Imagine you’re a world-class athlete about to run a 100-meter dash. Your competitors are also world-class athletes, so the outcome of the race would normally be far from certain.

But in this race, you’ll have a major advantage. You’ll be allowed to leave the starting line two seconds before the other runners. World-class track athletes usually run a 100-meter dash in about ten seconds. So, with a two-second head start, you’re almost certain to win.

In the race to win business and grow revenue, some companies have a significant head start over their competitors. I’m referring to the head start that results when a company, product, or service (which I’ll call collectively a brand) is included in the initial consideration set for a prospective purchase.

The importance of the initial consideration set is hard to overstate. In most cases, a B2B buying process begins when a trigger event causes a business person (the potential buyer) to feel a need or desire to solve a problem or seize an opportunity that may require a purchase.

When such a need or desire arises, a potential buyer will quickly create a mental list of the brands he or she feels are worth considering, i.e. an initial consideration set.

This initial consideration set is based on the mental impressions of brands the potential buyer has formed through personal experiences with the brand, marketing messages, news reports, and conversations with colleagues and friends.

Several studies have shown that potential buyers are very likely to select vendors that were in their initial consideration set. Here are two recent examples.

The Bain & Co./Google Survey

Bain & Co. and Google recently surveyed 1,208 people at US companies who were involved in buying several types of business products and services. The researchers also conducted extensive interviews with ten buyers to explore their habits at each stage of the buying journey.

In this survey, 80% – 90% of the respondents (depending on what they were buying) said they had a set of vendors in mind before they did any research. And, 90% of those respondents said they ultimately chose a vendor that was in their initial consideration set.

The WSJ Intelligence/B2B International Survey

In a 2021 survey of business decision-makers by WSJ Intelligence and B2B International, the researchers divided the B2B customer journey into three stages.

The study defined the Pre-Decision stage as “. . . the time between when they had selected a supplier [for a given product/service category] and when the ‘trigger’ occurred that prompted them to actively begin searching for and deciding on a new supplier.”

The survey contained several questions about a recent purchase and asked the participants to reflect on the vendor that was ultimately selected (the winning vendor) and on a vendor that was considered but not selected (the losing vendor).

The survey findings revealed that mental impressions existing during the Pre-Decision stage have a significant impact on purchase decisions.

  • Survey respondents were more than twice as likely (79% vs. 37%) to say they were very familiar with the winning vendor versus the losing vendor before their active buying process began.
  • At the Pre-Decision stage, respondents had a higher level of pre-existing trust (57% vs. 37%) and confidence (52% vs. 37%) in the winning vendor than in the losing vendor.
The Importance of Mental Availability
So, the research clearly shows that the initial consideration set has a major impact on final purchase decisions. Therefore, marketers should be focused on having their brand(s) included in the initial consideration sets of as many potential buyers as possible. To achieve this objective, marketers need to run marketing programs that will increase the mental availability of their brand(s).
The concept of mental availability was popularized by Byron Sharp and his colleagues at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science. According to Sharp, mental availability is the likelihood that a potential buyer will think of a brand in the context of a specific buying situation.
To design marketing programs that will increase mental availability, marketers must keep two important points in mind.
First, increasing general brand awareness isn’t enough. Potential buyers create their initial consideration set based on the specific context of each buying situation. Therefore, marketers need to run programs that will build and refresh the memory structures that connect their brand(s) to the specific needs and desires their potential buyers are most likely to experience.
Second, because potential buyers create their initial consideration set quickly after a trigger event occurs, marketing programs designed to increase mental availability need to reach potential buyers before they have started an active buying process. This explains why reaching “out-of-market” buyers is vital for effective marketing.
Increasing mental availability and being included in the initial consideration set of a larger number of potential buyers won’t, in itself, guarantee success. The rest of the B2B buying process still matters. But being included in more initial consideration sets provides a head start that B2B marketers can’t afford to ignore.
Top image courtesy of tableatny via Flickr (CC).