The Consumer Need Realization Model

In traditional models of consumer decision making the consumer choice process begins after the consumer realizes they have a need. These models describe how shoppers seek information, evaluate it, and make a choice to satisfy the need. What they do not describe is how consumers come to realize they have a need. Specifically, they do not describe the steps that lead up to the point where a consumer becomes a shopper. This View point introduces a model that fills this void.

The NR Model

There are three questions that must be answered before one takes action:(1) Do I need to act?, (2) What action should I take?, and (3) Should I act now or later? Applying this to the issue of need realization yields three stages that must be passed before a consumer will enter the market as a shopper. These stages are represented in the Need Realization model below. The NR proposes that consumers progress through a set of steps before they realize they have a need.




Step 1: Realizing a Problem Exists.  The first step in the model begins with the belief that a problem exists. The person who is overweight may not know they have a weight problem until their doctor tells them they have a problem. Even after being told they have a problem, the individual might choose to believe it is not a problem, rationalizing to themselves that the “big is beautiful”. And they may be able to maintain this illusion by surrounding themselves with others who are overweight, and in very sad cases by allowing their children to become obese, so they themselves can maintain the illusion that no problem exists. If these barriers are not overcome, then the individual will not enter the market seeking a possible solution for their obesity. If however, these barriers are overcome, the individual will not necessarily enter the market seeking a solution, but rather they will pass to the second stage of the model.

Step 2: Believing a Market Solution Exists. The second stage is focused on the belief the consumer has about whether a market solution exists for their problem. If the consumer does not believe a market solution exists, then no solution will be sought. An example of this is when an overweight person chooses to believe that they have a predetermined genetic disposition toward obesity. While such dispositions account for some portion of those who are overweight, the number of people who believe genetics is the cause of their weight problem is likely to be many times greater than the actual number of people for whom genetics is the primary cause of their weight problem. Even if the individual concludes that a viable market solution for the problem likely exists, the consumer is not guaranteed to start shopping for that solution.

Step 3: Believing that now is the Right Time to Act. The final step toward becoming a shopper is that the individual must believe that a solution to the problem should be sought now, rather than at some time in the future. Three things that factor into answering this question are: (1) how many other problems currently need to be solved, (2) how much time the individual believes they will have in the future, and (3) the expected consequences of not solving the problem quickly. Some problems, like being overweight, take many years to be realized, and since the person has lived all that time with a mounting problem, there are relatively few perceived consequences of living another day with the problem. It is also the case, that people believe time in the future will be more plentiful than time in the present, so they generally put off solving problems for when they expect to have more time. Unfortunately, there is rarely more time or energy to solve problems in the future, so many problems go unsolved.

The NR Model in Practice

The NR model is both a descriptive and a prescriptive tool. Descriptively, it characterizes how consumers turn into shoppers. Prescriptively, it can help marketers and consumers identify the impediments to need realization that must be removed for consumers to seek market solutions. To see how the NR model can be used for prescriptive purposes, consider the case of Lipitor. Lipitor has been lauded as the first pharmaceutical that consumers pulled through the channel, and Lipitor’s marketing campaign deserves much of the credit for creating need realization. Prior to the Lipitor campaign most people were unaware of their cholesterol number, and many were unaware that high cholesterol is a problem. By educating consumers on these two issues, Lipitor helped create a culture in which people were comfortable asking their doctors to determine if they had a cholesterol problem. The campaign also helped convince people that Lipitor was a solution to this problem. To do so, they relied on evidence from clinical trials that revealed that Lipitor lowered bad cholesterol any from 39% to 60%. Finally, the campaign needed to convince people they should act quickly. For this, their messaging focused on the extreme negative and sudden consequences of failing to treat high cholesterol (e.g., heart attack and stroke). The campaign relied on testimonials with people saying things like, “What was I thinking?” in order to prompt people to reconsider their own beliefs about whether they have a problem, whether a solution exists, and if now is the right time to act.

Kurt Carlson

Researcher at the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research and Professor of Marketing, McDonough School of Business

Kurt Carlson is the Associate Dean at the Raymond A. Mason Business School. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin and his Ph.D. in marketing from Cornell University. Prior to joining William and Mary, Carlson was on the faculty of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University from 2001 to 2009 and the faculty of McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University from 2009-2017.

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