The Perceptual Process

The Perceptual Process and Perceptual Maps

As you can guess by the similar terms, there is a big overlap between a consumer’s perceptual process and perceptual maps.

Perception is the process by which individuals interpret and understand sensory information from their environment.

While perceptual maps are a tool used in marketing to visually represent consumers’ perceptions of a particular brand, product, or service in relation to its competitors.

How a consumer perceives or understands a brand will determine the brand’s position in a consumer’s mind and, as a result, its position on a perceptual map, especially its relative position as compared to its competitors.

Perception is Covered in Consumer Behavior Topics

If you have studied marketing (or are currently studying it) you will recall that perception and the perceptual process are covered in the topics on consumer behavior, whereas perceptual maps are normally covered with the topics on segmentation, targeting and positioning – usually two different chapters in a marketing textbook. However, like many topics in marketing, they are highly interrelated and depended upon each other.

So when you study consumer behavior models and theories, one of the internal factors reviewed is the consumer’s perceptual process. This process outlines the steps of how consumers gain knowledge and information.

While different marketing textbooks will have slightly different variations of the perceptual process model, here is a common approach to the model:

As you can see, it is the accumulated knowledge of brands that is mapped onto perceptual maps – with this knowledge being obtained from a ix of information and purchase experiences.

Let’s now take a deeper look at the perceptual process… Please review the video or scroll down for the full article.


Understanding the Perceptual Process in Marketing

What is Perception?

Perception is just a fancy word for how we interpret and understand the world and the things around us. It’s how we form our overall view based on the information coming in and our experiences.

Why are Marketers Interested in Perception?

When it comes to marketing, our goal is to change consumer behavior and drive increased purchases, loyalty, and commitment to the brand.

But there are 1’000s of promotional messages that you’re exposed to every day. From the ads you see online, to signs you see in shops, to social media ads and promotional posts, to the billboards you drive by on the highway. When you think about it, there’s always plenty of marketing messages out there competing for your attention.

But it’s important to note that the perceptual process that we all go through relates to ALL information and messages – not just marketing ones.

The Main Steps in the Perceptual Process

As per the above diagram, the key stages in the perceptual process (from a marketing perspective) are:

  • Exposure
  • Attention
  • Interpretation
  • Memory, Attitudes and Brand Knowledge
  • Purchase Behavior
  • Customer Experience and Satisfaction


Initially the consumer is exposed to brand in some manner.

This may be from advertising or some other form of promotion, or it may be from other consumers who are using the brand, or it may be from visiting a store where the brand is sold, or even from word-of-mouth sources.

If it is from advertising, this is referred to as an impression.

The best way to think about exposure is by using the term “opportunity to see”, which means that an exposure is a chance for the consumer to see the brand or its communication.

If the ad or promotional message is well-crafted, then the consumer will proceed to the next stage (attention) of the perceptual process. In MOST cases, the consumer will NOT pay attention to the message – which is why brands spend so much on media and use repetition in their promotional strategies.


Attention occurs when the consumer dedicates some time towards the brand or its communication.

This may be as simple as glancing at a billboard advertisement for a split second, or perhaps closely watching a 3 minute cinema commercial, or simply observing other people with the brand.

If it is quite casual, or passive, attention then the process is usually complete without any real change in the consumer’s perception of the brand and its potential benefits – as the consumer will NOT proceed to the next stage (interpretation of the message).

For example, you may notice an ad or a promotional message (that is, you pay some attention to it), but then you unable to recall it or its messaging at a later stage – this is quite common.


If the consumer pays attention, or the brand and/or its communication gains the attention of the consumer on several occasions, then the consumer is likely to process the ‘message‘ to some extent.

Despite the general meaning of the word ‘interpretation‘, the process in this case tends to be quite simplistic.

The consumer will usually process the main benefit/s or a key feature/s of a brand, such as:

  • Good for tough stains
  • A flexible bank
  • Good customer service
  • Easy to use
  • And so on.

Unless the consumer has had prior experience with this brand (through personal consumption or via word-of-mouth), the consumer will generally form a weak attitude (opinion) at this stage and  will remain a weak view/opinion until reinforced by usage or further communication.

Memory, Attitudes and Brand Knowledge

While the consumer has gained some understanding of a brand at this stage of the overall perceptual process, it needs to be developed into a memory that can be recalled.

Consumers in their everyday life are exposed to a lot of information, the vast amount of which they do not remember for a long period of time.

A consumer’s ability to remember information on any subject typically depends upon the extent of repetition (rehearsal) and the effort taken to understand the material.

In academic courses, students will try to understand the material, however, consumers primarily learn and remember initially through simple repetition and reinforcement of marketing communications and later through brand usage/consumption.

It is this stage of the perceptual process that is mapped onto perceptual maps.

As marketers, we are quite interested to understand how target market consumers perceive (that is, remember and understand = their knowledge) our brands versus our competitors.

This is because (usually) we want our brand to have clear points-of-difference (that is, clear differentiation) so that we gain a loyal customer following, loyalty and repeat sales.

Purchase Behavior

By being able to alter a consumer’s memory (as per the last step), this leads us to our ultimate marketing outcome of influencing:

  • purchase behavior,
  • repeat purchases,
  • degree of loyalty,
  • willingness to pay more,
  • willingness to leave a review,
  • willingness to recommend to somebody else,
  • recommend online,
  • and so on

As we can see, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a sale, but we want to build the brand. We want to build positive attitudes, and we want to create ongoing customer loyalty.

Barriers in the Perceptual Process

Now that we’ve gone through the perceptual process, let’s talk about some of the barriers to effective communication.

Selective Exposure

Most likely you are attracted to certain types of media.

You choose what media you engage with. You might be on various social media platforms, or you might watch lots of YouTube, or you might be do lots of Googling and see many Google ads.

This means that your lifestyle, interests, and preferences will guide what you see – it guides what promotional messages that you are exposed to – this is selective exposure.

And even though there are brands out there doing lots of advertising across different types of media and they’re working hard with their communications – you may never even be exposed to their brand.

That’s why large brands think about the best media channels and other marketing approaches to communicate to their target audiences. They try to answer the question – how do we best each our target market consumers? 

The purpose of careful media selection (and repetitive advertising) is to overcome the barrier of selective exposure.

For more information: What is Selective Exposure?

Selective Attention

The next challenge to address in the perceptual process is selective attention. In simple terms, this means that we choose (select) what messages we pay attention to.

For example, you might walk through a shopping mall with your friends and they will most likely notice different signs and different ads than you do.

They are attracted to different products, brands, ad styles, colors, designs, and so on – depending on their interests, personality, and a bunch of other individual factors.

So the challenge for marketer is – how to gain the attention of the target audience?

We can we do to gain attention? Things like:

  • using an influencer
  • placing the brand into a movie
  • doing something unusual to get publicity
  • using some sort of viral type messaging
  • having a bizarre ad
  • having a funny ad
  • using a celebrity
  • and lots more approaches to get attention

Because consumers are selective about what they pay attention to, brands have to work hard to grab attention, but without distorting the messaging, which is the next barrier to effective perception.

For more information: What is Selective Attention?

Distortion (or Misinterpretation)

Distortion (as part of the consumer’s decoding of the message) means that the person viewing/hearing the brand message MAY misinterpret or somehow confuse the message.

That sounds unlikely – but it is very common. For example, in a family you might have a conversation with your parents and you thought they meant X, when they meant something else. There was just confusion. So misinterpretation happens a lot.

In terms of marketing, we will interpret things based on our experience and our understanding of a brand. So a brand comes out and says, “Hey, we’re the most popular brand for this product in the country,” and you might go, “Uh, I’ve tried it. I don’t like it. I don’t understand how they’re popular”.

In this case, you’ve taken this messaging, which is supposed to be a positive message that everybody’s buying this brand and switched its meaning because you have experience with the brand – resulting in a different interpretation.

Distortion of the message may occur from your experience or from a lack of understanding of the message, or a lack of interest.

That’s why companies work very hard with clarity, trying to make sure the communication is clear, but it also has to be exciting enough to get attention.

They keep reinforcing their positioning. Often we see similar colors, similar looks, taglines, statements, types of communication, and it’s just reinforcing that to make it clear.

For more information: What is Selective Distortion?

Selective Retention (or Selective Memory)

Let’s assume that we have got this far – the consumer has paid some attention and our messaging was clear – next we need to ensure that the messaging is recalled and remembered.

Unfortunately, people (consumers) are quite selective about what they choose to remember. And the reality is that they are bombard with lots of information, making it harder to remember new things (especially about brands and products).

That’s why we see lots of repetition in advertising communications. We see reminder ads for Coke that might just say, “Always Coke”, or something simple like that.

And you go, “Well, what’s the point of that? I already know about Coke. You’re not telling me anything.”

These repetitive messages are designed to remind us – to reinforce the messages and to keep pushing the brand’s positioning. And that’s why we will see the same ad or the same style of ad from a brand over and over.

For more information: What is Selective Retention?

Driving Purchase Behavior

And then finally at behavior level, the brand is going to just rely on your recall – they are going to prompt you and help you recall the message.

In a store they will run related sales promotions, or have posters or signage reminders, or get salespeople to mention it, or increase in-store visibility with demonstrations.

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