Reference Group Influence On My Consumer Behavior
A reference group can be defined as an individual or group to whom a consumer compares themselves with.
Such groups may be classified as being formal (e.g., work colleagues), informal (e.g., a group of friends who socialise together), aspirational (i.e., aspiring to belong to a particular group), dissociative (e.g., a person motivated away from a particular group), virtual (e.g., online communities) and/or membership (e.g., a member of a sports team) groups (Soloman, Bamossy, Askegaard and Hogg 2006, p.350).
Reference groups can influence a consumer by affecting how they perceive a given product or service (i.e., an informational influence), by affecting what the consumer values or aspires to be (i.e., a value-expressive influence) and/or by affecting the type of behavior displayed by the consumer (i.e., a utilitarian influence) (Park and Lessig 1977, p.102).
In this essay, I shall discuss the groups that I belong to and evaluate how they may have influenced my purchasing behavior as a consumer.
Informal Reference Group
An informal reference group is a group that has no set structure or designated roles (Moschis 1976, p.237). One such group that I am part of is my circle of close friends from my home town.
We have been friends since secondary school and have always had a keen interest in fashion, particularly, designer label clothes of well-known and respected brands such as Giorgio Armani, Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren and Burberry.
Our interest in such clothing initially began as a result of non-uniform days at school, as we would each try to out do each other by wearing the best and most expensive clothes that we could acquire.
The “winner” of this contest would be respected and complimented by the group members, and also often by other non-group members such as girls or acquaintances.
The “loser” however, who was judged to be not wearing something “cool” or fashionable enough, was often mocked or ridiculed for having no fashion sense or for not being able to afford a “decent” pair of clothes.
As a result of this early childhood influence, when it comes to clothes, I feel that my purchasing behavior has been heavily influenced by my friend’s judgements. I know that with the right outfit, I will receive social approval. But with the wrong outfit, I will receive social disapproval.
This could be classified as a type of normative or utilitarian reference group influence as a result of exerting reward or coercive power (Kelman 1961, p.57), because my desire to conform to and satisfy the expectations of my friends, ultimately motivates me to purchase expensive clothes so that I can receive praise and acceptance from my peers rather than rejection and criticism.
It should be noted however, that I only feel self-conscious of what I wear in public. At home for example, I am not really fussed about what I wear because nobody can see my clothes.
Although, I must admit that sometimes I do feel embarrassed thinking about what my friends would say if they knew what I was wearing! This shows that embarrassment is not necessarily a social phenomenon, but is something that can also occur in private (Tangney and Miller 1996, p.1256).
In my case however, solitary embarrassment is not enough to influence the purchase of my home clothes, thereby suggesting that the influence of my informal reference group is the strongest for clothes that I wear publically, and weakest for clothes that I wear privately (Bearden and Etzel 1982, p. 183).
I also do not think that there is a big difference between the quality or comfort of designer brands and less expensive unknown brands. The real difference lies in how those brands are perceived by others as a result of the image or message that they convey.
Neuroimaging studies for example, have shown that when an individual views a well-known brand such as the Apple logo, the brain responds in a similar manner to when viewing a religious symbol (Lindstrom 2009) by activating reward or pleasure centres such as the orbitofrontal cortex (Plassmann, Ramsoy and Milosavljevic 2012, p.1).
This evidence may help to explain why many people, like myself, feel that wearing designer clothes positively enhances the interactions we have with others, because such clothes may quite literally make others feel good just by looking at the person who is wearing them.
However, the fact that my perception of clothing is altered by the environment that I am in (i.e., at home versus in public), suggests that my behavior may be reminiscent of the Asch conformity experiment where participants were found to conform to the dominant group answer, even doing so at the expense of reversing their initial judgement (Asch 1951).
Therefore, my act of conformity may be motivated by a desire to preserve or enhance my self-esteem, because by wearing designer clothes I can reduce the perceived risk of receiving social disapproval such as being laughed at or mocked (Ross 1975, p.1).
In this sense, one could argue that the real power or influence of my reference group comes not from their ability to dispense praise or criticism (i.e., reward and coercive power), but rather, from their ability to affect my self-esteem.
Cheng, White and Chaplin (2011, p.284) for example, found that when users of a brand were criticised for their product choice, they often reported suffering from lower levels of self-esteem.
One could interpret these findings as indicating that consumers do not only form a physical bond with a product through its use, but also, form a psychological bond that can positively or negatively affect one’s perception of the self.
The vulnerability of my own self-esteem to the comments of others may stem from a perceived inadequacy, one that may have been generated by the marketers of the clothes that I purchase (Wilcox and Laird 2000, p.278).
As a result, by exposing these insecurities, my reference group may be influencing my purchasing behavior by stimulating my own desire to hide or conceal my feelings of inadequacy via an act of conformity.
Interestingly, conformity has been shown to decrease with increasing age (Costanzo and Shaw 1966, p.967), thereby suggesting that reference groups may have less of a utilitarian influence on the purchasing decisions of older adults than they do for younger adults.
One possible explanation which may account for these findings, is that older adults typically report higher levels of life satisfaction (Urry and Gross 2010, p.352), self-acceptance and self-contentedness (Reichstadt, Sengupta, Depp, Palinkas and Jeste 2010, p.567) than younger adults.
This in turn, may make older adults more psychologically resistant to criticisms of their peers, and therefore, less willing to conform to those criticisms.
Aspirational Reference Group
An aspirational reference group is a group to which an individual does not belong, but wishes to belong. Typically, this group will be made up of role models or idealised figures that are admired and respected (e.g., celebrities) (Cocanougher and Bruce 1971, p.79). One such individual that I particularly admire is David Beckham.
I like Beckham because I think that he is a very good example of what you can achieve with hard work and determination. He has had a very successful career, conducts himself in a respectful manner and has an enviable lifestyle.
Beckham endorses many different types of products such as those from Adidas, Gillette, Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein, brands that I also like to use. Furthermore, as a result of Beckham’s endorsements, my perception of some products has been changed.
The hair styling product “Brylcreem” for example, which is a product that I once considered to be an unfashionable and out-of-date product, is something that I now use because I view it in a much more favourable light after seeing Beckham advertise it.
Overall, I feel that David Beckham has a value-expressive influence on my purchasing behavior (Park and Lessig 1977, p.102), because he is someone who I would like to emulate and he also advertises products that are considered trendy and fashionable.
By using such products I am therefore more likely to receive social approval from my peers, and so it could be argued that the utilitarian influence of my informal reference group serves to enhance the value-expressive influence of my aspirational reference group.
Another reason why my purchasing behavior may be so strongly influenced by David Beckham, could be due to an act of social comparison. Festinger (1954, p.117) for example, states that individuals have a tendency to compare themselves to others as a means of self evaluation.
Therefore, if an individual admires another person (i.e., an aspirational figure) they will subsequently compare their actual self (i.e., the way they currently are) with their ideal self (i.e., the way they want to be).
Ross (1971, p.38) argues that the greater the distance between one’s actual self and idealised self the lower their self esteem will be, and so the more motivated they will become to imitate their aspirational figure; an effect that has been observed in both men (Elliott and Elliott 2005, p.3) and women (Richins 1991, p.71).
The most obvious way in which this imitation occurs, is via the use of products that the consumer believes their role model also uses and approves of. Interestingly, the act of imitation appears to be an innate human characteristic, as it is something that has been observed in infants as young as one month of age (Meltzoff and Moore 1983, p.702) and also in adults via neurological studies of mirror neurons (Gazzola and Keysers 2009, p.1239-1255).
It may be the case therefore, that the reason why celebrities are often used to advertise and promote the sale of products, is because their mere presence may, as a result of one’s motivation to reach their ideal self, be particularly effective at stimulating the natural tendency towards imitative behavior (Ohanian 1991, p.46), and by doing so, then prime the consumer to behave in a certain way (i.e., to purchase an endorsed product) (Ferguson and Bargh 2004, p.33).
It should be noted however, that advertisements using regular models, such as those found in Dove’s “Real Woman” campaign, have, in some studies, been found to be just as effective as advertisements which use celebrities or very attractive models (Halliwell and Dittmar 2004, p.104).
This suggests that the ability of an aspirational figure to influence a consumers’ purchasing behavior comes not from how they look or who they are, but rather, from the consumer’s ability to identify with or relate to them.
Interestingly, Park and John (2010, p.655) argue that brands endorsed by celebrities can indeed affect one’s perception of the self, and thereby lessen the distance between one’s actual and ideal self.
In their study for example, women who were given Victoria’s Secret bags to carry around with them reported feeling more glamorous and good-looking than women who were given plain bags to carry.
These findings support the findings of Cheng at al. (2011, p.284) that were previously discussed, as they suggest that consumers do form a psychological attachment to their products which can then positively or negatively affect the way they feel.
Ultimately however, how motivated a consumer is to purchase a given product, and therefore, how influential their reference group will be on their buying behavior, largely comes down to the expectations of the consumer (Vroom 1964).
I for example, know that the way my friends perceive me is influenced by the clothes I wear and the products I use, which then affects the way I feel about myself.
As a result, I have positive expectations when using certain branded products and negative expectations when using non-branded products. Consequently, my reference groups (i.e., informal and aspirational) have a strong influence on my buying behavior, but this may not be the case for everyone.
Park et al (2010, p.655) for example, found that individuals who were the most positively affected (i.e., experienced an increase in self-esteem) when associating themselves with a brand, were the individuals who saw those brands as a means of self-improvement.
However, the positive effects of brand association were far less for individuals who felt that they could improve themselves by themselves. This suggests that consumer buying behavior is not only influenced by the company that a consumer keeps, but also, by their own ability to accept themselves for the way they are and then express that self in the face of well-defined social norms (Aggarwal 2004, p.87).
Reference groups play an important role in influencing the purchasing behavior of consumers. However, the type of influence exerted by these groups can vary depending on the type of product, whether that product is consumed privately or publically and the characteristics of the consumer such as their age, beliefs and who they associate or would like to associate with.
In my case for example, the norms and expectations of my friends motivates me towards the purchase of branded products and away from unbranded products. Within this context are my own needs and desires (Maslow 1943, p.370) that, through an act of social comparison, can become more salient and even stronger motivators of my purchasing behavior.
However, the influence of reference groups may not always occur in such a complimentary fashion. In some instances for example, a utilitarian influence may hinder or inhibit the formation of a value expressive influence.
So whilst I may enjoy listening to Britney Spears and find her attractive for example, I am unlikely to wear a Britney Spears t-shirt because doing so would most likely lead to ridicule and questions about my sexuality.
The implications of this for marketers are that they should consider the different types of reference group influence and how those influences overlap and interact with each other. As the less friction there is between these influences, the stronger the total influence is likely to be in stimulating a consumers’ desire to purchase a given product.
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