How our attitudes are formed and predict our behavior

Attitudes are indicative of our future behavior. As marketers it’s important, we understand what attitudes are, what shapes them and how we might change them.

An attitude is an enduring set of emotions or beliefs about a particular object, person, organization, issue or event. They’re formed over time as we are exposed to stimuli and make an evaluation. So attitudes aren’t fleeting snap judgments or gut reactions, but learned opinions. For marketers, this is important because it means they can change (positively or negatively) based on new information, experiences or beliefs.

As we experience the world, our thoughts and emotions coalesce into attitudes, and these then affect our behavior. For instance, if I am visiting a store for the first time, I may have no preconceptions about it, but having experienced it (good layout, helpful staff), purchased something (many choices, reasonable price) and felt good about my purchases (good quality, cool brands), the next time I may have a positive attitude towards it. I’ve made this evaluation based on my thoughts, behavior and feelings. Next time I visit, I’ll anticipate a similar outcome, looking for positive reinforcement of that attitude.

It’s tempting to think of attitudes as structured, fully considered evaluations which people can easily express. Particularly during this electoral season there might be hot-button issues e.g. immigration or gun control, where we can easily articulate our attitude and the reasons for it. But the fact is, most attitudes are hard to voice – what is your attitude to Honda vs Subaru? Attitudes are not static nor do they exist in an abstract sense separate from our social context.

Researchers have suggested that attitudes form for four primary reasons:

  • Utilitarian – we tend to form positive attitudes towards things which lead to perceived gains and negative attitudes to things we perceive as a loss. “I like sushi because it’s healthy; I don’t like soda since it’s fattening and rots my teeth.”
  • Knowledge – attitudes help us make sense of the world around us by giving us a framework to evaluate it. So in our store example above, when faced with lots of shops to choose from, we orient towards the one we had a good experience in before.
  • Value-Expressive – we form attitudes which reflect our values or which reflect those of our social set. “Sporty tech adopters like me wear Apple Watches, therefore I like Apple Watches.” Of note here is that we may actually have no personal experience of Apple Watches or even really like them, but because they reflect the attitudes of our peer group, we adopt the same view.
  • Ego-Defensive – we adopt an attitude to save ourselves from anything which threatens our ego or sense of self-worth. “Sporty Apple-Watch-wearing tech adopters like me don’t eat at Taco Bell or shop in K-Mart.” It just doesn’t fit our self-image so we form an attitude against those brands even though we may have no experience of them.

If you are marketing a brand, it helps then to know what might be driving the formation of attitudes about it. Attitudes themselves are formed of three main elements (the ABC Model of Attitudes). These are:

  • Affect – or the emotional component – how an issue, object or person makes you feel
  • Behavior – how the object influences your behavior
  • Cognition – your thoughts and beliefs about the object.

What’s interesting about this is that these three components may be experienced in a different order depending on the kind of purchase we are making. Understanding this means we might change the messages we’re communicating in our marketing. So let’s take a look – it’s called the Hierarchy of Effects:

  • Low-Involvement Hierarchy – (Cognition, Behavior, Affect) – this is where we think about a purchase, buy it almost immediately and later think about our feelings about the purchase. This is the pattern for daily purchases (i.e. low involvement) like dishwashing liquid. “We’re out of dish soap, so I bought some, it’s not something I feel strongly about.”
  • High-Involvement Hierarchy – (Cognition, Affect, Behavior) – this is the sequence for larger purchases where we think about it, assess our feelings towards the purchase then decide whether to make it. “The new Tesla X checks all the boxes I’m looking for in a car, I’d feel pretty cool and successful driving that, right I’m getting one.”
  • Experiential Hierarchy – (Affect, Behavior, Cognition) – these are usually emotionally led purchases where we only think about it after-the-fact. “Look at those poor puppies at the pound, I’m going to donate. I probably gave a little more than I can afford but it’s for a good cause.”
  • Behavioral Influence Hierarchy (Behavior, Cognition, Affect) – these are usually for impulse purchases where you do something, think about it afterwards then assess how you feel. “Let’s get another round of drinks in for the road – that probably wasn’t a great idea, now I feel dreadful.”

While our attitudes might not be formed in quite such a linear fashion, this framework does help us with our marketing campaigns. For instance, if we’re marketing the Tesla which is a high-involvement purchase, we need to start with the cognitive or logical arguments. The car needs to be an efficient mode of transport for the required number of passengers with the right range and price, before we can start advertising how it feels to drive one along a winding mountain pass.

Or if I’m marketing a chocolate cake, I need people to taste it in the supermarket and put it in their cart, before they think about all the calories it contains (Experiential hierarchy). Chocolate cake makes you feel great, so you don’t talk about the antioxidants in the chocolate trying to convince people to buy it.

In summary, attitudes are learned and predict (don’t dictate) our behavior. If we can understand how the attitudes towards our brand are formed, and the type of purchase we are marketing, we’re in a better place to adjust our campaign in order to influence those attitudes. Attitudes towards your brand aren’t permanent – they can change for better or worse based on new information, beliefs and brand experiences. Make sure you are reinforcing the attitudes you want your target audience to have with your marketing programs.