MARK217 Week 6: Consumer Learning and Classical Conditioning

This week’s topic looked at the notion of learning and the numerous theories that inform today’s marketing communications. So first of all, what is ‘learning’? It seems like such a broad concept that it is hard to put into words. It “refers to any change in the content or organisation of long-term memory” and results “from information processing that causes changes in memory” (Algie, 2014). There are two major behavioural learning theories that are relevant to marketing. These are classical conditioning and instrumental conditioning.

Classical conditioning was first described by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov as a general theory of how learning occurs (Schiffman et al, 2014). Conditioning learning occurs when a stimulus that does not usually evoke a response is paired with another stimulus that creates a known response, eventually, works to produce the same response on its own (Schiffman et al, 2014). Okay, that was an incredible confusing definition. However, if we look at the example presented in the lecture of how Pavlov came up with this theory, it makes a little more sense. Below is a model that outlines that experiment Pavlov conducted to study classical conditioning.


In this experiment, Pavlov sounded a bell (conditioned stimulus) and directly followed this by applying meat paste (unconditioned stimulus) onto the dog’s tongues which caused them to salivate (unconditioned response). Classical conditioning relies largely on repetition, so after repeating this act a multitude of times, the unconditioned response became the conditioned response and the dogs salivated when the bell was rung without the addition of the meat paste (Schiffman et al, 2014, Loudon & Della Bitta, 1993).
There are a number of marketing applications of classical conditioning. They include repetition, stimulus discrimination and the one I will be focussing on today which is stimulus generalization (Schiffman et al, 2014). Stimulus generalisation relies on not only associations consumers make through repetition but also on our ability to generalise. Pavlov found that the dogs would not only salivate to the sound of a bell but also to similar sounds like jangling of keys (Schiffman et al, 2014).

In a contemporary context, one of the most common examples of stimulus generalization is copy-cat brands whose packaging and products imitate category leaders. It has been found that private label imitation of national brands can result in consumer confusion at the point of purchase (Till & Priluck, 2000). The consumer may pick up the imitation brand by accident, particularly when the viewing time is brief (Till & Priluck, 2000). Consumers also intentionally buy copy-cat products as they can be extremely similar in terms of the actual product and packaging however can be a fraction of the cost. We can see hundreds of examples of this when looking at Aldi products. Below are a few examples:






These products rely solely on consumer’s positive associations with existing national products. But is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery? In this case, probably not.

Algie, J 2014, ‘Week 6: Learning’, MARK217, lecture, University of Wollongong, viewed 10 April 2014

Loudon, DL & Della Bitta, AJ 1993, Consumer Behaviour, 4th edn, McGraw-Hill Inc, Singapore

Schiffman, L, O’Cass, A, Paladino, A & Carlson, J 2014, Consumer Behaviour, 6th edn, Pearson Australia, Frenchs Forest, Australia

Till, BD & Priluck, RL 2000, ‘Stimulus Generalization in Classical Conditioning: An Initial Investigation and Extension’, Psychology and Marketing, vol. 17, iss. 1, pp. 55-72


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