The Fall Of The Purchase Funnel

Dr. Bob DeutschFebruary 16, 20104623 min

The Fall Of The Purchase Funnel

Once upon a time people lived in a state of positive expectations. There were relatively few products, great demand and most products enjoyed high brand differentiation. This was circa 1960, when most marketing models in use today were developed, like the purchase funnel, which measures advertising effectiveness.

The world has since changed dramatically. And, despite the rise of digital and the economic downturn, most old marketing axioms are still operative, miring marketers in an approach designed for a bygone era.

Take the relationship between supply and demand – its reversed. Today demand is scarce, supply plentiful. Second, over the past half-century we have learned so much about how people engage with brands.

We now understand that people are not two-dimensional datum to be manipulated by coupons or the latest hot-button offer. Current anthropological, linguistic and neuro-scientific evidence demonstrates that humans attach to things (product, person or idea) through a process of identification that coalesces longings at the personal, social levels.

Human behavior cannot be comprehended by the old-school logical conceptions of action. What Don DeLillo said about how he writes a book is true for life, “Things begin to happen just outside the range of the immediate action. There’s very little sense of logic behind it.”

Life, No Straight Line

Now that we agree life is not a straight line, marketers need to accept tools that address reality. Case in point, the Purchase Funnel, a guest that attends most new business meetings: Awareness, Consideration, Preference, Action, Loyalty. But people Are Not Linear.

When one considers consumers as people, one immediately appreciates that logic is a puny force in the face of emotion and belief. Identity trump interests and narrative transforms products into relevant stories crafted by one’s own brand of meaning. In this cuisineart-like, improvisational, non-linear process, awareness does not precede consideration, then tumble into preference and finally into action.

Zig-Zagging To Attachment

In actuality, the attachment process carves a zigzag route in the service of emotional reasoning as people make symbolic associations with what is familiar, participatory and self-expansive in their image of the product. Only if and when the product is successfully transformed into a personally meaningful idea, does manufacturer reap the benefit of one’s loyalty to self. This process can take time, or immediately convulse, but the best a marketer can hope for is a spasm of sentiment that bears no logical relationship to product attributes.

Note what two people say about Apple’s iPhone. “Apple is a smile. It makes me smile. I’m a happy person. Apple and me are the same.” “The iPhone, like Apple, is a circle, it’s smooth and glides. It’s easy and feels good. All other phones are boxes; they have corners and squares, are highly structured, have many rules, are too technical and linear. The iPhone is fun and natural and let’s me do my own thing.”

Purchase Funnel Vs. Yellow Brick Road

The emotional logic of human longing is as merciless as the laws of gravity, but more curvaceous. The time is right for marketers to come to terms with the meanderings of authentic life, and reflect back to people their true nature: poised and unsettled, majestic and mundane, courageous and hesitant, marooned and moored, tough and tender.

Only then will marketers share in attracting people while, at the same time, having people soar.

Marketers must respect people as curvaceous souls, and supplant the purchase funnel with the idea of The Yellow Brick Road. This will both re-humanize advertising and make it, again, a cultural act. Then people may incline towards more products and once again love advertising as they did in the era of Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy.

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Dr. Bob Deutsch


  • Thebrandbuilder

    February 16, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    It occurs to me that the funnel may indeed still be perfectly fine (and valid) but that it is the role of Advertising that has been diminished – in regards to influence, that is.

    Awareness > Consideration > Preference > Action > Loyalty is still how most people purchase products and services – whether the purchase is logical, emotional, or a combination of both.

    However, the means by which individuals come about the awareness and preference (even the action) has migrated to an increasingly fragmented ecosystem: Where 30 years ago, advertising would have created awareness and preference, the reality of 2010 is very different – Awareness could come from product placement in a TV show, movie or music video. It could be the result of a direct or indirect recommendation via a product review website, online social network or analog social network. It could turn up at the top of a category search via Google or Bing.

    So… Fragmentation, yes. Advertising is just one of many anchors tethered to the funnel. But to say that the funnel itself is dead, I’m not sure I can agree.

    Good article nonetheless. 🙂

  • Jamie

    February 16, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    While the headline of the article was interesting and made me click through, the article itself has absolutely no supporting data that helps convince me that this is actually happening. From data I see there is consistent evidence that a buying stage funnel still exists and is quite evident. If you’ve got some hard data, rather than a hunch, that this is true, please do share.

  • Jeffrey Schnabel

    December 15, 2010 at 10:12 am

    I concur with the first comment/reply. To say that human nature has been changed because of how the message is now being delivered to the audience, without any supporting data, is simply an opinion. It doesn’t change the “how” of audience thought processes. That’s like saying the current digital world changed how the brain processes information.

    There are several inconsistencies in the logic. For example, what does an economic downturn have to do with the subject being discussed? What proof is there that “Today demand is scarce, supply plentiful”. Really? For which product or service in particular? Maybe at this writing’s juncture, housing is plentiful and demand scarce, but that is just a single product. Is the demand for iPads scarce and the supply plentiful? How about the demand for all electric vehicles? Nissan sold out it’s entire production for the Leaf before they shipped a single product.

    I could go on, but this seems purely opinion, and confuses issues and concerns about changes necessary in the method of messaging and brand development, with the traditional purchase process.

    Simple case in point:
    – if a person A created a product but never told a soul, yet person B has a problem that person A’s product solves better than any other product; at lower cost, with higher quality; without awareness, the two will never connect.
    – if person B becomes aware of person A’s product, yet has no way to get any information about its capabilities, its cost, its benefits, its quality; then person B is left aware, but unable to consider the product as a solution because they cannot become familiar enough with the product to develop an opinion that moves them to the next stage, one of consideration.

    And so the process continues.

    I am also confused with the assertion that by somehow defining steps in the purchase process (funnel), one has relegated the process to only logic, a process that is now somehow devoid of consideration for human emotion and beliefs.

    In summary, this is an interesting article about something, just not the death of a purchasing model that’s sound. The reference to the yellow brick road clearly leans towards the “how” of getting customers to your product, but that doesn’t change their thought process.

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