The consumer attitudes

Definition of Attitude

In simple terms attitudes are a representation of our likes and dislikes. However attitudes go beyond this and have been described as 'a lasting, general evaluation of people (including oneself), objects, advertisements or issues' (Solomon, M.R. et al, 2006, page 138).

Human nature is such that we all take action in favour of things that we like rather than things that we do not like. Consequently, it is usually necessary for consumers to hold a positive attitude towards a product or service for them to form an intention to buy or try it. However, simply having a positive attitude towards a product or service does not automatically result in a purchase commitment. Researchers and academics have attempted to differentiate between the nature of object attitudes and behaviour attitudes where both attitude types are evaluated by the consumer prior to an actual purchase being made (Blackwell, R.D. et al, 2001).

However, it should be remembered that attitudes are not just held towards objects in the form of products and services, but they are also held towards a business or organization, logos, celebrity endorsers, advertising and point of sale materials. So a fast food outlet will be subject to an attitudinal consideration and response from consumers to both its corporate reputation and marketing activity, as well as to the products that it sells (Blackwell, R.D. et al, 2001).

The Power of Attitudes

Attitude is a very powerful influencer on consumer behaviour. Allport (1935) believed that attitudes were so powerful that they determined how we interpreted what we saw, heard, and thought and then what action we took as a result. To express it another way attitudes guide how we perceive, and react to, the world around us.

Attitudes are also powerful because they influence the nature of our social relationships and how we interact with our cultural environment (Solomon, M.R. et al, 2006). However, whilst some attitudes can be general and enduring, some can also be fickle and subject to change. For example a favourable attitude on behalf of an individual, towards fast food may gradually erode over time if that attitude is not reinforced through psychological pressure from a peer group and/or through marketing pressure from advertising activity (Blackwell, R.D et al, 2001).

This power attributed to attitudes is the reason why attitudes have, for so long, held a central place in the field of social psychology. Indeed Gordon Allport (1935, page 198) stated that: 'The concept of attitude is probably the most distinctive and indispensable concept in contemporary American social psychology.'

The Function of Attitudes

The utilitarian function guides an individual's behaviour and response in favour of that individual's own preferences and interests. Often these preferences and interests guide an individual towards behaviour that maximises reward and minimises punishment.

The value expressive function plays a vital role in self-expression and the way in which an individual socialises and interacts with other people.

The ego defensive function is one of the key psychological functions that motivates an individual's behaviour. Ego-defensive attitudes can for example be aroused by threats and suggestion from figures in authority.

The knowledge function helps an individual make sense of his or her environment by helping to organise information into an understandable and cohesive way and by providing a consistent reference point. This function also aids the appraisal and segmentation of attitude objects into what is basically good or bad.

Whilst an attitude may be capable of serving more than one function, very often a particular function will tend to be overriding. This tendency acts in favour of the marketer because once the overriding function that an attitude serves for a particular product, such as fast food, can be identified through research, then the benefits that relate to this function can form the core proposition of marketing messages targeted at that consumer (Solomon, M.R. et al, 2006).

Attitudes to fast food, tend to served by the utilitarian function and it is likely that that this function will dominate the others. An individual's preference for the consumption of fast food will be based on the utilitarian function of gaining maximum reward through taste and enjoyment. However, that individual will also suppress the utilitarian function of possible punishment through weight gain (Solomon, M.R. et al, 2006).

Consequently, marketing messages for fast food focus on utilitarian product benefits related to taste and pleasure. For example, when McDonalds first arrived in the UK back in 1974 its advertising slogan played on the utilitarian function of pleasure when it stated 'There's a difference at McDonalds you'll enjoy' (Murphy, C., 1999).

Today, although the slogan has been updated to 'I'm lovin' it', the message of pleasure has fundamentally remained the same.

According to the theory of consumer socialization (Mascarenhas, O. A. et al., 1993), young people's drive for independence contributes to the establishment of their own set of attitudes based on the value expressive function. These attitudes often drive young people to become members of reference groups. A reference group can be defined as 'an actual or imaginary individual or group conceived of having significant relevance upon an individual's evaluations, aspirations, or behavior' (Park, C. W. et al., 1977, page 102).

Reference groups basically have two functions (Kelley, H. H., 1965): Firstly the normative function that establishes and governs the standards an individual operates to, and secondly a comparative function acts as a benchmark by which an individual can evaluate him or herself and others.

Reference groups for young adults will typically be conformed by the social network of the individual which will include family members, friends and colleagues, as well as their 'idols', such as celebrities, and music and sports stars. Young people look up to, and aspire to become like, their idols who will usually have a strong influence on their attitudes and purchasing behaviour. Indeed research carried out in the USA has confirmed that sports celebrities have a positive influence on the brand choices and brand loyalty of young adults (Bush A.J. et al, 2004).

In the UK, perhaps the best known example of sports celebrity endorsement of a fast food snack product is the use of the TV presenter and ex football star, Gary Lineker, who has appeared in 49 TV commercials for the Walkers crisps since 1995 (Brand Republic, 2005). During that time the influence of the advertising amongst young consumers has resulted in the Walkers crisp brand becoming the market leader in fast food snacks in the UK and, in 2003, winning the award for the number one consumer product brand (Brand Republic, 2005).

There has been much criticism of the use of celebrities to influence consumer attitudes towards fast food and junk food due to the negative health effects and contribution of such food to the obesity problem in the UK. The renowned medical Journal, the Lancet, reported that

'One of the most invidious techniques used by junk-food advertisers is to pay sports and pop celebrities to endorse foods - especially bizarre since sports celebrities need a properly balanced diet to achieve fitness. Such celebrities should be ashamed, as should others who get caught in the web of junk-food promotion.' (The Lancet, 2003, page 1593)

The suggestion, and implicit 'threat', contained in such statements from authoritative sources to the status of sports celebrities, and thereby by association, the consumers of fast and junk foods endorsed by sports celebrities, is likely to trigger the ego defensive function of those consumers. This may result in such statements actually achieving the opposite of their desired effect i.e. consumers may only increase their loyalty to, and consumption of, such products.

The ABC Model of Attitudes

Cognition refers to the beliefs a consumer has about an attitude object such as product or service.

Affect refers to the way a consumer feels about an attitude object

Behaviour involves the consumer's intention to respond to an attitude object, although an intention does not always result in an actual purchasing behavior.

To summarise, this model identifies the importance of 'knowing' 'feeling' and 'doing'.

For example, a consumer may know that McDonalds hamburgers are made from 100% pure beef because they have been told this in McDonalds advertising and point of sale material. However, this knowledge may not influence how they feel about the product in terms of it being good or bad and, equally, it may not prompt them to do anything about that knowledge i.e. whether or not to actually buy the product.

Also, the relative importance of each of these three components will vary depending on how motivated the individual consumer is towards any particular attitude object (Solomon, M.R. et al, 2006).

Hierarchies of Beliefs, Attitudes and Behaviour

Before making a purchase decision a consumer will generally form a set of beliefs based on knowledge that may have been acquired through advertising or promotion of the product. These beliefs will influence their attitudes and ultimately their purchasing behaviour. However, consumers do not always necessarily have to form a combination of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours towards an object before making purchase decision as these three conditions can occur in isolation of each other.

Once an individual has directly formed a belief, attitude, or behaviour then there is a tendency for hierarchies of the three conditions in combination to develop (Solomon, M.R. et al, 2006). To further explain this phenomenon researchers in the field have developed various models under an overall umbrella of the hierarchy of effects. These models have been grouped into three basic types of hierarchy, namely: decision making hierarchies, experiential hierarchy, and behavioural influence hierarchy.

Attitudes

Fast food is generally considered to be 'low involvement' product because it requires a relatively low level of decision making and a low level of spend. This may, at first, be perceived as bad news by marketers working in the fast food industry as it is only human nature to be disappointed if someone believes that your product does not warrant a high degree of consideration, or 'involvement', before purchase. However, most marketing professionals recognise that this actually works in their favour by reducing the need to communicate complex product messages.

So, in accordance with the 'low involvement hierarchy', consumer behaviour towards a fast food product will be influenced primarily by their own beliefs about the taste, enjoyment and convenience that the product will deliver. They will then form attitudes based on their experience. It is also likely that consumers of low-involvement, fast food products will be more brand aware and more influenced by advertising than those of high involvement products (Solomon, M.R. et al, 2006). This explains why fast food retailers, such as McDonalds and KFC, invest heavily in their brand and its simplicity and keep their advertising and point of sale material focused on straightforward messages as evidenced by the McDonalds slogan 'I'm lovin' it' and KFC's 'Finger Lickin' Good'.

Beliefs

In this hierarchy the emotional attitudes of consumers dominates and is based on the utilitarian function of gaining pleasure from their ultimate behaviour (Solomon, M.R. et al, 2006). This pleasure is then reinforced through their beliefs about the product, which will be gained though behaviour i.e. consuming the product, in the case of fast foods, and simple, influential messages contained in advertising and promotional activity (see 1.5.1. i) The Low Involvement Hierarchy)

Affect

Whilst there are other influencers over what motivates a consumer to consider and buy fast food, it can be seen that beliefs and attitudes are the prime motivators.

The Level of Commitment to Attitudes

Whilst attitudes are a vital part of the consumer decision making process, they are not one dimensional and static. Consumer attitudes will enjoy varying levels of commitment which may well change over time.

O'Reilly and Chatman (1986) put forward the view that there were three levels of psychological commitment to attitudes. These are compliance, identification, and internalization. The degree of commitment to an attitude is directly related to the level of involvement of the individual with the attitude object.

Compliance

Compliance refers to the active involvement of an individual in a behaviour for the purposes for gaining a specific and momentary reward, such as enjoyment. However, O'Reilly and Chatman (1986) regard commitment to an attitude through compliance as somewhat shallower than that gained through identification or internalization. The supposition that fast food consumers may indulge in 'compliance' behaviour for the sake of enjoyment is supported by the utilitarian function. However, it has already been seen that the attitudes to fast food are generally utilitarian and subject to low involvement. These two attributes may result in a fast food brand being unable to create an enduring or substantial level of commitment from a consumer. In other words fast food consumers may be promiscuous in terms of the brands they purchase.

Consequently, it is usually necessary for fast food brands to invest heavily in advertising and promotion in order to build and maintain brand loyalty. Indeed, a survey by Which? Magazine in 2005 found that the popularity of fast food outlets in the UK was directly linked to the level of their advertising budgets (Whitehead, J., 2005)

Identification

This refers to involvement or membership of a group based on a desire for achieving personal value through affiliation with that group. For example, in purchasing a certain type or brand of fast food an individual may be signaling their membership, or aspiration for membership, of a certain reference or cultural group such as youth culture, for example.

Internalization

Internalization refers to a commitment of attitude based on the similarity between the values of the group or organisation and the individual. As for identification, internalization may signal membership of a group but occurs at a deeper level once the individual has fully assimilated the values of the particular group.

Internalization is the nirvana for fast food outlets and brands, as it is for all consumer goods which strive to gain significance beyond their utilitarian and low involvement value (McCracken, G 1986).

If fast food outlets and brands can create intense, internalised experiences with their customers then this can lead to brand loyalty in a way in which compliance and identification acting alone, or together, cannot (Pimentel, R.W. et al, 2004).

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