Identifying the drivers of consumer behavior

Editor's note: Hunter Thurman is president of Alpha-Diver, a neuroscience market research firm. 

People are not all the same and neither is their behavior, even for very specific product categories.
But it’s not totally subjective, either.
If you’re planning segmentation this year or have a segmentation in-hand that’s turning out tough to activate against – or simply want to figure out how to drive buy-rate and penetration for your brand – you need to uncover which of the four human drivers correlate with your category. This will assist in revealing how to position your brand and communicate to consumers for maximum behavior-driving.
Neuroscience provides four drivers which are durable, predictable and explain why people act the ways they do in a given context (like a category, phase of the purchase journey or shopping channel).
1. Rational: Pursue information via reading labels, comparing options and deciding for themselves which decision makes the most logical sense (this is usually how most of us think we make decisions).

To successfully serve this motivation, brands need to:

  • Empower consumers to learn about the category and acquire knowledge.
  • Enable comparative choice via the facts.
  • Focus on tangible results.

An example of a brand serving the rational driver can be found at

RX Bar 12g of protein. No B.S.

The repeatable tenets to nail a rational strategy:

  • Verbal information (words and numbers, not pictures).
  • Empowers the consumer to assess why this is superior to competitors.
  • Light on marketing (e.g., the “No B.S.” tagline).

2. Social: Pursue alignment via the wisdom of the social group to endorse/approve a decision (or brand).

To successfully serve this motivation, brands need to:

  • Position the brand as a conduit to positive social acceptance and interactions.
  • Frame the purchaser as the provider of great experiences to others – give them credit.
  • Focus on social belonging.

Kellogg's Better Days - For People, Communities & The Planet

The repeatable tenets to nail a social strategy:

  • Verbal information that compels ‘slow’ thinking (words and numbers in hand-written font, not pictures).
  • Focus on external, high-value ideas (i.e., about “us” rather than “me”).
  • Enables consumer to envision positive social outcomes.

3. Exploratory: Pursue new discovery, meaningful personal experiences and sensory-based decisions.

To successfully serve this motivation, brands need to:

  • Elevate the experience provided, using all five senses.
  • Leverage product and promotions to let consumers explore and discovery exciting new experiences.
  • Focus on immersive exploration.

A Whole World of Flavor - Magic Spoon

The repeatable tenets to nail an exploratory strategy:

  • Communicate via imagery (pictures and shapes rather than words).
  • Focused on discovery and a bit of mystery – stops short of describing the experience in detail.
  • Evokes positive memories (in this case, nostalgia for kid-like experiences).

4. Instinctual: Pursue winning and standing out from the pack via gut instinct and satisfying impulses.

To successfully serve this motivation, brands need to:

  • Keep the consumer at the core – make it all about them.
  • Provide social status and prestige, give them all the credit.
  • Focus on fast, high-sensory appeals.

Flamin' Hot Cool Ranch Doritos

The repeatable tenets to nail an instinctual strategy:

  • Communicate via imagery that triggers a bit of fear (shadow, depth of field, flames).
  • Iconography that evokes boldness – points, triangles coming into foreground, photo-realism.
  • Empowers the user to rise to the challenge/demonstrate strength.

What drives consumer behavior 

Think about the last car you bought – you can probably identify which of the above most strongly influenced your choice (even if you’d hesitate to announce it out loud).
It can become more mysterious, however, in determining why you chose a brand of cola, a fast-food place or a toothpaste brand – but the same forces were at work deep in your subconscious.

And, these forces directly predict how you’ll make decisions, what and who will influence you in the journey and how to attract your attention. What’s more, it can be difficult for consumers to articulate – or even recognize – the true drivers of their behavior for more ambiguous categories like food and beverage.

We conducted a study in the effort to identify why consumers purchase certain brands of food and beverages for parties. Traditional research had continually indicated the motivation was social – that party hosts selected brands they thought everyone would agree upon and enjoy. 

Makes sense, and every piece of research continually confirmed this motivation. Just one problem – the brands weren’t growing; it wasn’t working.

Our analysis revealed that, in fact, while party host thought that their purchases were driven by consideration for the tastes of their guests, the truth was something different. In fact, the motivation was something far more intrinsic, personal and self-serving.

Activating on the insight drove a double-digit sales increase versus previous comparative periods. Leveraging the human truths worked. 

Even with expensive, months-long segmentation studies, all roads will lead back to these four human truths. One of these core motivations is likely driving your category.