The Consumer Journey

The Consumer Journey

Scott Stewart
Published Feb 08, 2021
Scott Stewart
Published Feb 08, 2021


Before I begin my article, I want to clarify two very important aspects of how the consumer today behaves and how very contrary it is to how we speak to it every single time we use the term “funnel”.

First, that the customer journey is not a linear experience. It never has been, and given how complex the consumer is today, we need to stop using the “the funnel” analogy as a way to depict it.

Second, the reason why “the funnel” is an inaccurate portrayal of the customer journey is because it does not compensate for and actually discourages the notion that consumers are actually ‘always on’, always in motion and coming in and out of the purchase cycle based on how frequently the category is shopped.

Confused? Good. Now let’s start at the beginning to help you see things a bit differently.


The whole “funnel” thing started with this dubious image of the “AIDA” model:

As a strategist, I cannot begin to tell you the damage that this model has done to de-value some of the biggest brands over the past two decades, having sent even the most sophisticated CMOs down some very dark and treacherous rabbit holes.

It’s worth noting that in previous discussions and panels I have been on to discuss the customer journey, one of the first references is usually to “the funnel”, which I then use it as an opportunity ask the audience – does anyone actually know when the AIDA model was created? and I am always grateful to those Mad Men fans in the room who offer up that it had to be created during the 1960’s by either Leo Burnet or a J. Walter Thompson because it really helps me hammer my point home.

In fact, the AIDA model was actually created by this guy here:

His name is E. St. Elmo Lewis and he created the “funnel” approach to advertising in an attempt to explain how personalized selling actually works. In 1898. Yep. You read that correctly. In 1898.

Fast forward some 120+ years later to present day, where we are leveraging super sophisticated data and artificial intelligence to target our consumers with a level of scientific precision that is absolutely mind-blowing and yet… here we are, still use this ancient model to simplify something that is actually really, really complex.

I probably also don’t have to remind you either that in 1898 there was no such thing as the internet… or television… or radio… magazines… and while there were newspapers, I’m pretty sure they were still setting the type by hand to print the newspaper.

You get the point I am trying to make, and rather than just blaming Google for this mess, I am trying to draw attention to the fact that biggest error that we make when we reference “the funnel”, is going straight to the “active” phase of the customer journey and completely negate two of the most important aspects of the path to purchase, specifically around (1) how a brand builds bias for their product over their competition and (2) what is actually triggering consumers to actively shop the category.

There has been a lot work done on this topic by a lot of great neuroscientists, psychologists and sociologist, but the simple fact of the matter is that consumers (including you!) have a predetermined bias towards the brand they want to buy before they even shop the category and that on average, consumers will consider 2.7 brands with a 49% bias towards one of them.

What that means is consumers, over time, have developed a pre-determined bias for one brand over another and subconsciously already know what they want to buy and only consider other brands to help reinforce their bias and validate their first choice. And while we all love our digital vanity metrics so we can validate our ROAS, if you are not on the primary consideration list in the first place you’re probably not going to be shopped, and it is impossible to build bias for a brand without a dedicated and long-term strategy in place that is designed to create preference for your product over the category - at scale.

That is why, as you begin to re-evaluate the “funnel” mentality – you need to start out by seeing the customer as always in motion, coming in and out of the category and making decisions about the brands they choose across four distinct phases that all work in conjunction of one another:

  1. Passive Stage
  2. Trigger
  3. Active Stage
  4. Moment of Purchase

To help you imagine how these stages all work together, I’ve drawn a very simple diagram to help you visualize the consumer in momentum:


To give you the easiest explanation as to what is happening in the Passive Stage, think of it as the top of the top of the funnel. To help you imagine how this works (and contrary to what Google tells you the top of the funnel is), think of the digital funnel analogy as starting much farther down the journey at the Active Phase once the consumer has been triggered into the category and starts to actively shop.

Conversely, envision the Passive Stage as the non-transactional part of the campaign, where all the heavy lifting is happening to “prime” the consumers and build up brand equity cumulatively, subconsciously and over an extended period of time in order to create a pre-determined bias for the brand way before the consumer starts to actively shop the category.

One the biggest challenges we face as an industry today is called Short-termism. We’ve become so overtly obsessed by measurability that we tend to over-simplify the consumer and only see our world in terms of clicks and conversions and other (short term) performance KPIs. Because of which, it becomes very easy for us to see longer term, brand-building as wasted investment due to our immediate need to calculate ROI and verifiable campaign success in real time. And yet it is these very impressions, accumulated over time and across multiple consumer touch points that are driving the brand onto the consideration list at the outset of the path to purchase and defining our success from the outset.

Why consumers like and ultimately choose the brands they do can be hard to explain which is why establishing an effective brand proposition can take years to get it right, however the one constant is that the top brands in every category have spent a considerable amount of time and money to ensure that they have positioned themselves correctly in the market. They have nurtured you in the right way, at the right times, with the right communication and have made darn ensure that when YOU are ready to buy, that they’ve made the top of your short list.

(And for those hardcore, digital-acquisition-at-all-cost /brand-building-be-darned types who think that this theory is suspect; you should know that building effective category brand equity in the Passive Stage, this will help to drive lower your CPAs, boosted both organic search results and ultimately, reduce your overall bid prices too… just sayin’)


Developing a clear understanding of when and more importantly why consumers are ‘triggered’ to buy and making sure the brand is aligned to these triggers when the customer starts to shop the category is absolutely critical to the operation of the Active Phase of the purchase journey.

Identifying these customer cues and life moments and being inclusive of these signals in both our strategy and how we operate our performance buys is critical to success in the Active Phase when customers are info-gathering and making the final decisions about what they will ultimately buy.

Thank goodness for our SEM folks who help us understand so much of this – we’d be lost without them.


There is little doubt that Active Stage of the journey is absolutely critical to success which would make sense why we are so invested, maybe even overinvested in the product vs brand side of things in the media industry. It’s where we re-target our asses off, bang it out obsessively for that last click at the best price and contrary to the Passive Stage where all the work is brand-driven, in the Active Stage – things move very fast and our approach is almost exclusively audience-driven because we know that this is here where the consumer is actively evaluating their choices for the last time before the moment of purchase.

Because of which, the biggest challenge and misconception during the Active Stage is that the list of brands considered can actually expand instead of contract and that the consumer actually considers additional brands as they evaluate their final choices. Aside from being absolutely contrary to the notion of a ‘purchase funnel’ which suggests by its very analogy alone that the list of brands should actually decrease as the consumer moves through the journey towards purchase, this fact alone should have us call into question many misconceptions about how today’s purchase funnel actually works versus how it did in, say… in 1898.

What this notion does do however, is confirm for us that all that work and investment you’ve done in the Passive Phase is now absolutely critical to converting that sale and that without establishing a bias for your brand that is aligned with the attributes that consumer is prioritizing during their final decision-making process and the trigger into category – success is far from guaranteed, no matter how much you spend on customer acquisition. And everything comes full circle.


I will spare you the lecture on how critical CX/UX is to driving digital sales, or that nearly 40% of consumers actually change their minds at POS due to a host of additional competitive pressures, and simply to use this an opportunity to simply reinforce that in today’s marketplace, brands need such a strong RTB over the category in order to win all the way through the customer journey.

I have also (purposefully) left out a fifth stage of the customer journey which is the Post-purchase Experience and the effects that consumer advocacy, influencer marketing, and social media has on brand building post-purchase because that is a whole other super-complex topic unto itself and just wrap this up by saying that if I have accomplished anything here, it is that I may have persuaded you to see the consumer journey as far more complex than the funnel analogy and that the customer journey not only cyclical but super complex, interconnected, and that success as a brand today is required at each stage.

Most importantly, I hope that you see that from a strategy perspective, the work we do is actually extremely difficult because we are no longer in the media business, but rather that we now in the creating outcomes business based on what we know about the customer journey and that what we do directly affects how the consumer will ultimately shop and buy in the categories we operate in.

And when you put it that way – it sure is a pretty cool time to be in the media industry, isn’t it!?

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