Shifting Focus from the Brand to the Shopper

Sustaining the loyalty of customers has always been a serious challenge for many businesses. With the proliferation of product options that shoppers can choose from to fulfill their goals (i.e., within a product category and even across categories), their loyalty as customers becomes harder to protect. Emotional attachment and identification of shoppers with a brand are getting ever more precious. From the 1990s concerns have been addressed about a decline in loyalty by academics and practitioners. Yet, in the past few years the erosion in loyalty of shoppers-customers seems to be just accelerating — shoppers are becoming less committed, more critical of brands and companies, and more willing to explore, compare alternatives, and try new or innovative product solutions. Abundant information surrounding shoppers through digital and physical channels makes it more inviting and easier for them to adopt these forms of behaviour.

Rebecca Brooks (founder & CEO) and Devora Rogers (Chief Strategy Officer) of research firm Alter Agents argue that the problem in grappling with these changes lies in a tendency of companies to be preoccupied with their brands, seeing ‘everything’ from the viewpoint of the brand, instead of focusing on the shoppers, knowing them and being able to see ‘everything’ from the shopper’s viewpoint. For instance, instead of talking about Brand Loyalty it could mean talking about Shopper Loyalty (e.g., behavioural propensity to being loyal, loyalty drivers and inhibitors). Nevertheless, marketers should study a variety of tendencies or patterns in shoppers’ purchase and decision-making behaviour, their roots and effects. Moreover, Brooks and Rogers claim that contrary to what companies may believe, consumers-shoppers are not really looking up to them for making a change or demanding anything of them — the consumers are simply moving on, changing their mindsets, priorities, behaviours, and more. Thus, consumers as shoppers are evolving into a new kind of shopper who seeks information and takes care of his or her needs without waiting for a company to come with answers or solutions.

In their new book, “Influencing Shopper Decisions” (2022), Brooks and Rogers present an interesting, insightful perspective on these market developments, and make a sound call for companies (marketers, brand managers, researchers) to change their approach from being brand-driven to shopper-driven. The authors coin two attention-grabbing phrases: “brand narcissism” to describe the self-infatuation and preoccupation of companies with their own brands, and “shopper promiscuity” to portray the inclination of shoppers to keep looking for options, not sticking to any particular branded product. Consumers-shoppers are not staying put — they search and learn and are ready to switch between products or services, according to a situation they are in and as they see best fitting for a task or job they wish to complete successfully.

The perspective presented by Brooks and Rogers is corroborated by shopper research. Furthermore, they propose a research programme that turns around the subject of research in marketing from relating to the brand to concerning the shopper {*}. The authors realised that the excessive focus on brands (‘narcissism’) was inflicting on the way marketing research is planned and conducted, setting it off-track, and the growing tendency of ‘promiscuity’ by shoppers could make the accepted practices even less relevant or informative, missing out on what truly seems at stake — shoppers and their decisions. Brooks and Rogers call the theme of their research methodology accordingly ‘shopper influence’.

  • Note *: Putting this in a different way: The shopper becomes the primary object of research, and concepts that relate to the shopper are the main subjects of research (e.g., beliefs, decisions, purchase behaviour). The brands, companies or products do not disappear from the research, but they become secondary objects or parts in the story of the shopper.

Through their research programme, the authors-researchers revealed characteristics of the evolving new shopper which they discuss in their book (e.g., shoppers are “hunting” and hungry for information, perceive less risk in trying new products and services, expect transparency to enhance decision confidence). Brooks and Rogers expose the faults in current practices and thereby propose pathways to the change in approach they advocate, such as: (1) Give proper weight to the increase in breadth of options and innovation that induces a new generation of shoppers to be more open-minded and promiscuous (calling for a new kind of purchase model); (2) Depart from the traditional funnel (linear) model of purchasing behaviour that represents the brand’s perspective but really does not reflect the shopper’s experience (shoppers start their decision-making process with their needs and priorities and how they want to solve a problem or job, almost half of them starting without a brand in mind); (3) Avoid brand-centered questions in research that actually reflect a sense of insecurity by the brand. The contrast between brand narcissism and shopper promiscuity is the primary force that necessitates a change in approach by marketing or brand managers and marketing researchers. The authors elaborate their conclusions and recommendations on leadership, management and research in their book [1].

The concept of ‘shopper promiscuity’ introduced by Brooks and Rogers appears to be particularly novel and intriguing. Shopper Promiscuity is defined in their words as “the willingness to try new brands, new products, and new categories” (Chapter 3, p. 38). They explain that this goes beyond the usual circumstances and forms of brand switching that we have known over the years; also, shopper promiscuity is not an outcome of a rational decision, based on rational input. Shopper promiscuity is described by the authors as a new state of mind that espouses exploration and preference to try new things.

The inclination to promiscuity has significant implications for the consideration set of alternatives shoppers hold when getting to make a purchase decision. As mentioned above, almost half (48%) of shoppers participating in research conducted by Alter Agents in 2021 declared that they have had no brand in mind when starting their purchase journey, presumably having an initial empty consideration set. These shoppers are apparently open to all possibilities for starting their decision process. It means that every time a shopper embarks on a decision journey a brand has to start all over again to appeal to his or her heart and mind for winning the shopper as a customer. In other words, it is an ongoing acquisition effort for brands.

Let us pause here for a comment on the important matter of the consideration set. Shoppers should still have some incentives to initiate a decision process with a few brands in their consideration set. It is indeed hard to believe that half of the shoppers would attempt to construct a consideration set anew every time they want to solve the same problem or a similar one. Shoppers often rely on prior experiences for the advantage of saving themselves the time and effort of a decision process. Starting afresh may also imply that shoppers are always and completely susceptible to the attraction of visual cues of products on a shelf (‘visual lift’), which is not necessarily a positive way for making a choice decision; the in-store stimuli frequently need to be balanced with memory-based knowledge about brands. The extent to which shoppers may be willing to ignore any previously known-and-tried brand seems to be contingent on situation and context of the decision domain.

Hence, it appears somewhat excessive to determine that shoppers start with an empty consideration set. However, it is most plausible and acceptable that consideration sets have become much more dynamic and less stable over time. Brands in the consideration set may be replaced more often. Shoppers who are more open to explore new options could voluntarily give more weight to the new information they collect in a store or on the Web & App (e.g., using visual cues) than to their past knowledge of brands and products. Consumers-shoppers are likely to give precedence to the way they have previously solved a problem or performed a job, but we can less assume that he or she will insist on it before examining other, possibly better, tools and strategies. A brand has no chance of being chosen if it is not included in the consideration set of the shopper; the problem for companies is that they can no longer rely on their brand being included in the set on a constant basis (e.g., by a so-called ‘retained customer’).

In the third chapter of their book, ‘The Age of Shopper Promiscuity‘ [2], Brooks and Rogers suggest four forces as key drivers for the increase of promiscuous behaviour of shoppers:

  • Driven by Innovation — Consumers are getting accustomed to increased pace of innovation, and a growing number of product options or variants in any given field; a great part of innovation involves digital technologies (e.g., ‘smart’ devices) but also in other domains (e.g., food and drinks). Consequently, consumers-shoppers also come to expect constant change and improvement, and they want the latest and the best (they can more freely and readily find information to get them there).
  • Driven by Unlimited Access — This is the age of delivering Direct-to-Consumer (DTC), often brought about through disruption of existing methods-in-use by new competitors. Here we can encounter some of the greater changes, such as services empowered by the sharing economy and advanced information technologies. It includes, for instance, platforms of service providers that actually do not have their own physical assets for delivering services but rely on the assets or instruments of others (businesses and individuals), and they primarily connect between ‘owners-suppliers’ and ‘users-seekers’ (e.g., Uber, AirBnB). There is also more direct communication between consumers (e.g., exchanging electronic word-of-mouth [eWOM] in social media) and use of digital channels for interacting with businesses and executing purchases.
  • Driven by Need for Expression — Consumers-shoppers are more ready to raise expectations from companies on public matters (e.g., social, environmental) and present demands regarding their business practices and operations. This is about the use of brands as vehicles by consumers for expressing the values and goals they believe in and which they want to defend or advance, where the values of brands and consumers meet. Consumers-shoppers still require brands to provide the good quality they expect at reasonable prices, but they also are concerned by how companies act while delivering those products and services and benefitting communities in which they operate at large. Choosing brands that resonate with the values of consumers or for expression of one’s self-image are not new phenomena, but now consumers require these bases of expression more strongly while raising the bar of their aspirations. As many more alternative brands are candidates for choice out there, consumers may need this form of expression more strongly to justify the choice of a particular brand.
  • Driven by Reprioritization — The values important to people in a society and the issues that concern them change with time, often influenced by external events (e.g., terror, pandemic, economic crisis). At times when people feel more distrust and insecurity (e.g., during the COVID-19 pandemic, but even continuing in following months), they have to readjust their priorities to cope with the challenges facing them. This also drives consumers to reconsider their priorities on what products and services they should be spending money, and other resources (e.g., time, attention to others). The products and service sought after matter as remedies for concerns at higher priority (e.g., consumers are now more eager to travel abroad to ‘get free’, ease their minds, and spend better time with their dear ones).

Brooks and Rogers contribute by putting forward two important notions. The willingness to explore and try new things extends beyond the propensity of a given segment or occurring in specific situations (e.g., in leisure time) — it has become more of a movement and a state of mind. Moreover, addressing shopper promiscuity should change the approach of marketers and marketing researchers in communicating with consumers-shoppers, understanding their real pain-points and concerns, and finding the more relevant and better-fitting solutions in the right place and at the right time. Some insights about shopping patterns and decision-making behaviour are not entirely new, but the scope and impact of changes they describe are novel and important. First and foremost, it requires shifting the angle of view from anything brand-related to the shoppers and the stories they have to tell.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


[1] “Make Them the Focus: Why Shoppers – not Brands — Should Be at the Centrer of Your Research”; Devora Rogers and Rebecca Brooks; Quirk’s Marketing Research Review, July/August 2022 (based on the last chapter, 12, in their book: “Strategies for Change”). (Access for reading requires registration, also see in magazine issue).

[2] The Age of Shopper Promiscuity (Chapter 3); Influencing Shopper Decisions: Unleash to Power of Your Brand to Win Customers, Rebecca Brooks and Devora Rogers (Alter Agents), 2022, Kogan Page. (a chapter released for free reading).

Interested readers may get more taste of the conclusions and recommendations of Brooks and Rogers in their conversation (20 minutes webinar) on “Winning customers in an era of shopper promiscuity: Actionable steps for brands“.