As a factor influencing a person's perceptions, learning may be defined as changes in behavior resulting from previous experiences. However, learning does not include behavior changes attributable to instinctive responses, growth, or temporary states of the organism, such as hunger, fatigue, or sleep. It is clear that learning is an ongoing process that is dynamic, adaptive, and subject to change. Also, learning is an experience and practice that actually brings about changes in behavior. For example, in order to learn how to play tennis, you might participate in it to gain experience, be exposed to the different skills required, the rules, and so forth. However, the experience does not have to be an actual, physical one. It could be a conceptualization of a potential experience. In other words, you could learn to play tennis by reading about how to play without actually doing it. This is called nonexperiential learning.
Nonexperiential learning is particularly relevant in consumer behavior. For example, assume you are considering purchasing a bottle of Zinfandel wine. You ask the salesclerk what it tastes like, and he tells you it tastes like a strong ginger ale. Not liking the taste of ginger ale, you reject the purchase. Thus you have learned that you do not like Zinfandel wine without having a direct taste experience. A great deal of our learning is of this type. This may be one reason why marketers try to identify opinions leaders who in turn tell others in the market about the benefits of the product.
Another characteristic of learning is that the changes may be immediate or anticipated. In other words, just because we do not see immediate evidence that learning has taken place is no reason to assume that learning has not occurred. We can store our learning until it is needed, and frequently do this in terms of making purchase decisions. For example, we are willing to learn about many product attributes even though we do not expect to buy the product in the near future.
As new information is processed and stored over time, consumer learning takes place. There are several theories of learning: one of the most useful to marketers is that of socialization. Socialization refers to the process by which persons acquire the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that make them more or less able members of their society. The assumption made is that behavior is acquired and modified over the person's lifecycle.
The social learning approach stresses sources of influence—"socialization agents" (i.e. other people)—that transmit cognitive and behavioral patterns to the learner. In the case of consumer socialization, this takes place in the course of the person's interaction with other individuals in various social settings. Socialization agents might include any person, organization, or information source that comes into contact with the consumer.
Consumers acquire this information from the other individuals through the processes of modeling, reinforcement, and social interaction. Modeling involves imitation of the agent's behavior. For example, a teenager may acquire a brand name preference for Izod from friends. Marketers can make use of this concept by employing spokespersons to endorse their products and services who have strong credibility with their target consumers, as in the case of Bill Cosby (Jell-O). Reinforcement involves either a reward or a punishment mechanism used by the agent. A parent may be reinforced by good product performance, excellent post-purchase services, or some similar rewarding experience. The social interaction mechanism is less specific as to the type of learning involved; it may include a combination of modeling and reinforcement. The social setting within which learning takes place can be defined in terms of variables such as social class, sex, and family size.
These variables can influence learning through their impact on the relationship between the consumer and others. It should be noted that an individual who promotes learning can be anyone—such as parent, friend, salesperson, or television spokesperson.