from research until they have the funds to do a formal research project and leave so much fantastic learning on the table,” he says. “It's imperative to go deep, but dip both feet in the water until you can get there!”

Five ways to find out more about consumer behavior

What about polls and surveys?

Sending out email surveys and conducting social media polls has value but can yield skewed results. Your social media followers and email subscribers represent only a small sliver of your total market—one that already has some vested interest in your brand.

But this bias can work in your favor.

“There's a lot to be said about creating things that customers want, or at least would enjoy,” Weiss points out.

Finding out what your “core fans” like and don’t like about your brand and products can inform decisions about product improvements, new product development and changes to the buying experience. You can also discover what makes them stick around even when they have a less-than-ideal experience.

Weiss has seen the benefits of this at OLIPOP: “We have put together a list of 1,000+ customers that are excited to share feedback about their experience, and we constantly survey them about everything. From product names to subscription experience and CX and so much more, these customers provide a ton of value.”

Listening to this core group of customers enabled OLIPOP to gain 6,000 subscribers in less than a year and skyrocket sales from $35,000 per month to over $1 million—and they’re still growing.

The key is being responsive. When the OLIPOP team discovered the idea of a “cinnamon cola” didn’t appeal to their customers, for example, they re-launched the flavor with a new name and new branding. The result? Vintage Cola is now among the best-loved OLIPOP flavors.

The power of the post-purchase survey

If you want to get a better idea of the way all your customers interact with your brand, start sending post-purchase surveys.

And these should be actual surveys, not just review requests.

Why? Because most people don’t put the details of their shopping experiences into reviews. Today’s consumer writes only about 200 characters per review, which isn’t enough for in-depth information. (Although it does probably say something about attention spans...)

A post-purchase survey tells you a lot more about consumer behavior and how it can improve your marketing. It gives you insight into what goes on in your customers’ heads during the entire buying process and what happens after the product arrives on their doorsteps.

📝 Here are some important questions to ask in post-purchase surveys:
  • How did customers find you?
  • Why did they decide to make a purchase?
  • How was their experience with checkout? Shipping?
  • What was the “unboxing” experience like?
  • What did they like (or not like) about the packaging?
  • How are they using the product in their daily routines?
  • How does the product make them feel?
  • What do they like (and dislike) about the buying process? The product?
  • Would they make the same purchase again? Why or why not?
  • Are there any other products they’re considering buying from you? Why or why not?

Hoos suggests offering a discount to customers who complete the survey. “Those insights could pay you huge dividends,” he points out.

And he’s right: What you learn can make or break the customer experience.

“Customers have stronger affinity for brands” that take the time to understand their customers, says Hoos. “It’s easier for the customers to understand and engage with them and therefore make purchases more easily. It’s not just good service; it actually drives more sales.”

What are the implications of consumer behavior for marketing strategy? (9 key areas)

By now, you’re probably wondering what all this looks like in practice. What, in fact, are the implications of consumer behavior for your marketing strategy?

📣 Start with these 9 areas to build a foundation for better marketing:
  1. Product positioning
  2. Sales tactics
  3. Product marketing and distribution
  4. Website marketing and functionality
  5. Content creation
  6. Content distribution
  7. Paid ads
  8. Customer experience
  9. Community building

1) Product positioning

There are a couple of things to consider when positioning your products:

  • What customers think of your brand vs. competitors’
  • Where your products “fit” in your customers’ lives

The first consideration is all about perception. That’s why you should spend time checking out competing brands’ reviews and reading consumers’ discussions of your product and similar products in your category. Knowing what people really like and where their expectations aren’t being met can show you how to stand out.

Customer interviews give insight into the second element. Chances are, you only think you know where, when and how people use your product. If you’re wrong (or you base assumptions on how you use your products), you’ll waste time marketing aspects of your brand that customers don’t care about.

An easy way to reorient your thinking is to consider what “job” your product does for consumers. If they were going to “hire” a product to do that job, why would they choose yours?

And it is would, not should.

“Should” implies you have to convince them why you’re better. “Would” is about being the right fit for their lives no matter what your competitors offer.

2) Sales tactics

There are so many places where customers can interact with your brand that trying to trace every part of the buying journey would give you something akin to Billy’s excursions in Family Circus: an apparently aimless, curving line that takes you to some unexpected places before finally reaching a destination.

Every touchpoint during that journey is a marketing opportunity. To pick the tactics most likely to drive sales, you need to understand how your customers think and what they’re looking for at any given time.

For example:

  • Are you selling to bargain hunters, or is your customer base looking for high-end products?
  • Would doing a giveaway attract and retain new customers or just get you a bunch of one-time purchases with no lasting customer value?
  • Will offering discounts drive trial and result in repeat purchases or launch you into a profit-eating price war with competing brands?

Try different tactics and measure how people respond. Over time, you’ll see patterns that show where to channel your time and effort to increase sales.

3) Product marketing and distribution

Insights you gain when researching for positioning and sales can reveal the best avenues for expanding distribution beyond your website and Amazon.

These might include:

  • Subscription boxes
  • Product marketplaces in your industry or niche
  • Cross-promotional deals with complementary products from other brands
  • Brick-and-mortar stores

And then there’s that post-purchase experience. Feedback from post-purchase surveys allows you to build a support system that essentially “onboards” new customers to your brand.

Use this feedback to provide any necessary usage or preparation information for your product, as well as what your customers should expect from products that have health benefits or functional aspects. (You can put this right on your packaging or include a printed card with relevant orders.)

Providing that guidance is likely to create positive associations from the start and establish stronger relationships, which increases the likelihood of repeat purchases.

Social media influencer unboxing a product (vector graphic)
Social media vector created by stories - www.freepik.com

4) Website marketing and functionality

The way you sell stuff on your site should make sense in light of how your customers shop and where they are in the decision-making process. Directing first-time customers to a subscription offer probably isn’t going to get as many conversions as sending repeat purchasers to the same option. And packaging products together for discounted deals only makes sense if all the products are relevant to your customers’ goals.

Homepage and product page copy should follow the same framework and tone as your other content, but it’s important to remember that your website is rarely the first place customers land. They’ll probably interact with your brand’s personality on another platform like Instagram or TikTok first. When they do decide to visit your site, they’ll expect content with the same tone, as well as the same ease of interaction.

That congruity should continue straight through checkout, which is in itself an important “marketing moment.” Use analytics to discover areas where you need to streamline the last steps of the purchasing process, minimize abandoned carts and increase conversions. For example, if customers are leaving when asked to create an account, you could benefit from adding the option to check out as a guest.

5) Content creation

To be a successful part of your marketing strategy, paid and organic content needs to reach the right audience and capture their attention. Format, tone and context are key to making this happen.

Here’s where the time spent talking to customers, reading reviews and checking out communities pays off. Doing all that gives you a sense of your customers’ “culture:” the words and phrases they use, the types of content they prefer and where they find most of that content. It also helps you make sense of how they shop so that you can target your content to coincide with (or encourage) certain behaviors.

“The better you understand your consumers’ behavior, the better you can tailor your brand, ads, website user experience, emails, and more to suit them,” says Hoos. “When that experience is tailored to them, they’re more likely to have a great experience and come back.”

Your content audit completes a picture specific to your brand by revealing what has generated the most engagement in the past. Content with a lot of likes, shares and meaningful comments resonated with your audience on an emotional level and prompted them to respond. To increase the likelihood of future engagement, use your most popular content pieces as a blueprint for conveying or creating those same emotions.

6) Content distribution

Where are people going to find and engage with your content after you create it?

This is where distribution comes in.

In some ways, distribution is more important than creation. You can have the most amazing content on the planet, but you’re wasting your time if it doesn’t show up in front of your customers.

Researching consumer behavior shows you:

  • Which social platforms to post on to reach the most customers
  • Whether your customers prefer email, blog posts, social media, podcasts or video
  • What percentage of your audience consumes content on mobile vs. desktop
  • Where most of your customers shop (social platforms, Amazon, brand websites, etc.)
  • Which influencer partnerships, if any, are likely to impact your customers’ buying decisions

Being strategic about this does more than get you likes and followers. It can broaden your reach, increase brand visibility and loyalty and, ultimately, help you sell more.

Young man and young woman using social media (vector graphic)
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7) Paid ads

PPC and social media ads are also content, so the same rules of content creation apply. (Ditto with print ads, if you do that sort of thing.) Use your consumer behavior research to:

  • Choose which ad platforms and audiences to target
  • Find and choose keywords your customers are actually searching for
  • Write ads that speak to your customers’ culture and emotions
  • Highlight product attributes that are important to your customers
  • Create landing page layouts that correspond to the way your customers shop
  • Write CTAs that help your customers take the next step toward making a purchase

Starting with research should reduce the amount you spend targeting audiences that have little or no interest in your products. Tweak your approach based on performance, and hone your messaging to increase conversions.

8) Customer experience

In the era of the modern consumer, customer experience is the golden ticket for brands.

Why? Because brand loyalty is quickly becoming a thing of the past. (Thanks, Gen Z.)

Today’s consumers want to be treated well throughout their buying journey. If a brand falls short of expectations, they have no problem going elsewhere.

Reading reviews, listening to community chatter and conducting customer interviews can tell you where your customer experience needs improvement. It's a good way to get post-purchase insights from customers who don’t take your survey. Some of them will still talk about their experiences online or be willing to share in one-on-one conversations, so the extra research is worth it.

Making changes in response to what you find out is critical. A good experience can have exponential power for your business in the form of increased revenue and word-of-mouth advertising. A bad one can create serious customer churn and make it harder to attract new customers.

Related: How to Make Your Plant-Based Brand Stand Out

9) Community building

Doing consumer behavior research helps you understand your customers as people, not just analytics and KPIs. Reflect this in your marketing, and they’ll notice. Consumers appreciate when brands make an effort to listen to—and take action on—their input.

This is how community starts. Not a “we-launched-a-branded-Facebook-group-for-our-most-VIP-superfans” community, but a real community of people who rally around your brand because you’re committed to making their lives better. They know you’re listening and ready to respond to their needs in order to provide a consistently amazing experience.

Community also functions as a positive feedback loop for discovering more about consumer behavior. Your community will be happy to provide insights (usually without being asked) that you can use to improve your current products, create new products that customers actually want and continually improve the whole experience people have with your brand.

Multicultural community of happy people (vector graphic)
People vector created by pch.vector - www.freepik.comye

Weiss used this process at OLIPOP to gain insight into customers’ taste preferences and saw amazing results:

“We keep track of every single suggestion and pass it along to our CEO and formulator weekly,” he says. “Over the last year, Grape was a flavor that kept coming up as number one. While not the most popular soda flavor, it became clear that customers love the idea of Grape OLIPOP.

“When we launched it, it did astronomically well. It is quickly rising to our bestseller list in a few short months!”

Applying consumer behavior insights to your marketing strategy

Okay, if you’ve read this far, it should be clear that understanding consumer behavior is important for marketing! It can make interacting with your brand, discovering products and completing purchases easier and more enjoyable for your customers. And that makes building awareness and selling products easier for your brand.

But what are the implications of consumer behavior for marketing strategy? Do you have to change everything about your marketing to see results?

No, you don’t.

You’ll likely need to make just a few adjustments to bring your marketing strategy in line with your customers’ needs and preferences. (Unless your marketing has been bringing in zero ROI; fixing that might require a bit more than customer research.)

Starting with small adjustments lets you test what works and what doesn’t before committing to larger changes. Take small steps, see how your customers respond and move forward with the changes that generate the most positive feedback.

A change can be as simple as running a targeted ad that speaks to a specific consumer group’s pain points and comparing its performance to previous ads.

Or you might try creating and distributing a small piece of content that aligns with your customers’ content preferences and noting whether engagement improves.

As you experiment, continue doing customer research in the background. “Doing it once and thinking you’re done” is the biggest mistake Hoos sees brands making. He advises making “an ongoing effort where you’re constantly checking in, fine tuning and testing new things.”

This is especially important if you make changes to the purchasing process, the post-purchase experience or your most popular products. You’ll find out pretty quickly if you made the right judgement call or if you need to re-evaluate and try something else.

Putting consumer research into practice

The biggest problem brands have with applying the implications of consumer behavior to marketing strategy is time.

Man trying to find enough time for everything in his life (vector graphic)
Calendar vector created by pikisuperstar - www.freepik.com

Yes, it does take a while. But consider this: You already dedicate time to attracting customers and growing your business. Consumer behavior research—and any change you make to your marketing in light of it—falls into both categories.

So it’s not necessarily about finding the time; it’s about shifting your priorities.

Here’s how to shift your priorities and focus on customer research:
  • Set goals for consumer behavior research based on your overall business goals
  • Decide which types of research you’re going to use
  • Figure out how much of that research your team can realistically handle
  • Hire a freelance consultant to handle the rest
  • Schedule time into your marketing plan for research, analysis and marketing updates
  • Conduct the research (of course!)
  • Make changes based on what you learn
  • Monitor and analyze the results across channels (including what your customers actually say)
  • Repeat!

For brands that have never done consumer research before, Gibson recommends getting a grasp of how to do it before diving in.

“Research is a ton of work but so valuable if you get it right,” he says. “If you aren’t sure what to do first, there are a ton of online resources. You want to understand the biggest challenges in your business or determine where a lack of customer insights is holding you back.”

Hoos adds that focus is important. “Don’t just decide ‘we want to do more consumer research’. Have a specific goal that you want to accomplish to help give your research some guardrails.”

The more times you go through the process, the more streamlined it will become until it’s ingrained in your marketing strategy. As a result, you’ll get an intimate view of your customers that numbers alone can’t give you.

When every marketing decision is based on those real details from your customers’ lives, you don’t have to guess what will work.

No more investing in SEO blogs that drive traffic but don’t increase sales.

No more wasting hours creating social media content that falls flat.

No more wondering why your campaigns generate more abandoned carts than new customers.

Will you hit the nail on the head every time? Nope. But your customers will be right there, ready to tell you how to fix what’s going wrong and how to make your marketing work better—for you and for them.

Need some help with your customer research?

I'm all about getting inside your customers' heads. And I'm here to help you understand what they're thinking so that you can target your messaging, save time and get the outcomes you want.

Sound good? 👉🏻 Let's chat.

Thanks to Foster members DJ McCauley, Rhishi Pethe, Jordan Jones, Russel Smith, Caryn Tan and Jason Nguyen for their feedback on this post!

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