The Theory of Planned Behaviour

[Last Updated January 21st 2024]
Azjen’s (1991) theory of planned behaviour attempts to explain how our beliefs influence our behaviours. It argues that three factors/beliefs influence our intention to perform a behaviour, which in turn influences our likelihood of performing said behaviour. The first factor is our attitude toward the behaviour which is often described as how favourable we feel about the behaviour. For example, if you really hate exercise, then you are considerably less likely to be willing to exercise. The second factor is the influence from subjective norms (a specific type of social norm), which reflects social pressure from “important others” like family members, friends, and spouses to perform the behaviour. For example, even if you hate exercising, there may be significant social pressure from your family and friends to exercise regularly. The third factor is perceived behavioural control which reflects our beliefs about the difficulty of carrying out the behaviour. For example, if you think exercise is important and your family wants you to exercise, you may still think it’s too difficult if you have an injury or lack of energy. Our perceived behavioural control is influenced by our past experiences as well as our future predictions or expectations. These three factors can also influence one another, and all three lead to an individual’s intentions to perform a behaviour, which lead to the behaviour itself. Further, our intentions aren’t driven by all our beliefs about a behaviour, but rather the beliefs that are more salient to us. Thus, from a marketing perspective, influencing the salience of beliefs can arguably influence intentions and behaviour. In addition, it is important to consider that some of these factors involve motivation, some involve ability, and some involve both. For example, you might be motivated to eat healthy (e.g. positive attitude towards exercise) but lack ability due to a lack of access to healthy foods in your neighbourhood (and thus have low perceived behavioural control). Please note however that this is a very general summary of the theory. Over the years there have been thousands of studies that have relied on the theory of planned behaviour, and there are a number of nuances and technical understandings that differ based on context.

A meta-analysis by Steinmetz et al. (2016) looked at over 80 papers covering various domains, and determined that interventions based on the theory of planned behaviour were generally effective, often with large effect sizes. This suggests that when attempting to influence behaviour, the theory of planned behaviour is a valid stating point and/or consideration. There are a significant number of meta-analyses and studies that examine behaviour through the lens of the theory of planned behaviour in different domains that are relevant to marketing. One of the goals of many of these studies is to see how each of the three factors/beliefs contribute to intention/motivation. For example, Han & Stoel (2017) performed a meta-analysis to better understand the motivational drives behind intentions to make ethical consumer decisions (e.g. purchase sustainable products, protect human rights). They found that attitudes and subjective norms had the most impact on intentions, suggesting that social norm strategies may be effective when trying to market socially responsible products. An example of this can be seen in a Fairtrade America (2022) campaign that asked Americans to think about how long they would work for $1. This type of campaign implicitly implies that people are being treated unfairly, and communicates to consumers that fairness is a social norm that should be considered in their decision making process when making a purchase. This in turn influences attitudes in respect to making ethical purchases. It may be beneficial to search for the theory of planned behaviour alongside industry keywords prior to developing a marketing campaign, to see if there are any existing relevant meta-analyses or studies, and specifically look for what variables are most impactful on intention and behaviour.

Applying The Theory of Planned Behaviour to Marketing

When developing a marketing strategy that involves some form of behavioural change, you may want to consider the three beliefs/factors that can potentially influence intentions. You want to consider each of these factors separately (e.g. how do subjective norms influence your target behaviour) as well as their potential effects on the other factors (e.g. how does a relevant subjective norm influence attitudes and perceptions of behavioural control). Once you have determined relevant factors, consider if they are motivational in nature, or if they involve ability, or both. Next, you want to determine if these factors help promote, or hinder a behaviour. If they help promote the desired behaviour, you may want to make these factors more salient so that they have a greater immediate influence. For example, if you were selling antibacterial soap during the COVID pandemic, you might have considered making cleanliness norms salient. On the other hand, if they hinder a desired behaviour, you may want to consider ways to overcome existing perceptual roadblocks. For example, if promoting eCommerce to elderly populations who believe that it’s too difficult to learn how to use phones and computers, you might make the user experience similar to browsing a physical catalogue alongside large visible and tactile buttons, so that they feel more comfortable adopting the new technology. You would of course need to communicate this in advertisements directed at them, using language that helps them overcome perceived behavioural control constraints. In addition to all these considerations, you also need to determine if strategies you implement translate from intentions to behaviour. For example, you might make relevant social norms salient and in turn impact attitudes, which then influence intention to change behaviour, but without any follow-through. In this situation you need to figure out ways to nudge your customers towards the desired behaviour after the shift in intentions. And this in turn requires a general understanding of when customer intentions are likely to shift in your favour. For example, you might partner with a health influencer to promote daily vitamin D usage (and vitamin sales through a subscription plan), which may lead to greater intentions to take vitamin D. However, you might find that customers just forget to take it on a daily basis, even though the intention exists. Thus, you could consider providing them with a health app that provides some form of additional value (e.g. calorie tracking) while including a reminder for the vitamins. Or alternatively, using some form of classical or operant conditioning strategy to normalize taking the vitamin with breakfast every day.

Practical Examples of The Theory of Planned Behaviour

An Example of Attitude Change Considerations (Healthy Eating for Gamers)

Imagine you are selling some type of healthy food, and want to expand to young male gamers who tend have unfavorable attitudes towards healthy eating (a relatively untapped market). In this situation, you would want to run a marketing campaign that targets these attitudes and attempts to change them, while at the same time selling your product. To do this, you would first want to consider creating a unique brand. In this situation, you might create a brand that’s involved with gaming performance. You would then want to use video game references in your advertisements, and use influencers who are popular in the gaming community (e.g. Twitch streamers) to promote the product. You might also consider sponsoring gaming tournament and events. In doing this, you are positioning your product as more than just food. It’s a tool to help them game better. And by using influencers and sponsoring tournaments/competitions, you are normalizing the use of this food in the gaming world. This in turn shifts attitudes, which in turn will impact intentions for many gamers. At this point you just need to make purchasing the product convenient, and you will likely convert intentions to behaviours (e.g. get gamers to eat your healthy food to boost their gaming performance). You can also expand to different demographics that normally don’t consider eating healthy, by finding ways to shift their beliefs in regards to eating healthy foods. And if your brand is the first healthy food consideration they make, you may have locked them in as a customer for life.

An Example of Subjective Norms Considerations (Curely Free Beauty)

Consider you run a company that sells cruelty free beauty products like makeup and skin creams targeting adolescents and young adults. Research indicates that this demographic (especially females) cares a lot about animal welfare. Thus, in this situation you might focus on making subjective norms regarding animal wellbeing salient. For example, you might use advertisements with pictures of a cute bunny and copy that poses the question “Would your friends be ok if you tortured Mr. bunny?” followed with “Buy cruelty free” and your brand logo. This would take advantage of subjective norms by emphasizing that your friends wouldn’t be supportive of harming animals, and the identifiable victim effect by focusing on an individual bunny (named Mr. Bunny here). Thus, this would likely influence intentions and behaviour in respect to buying cruelty free, even if it’s more expensive.

An Example of Perceived Behavioural Control Considerations (VR Exervise Hardware)

One popular form of innovation and profit is creating new ways to make an individual’s life more convenient. Imagine you are selling a new virtual reality exercise headset for home use. You might consider using geolocation to advertise to individuals in areas without gyms nearby, or in areas with lots of high-rises rather than houses. By doing this, you might be able to target individuals who have positive attitudes about exercising (and possibly face subjective norms that support exercising), but feel they lack behavioural control due to a lack of resources or access to gyms. Similarly, you could target individuals who suffer from anxiety, and thus may be less likely to be comfortable visiting a gym. Both these strategies would help people overcome barriers and allow them to perform behaviours (e.g. exercise) that they already wanted or intended to perform. If you recognize that these customers are now able to carry out these behaviours because of the convenience your product/service provides, you can also follow-up with supportive emails or text messages that reinforce the positive behaviours they are choosing to engage in (e.g. congratulate them for spending 10 hours doing exercises with your VR device).

Research Example of The Theory of Planned Behaviour

Following Brands on Social Media

Chu et al. (2016) examined social media engagement with brands through the lens of the theory of planned behaviour in order to better understand what factors drive customers to engage. They specifically focused on Twitter (now called X) and surveyed individuals about their beliefs and intentions. Specifically, they focused on factors that influence an individual’s intention to follow a brand, and the behaviours that result from that intention. They found that all three factors (attitude, subjective norms, and perceived behavioural control) influenced an individual’s likelihood of following a brand on twitter. Further, they found that an individual’s level of attachment towards a brand also influenced engagement with said brand. And they found that those who have a higher intention to follow a brand were more likely to engage with the brand by tweeting at them, and resharing their posts. All of this in turn influenced an individual’s intention to make a purchase. Numerous other studies have similarly found that the theory of planned behaviour can help predict brand and advertising engagement on social media (Ajina, 2019; Sanne & Wiese, 2018). Thus, the theory of planned behaviour ought to be considered in respect to social media management and any social media marketing campaigns that seek to generate engagement from users.

Works Cited

Ajina, A. (2019). Predicting customers’ online word of mouth intention: The theory of planned behavior applied to understand youth Saudi social media behaviors. Management Science Letters, 9(10), 1553-1566.

Azjen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 50(2), 179-211.

Chu, S., Chen, H., & Sung, Y. (2016). Following brands on Twitter: an extension of theory of planned behavior. International Journal of Advertising, 35(3), 421-437.

Fairtrade America. (2022, July 7). Fairtrade America launches “it’s only fair” campaign asking how long Americans would work for just $1 to raise awareness of the unfair price cocoa farmers earn for their beloved crop.

Han, T., & Stoel, L. (2017). Explaining socially responsible consumer behavior: A meta-analytic review of theory of planned behavior. Journal of International Consumer Marketing, 29(2), 91-103.

Sanne, P. N. C., & Wiese, M. (2018). The theory of planned behaviour and user engagement applied to Facebook advertising. South African Journal of Information Management, 20(1).

Steinmetz, H., Knappstein, M., Azjen, I., Schmidt, P., & Kabst, R. (2016). How effective are behavior change interventions based on the theory of planned behavior? Zeitschrift Für Psychologie, 224(3), 216-233.

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