Hierarchy of Effects

A theory that discusses the impact of advertising on customers’ decision-making on purchasing certain products and brands

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What is the Hierarchy of Effects?

The hierarchy of effects is a theory that discusses the impact of advertising on customers’ decision-making on purchasing certain products and brands. The theory covers a series of stages that advertisers should follow, from gaining customers’ awareness to the final purchase behavior.

Hierarchy of Effects Diagram


  • The hierarchy of effects theory describes the impact of advertising on customers’ decision-making on purchasing certain products and brands in a series of behavioral stages.
  • The hierarchy of effects model consists of three major stages: the cognitive stage (awareness, knowledge); the affective stage (liking, preference, conviction); and the behavioral stage (purchase).
  • As a study based on behavioral psychology, the hierarchy of effects theory is criticized by cognitive psychologists for its feasibility to understand each stage of buying behaviors and its ignorance of different advertising goals.

Understanding the Hierarchy of Effects Theory

The hierarchy of effects theory describes how advertising affects consumers’ behavior and leads to the transition from not knowing a product or brand to liking it and finally making the action to purchase. The theory was first raised by Robert J. Lavidge and Gary. Steiner in their article entitled “A Model for Predictive Measurements of Advertising Effectiveness,” which was published in 1961. It has now been used as a sophisticated advertising strategy to build up brand awareness and has branched off into many different variations.

The hierarchy of effects is based on behavioral psychology. It can be classified into three main behavior stages – cognitive, affective, and behavioral, regarding the human thought process. The cognitive stage is also known as “thinking,” containing the awareness and knowledge stages.

The affective stage is composed of the sub-stages of liking, preference, and conviction, which describes the impact on consumers’ “feeling” process. The final stage is the behavioral (doing) stage, reaching the ultimate goal of purchase. The following paragraphs will discuss each stage in more detail.

Stages of Hierarchy of Effects

1. Awareness

Gaining consumer awareness is the starting point of the entire process. For example, if a consumer intends to purchase a smartphone, the marketing team of a phone brand must make that potential consumer aware of the brand’s existence through its advertising. At the awareness stage, the consumer notices the brand but with very limited knowledge about it.

2. Knowledge

After being aware of a brand, the consumer will start to evaluate whether the product under the particular brand can meet his/her needs and how it is compared to other products and brands. It is essential to ensure that sufficient information is available to consumers for them to know the brand well so that they can move to the next stage.

3. Liking

At the liking stage, the process moves from cognitive to affective behavior. A brand brings emotional comforts to consumers, and consumers form positive perspectives on the brand. For example, the smartphone consumer might like the good-looking design or find the HD camera of a phone very helpful.

4. Preference

Although there are features that consumers like about a brand, they might also appreciate certain characteristics of other brands. At the preference stage, the brand needs to differentiate itself from other products and gain consumer preference over its competitors.

5. Conviction

Conviction is the decision-making stage where the consumers’ positive feelings of a brand convert to the certainty of buying. Consumers settle their doubts and stop moving back and forth between brands at this point.

6. Purchase

Purchase is the final stage of the hierarchy where consumers make the action to purchase. It is essential to provide a positive purchasing experience to consumers, e.g., offering pre-order choices, instructions of usage, or a guarantee of post-sales support. Such efforts may encourage consumers to purchase in larger amounts or stick to the same brand for the next purchase.

Criticisms Against Hierarchy of Effects

As mentioned above, the hierarchy of effects model is a study under behavioral psychology, which focuses on the response of behavior. The model is thus criticized for its effectiveness by cognitive psychology, which studies the information processing of brains.

The hierarchy of effects breaks down the advertising impact on consumers’ purchase behavior into a series of stages. Cognitive psychology scholars argue that, in the real world, consumers are exposed to a broad range of information that can impact their final purchase behavior. The extensive background noise makes it almost impossible for advertisers to understand how the advertising information is processed in the consumers’ brains at each stage.

Another criticism is that the theory assumes the same six stages for all types of advertising, which ignores the differentiation among product types and advertising approaches. Instead of following the same series of stages, advertisers with different goals should build up unique selling ideas that can differentiate their products from competitors.

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