Key Influences on Consumer Decision Making

35 Social Influences

The typical outcome of social influence is that our beliefs and behaviours become more similar to those of others around us. At times, this change occurs in a spontaneous and automatic sense, without any obvious intent of one person to change the other. Perhaps you learned to like jazz or rap music because your roommate was playing a lot of it. You didn’t really want to like the music, and your roommate didn’t force it on you — your preferences changed in a passive way. Robert Cialdini and his colleagues (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990) found that college students were more likely to throw litter on the ground when they had just seen another person throw some paper on the ground and were least likely to litter when they had just seen another person pick up and throw paper into a trash can. The researchers interpreted this as a kind of spontaneous conformity — a tendency to follow the behaviour of others, often entirely out of our awareness. Even our emotional states become more similar to those we spend more time with (Anderson, Keltner, & John, 2003).

Influence also sometimes occurs because we believe that other people have valid knowledge about an opinion or issue, and we use that information to help us make good decisions. For example, if you take a flight and land at an unfamiliar airport you may follow the flow of other passengers who disembarked before you. In this case your assumption might be that they know where they are going and that following them will likely lead you to the baggage carousel.

Getting Lost in a Crowd

Social psychologists are interested in studying self-awareness because it has such an important influence on behaviour. People become more likely to violate acceptable, mainstream social norms when, for example, they put on a Halloween mask or engage in other behaviours that hide their identities. For example, the members of the militant white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, wear white robes and hats when they meet and when they engage in violent racist behaviour.

Similarly, when people are in large crowds, such as in a mass demonstration or a riot, they may become so much a part of the group that they experience deindividuation — the loss of individual self-awareness and individual accountability in groups (Festinger, Pepitone & Newcomb, 1952; Zimbardo, 1969) and become more attuned to themselves as group members and to the specific social norms of the particular situation (Reicher & Stott, 2011).

Not all examples of deindividuation cause alarm or concern, however. Consider the community-based solution to crime prevention, “Bear Clan Patrol,” which is a volunteer-run organization with membership in Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton. Members provide, “a sense of safety, solidarity and belonging to both its members and to the communities they serve” (“Who we are,” n.d.). Volunteer patrol teams head out into the dark, cold nights to help the most vulnerable living in the community. They come armed with care packages; they clean up discarded needles and drug paraphernalia; they distribute warm clothing and blankets; and, they provide a set of eyes on the streets where a police presence is less likely to serve those living in the community.

The organization was formed in response to the growing number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (“MMIWG”) in urban and rural areas. The early founders of Bean Clan expressed a desire to assume their “traditional responsibility” to provide care and support to members of their community through culturally-specific approaches to security, safety, and check-ins.

The Bean Clan patrol groups demonstrate how when a group of like-minded individuals come together to address common concerns, their camaraderie provides a stronger sense of purpose and energy, possibly more so than when individuals act alone.

Influence, Conformity, & Norms

Informational social influence is the change in opinions or behaviour that occurs when we conform to people who we believe have accurate information. We base our beliefs on those presented to us by reporters, scientists, doctors, and lawyers because we believe they have more expertise in certain fields than we have. But we also use our friends and colleagues for information; when we choose a jacket on the basis of our friends’ advice about what looks good on us, we are using informational conformity — we believe that our friends have good judgment about the things that matter to us.

Informational social influence is often the end result of social comparison, the process of comparing our opinions with those of others to gain an accurate appraisal of the validity of an opinion or behaviour (Festinger, Schachter, & Back, 1950; Hardin & Higgins, 1996; Turner, 1991). Informational social influence leads to real, long-lasting changes in beliefs. The result of conformity due to informational social influence is normally private acceptance: real change in opinions on the part of the individual. We believe that choosing the jacket was the right thing to do and that the crowd will lead us to the baggage carousel.

In other cases we conform not because we want to have valid knowledge but rather to meet the goal of belonging to and being accepted by a group that we care about (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955). When we start smoking cigarettes or buy shoes that we cannot really afford in order to impress others, we do these things not so much because we think they are the right things to do but rather because we want to be liked.

We fall prey to normative social influence when we express opinions or behave in ways that help us to be accepted or that keep us from being isolated or rejected by others. When we engage in conformity due to normative social influence we conform to social norms socially accepted beliefs about what we do or should do in particular social contexts (Cialdini, 1993; Sherif, 1936; Sumner, 1906).

Although in some cases conformity may be purely informational or purely normative, in most cases the goals of being accurate and being accepted go hand-in-hand, and therefore informational and normative social influence often occur at the same time. When soldiers obey their commanding officers, they probably do it both because others are doing it (normative conformity) and because they think it is the right thing to do (informational conformity). And when you start working at a new job you may copy the behaviour of your new colleagues because you want them to like you as well as because you assume they know how things should be done. It has been argued that the distinction between informational and normative conformity is more apparent than real and that it may not be possible to fully differentiate them (Turner, 1991).

Non-conformity occurs when an individual or group of individuals fail to confirm to rules, laws, and social norms. Why would some individuals elect to be non-conformists? The need for uniqueness is a is seen as a trait or temporary motivation resulting from situational triggers. Some individuals exhibit a greater need to feel different from others or from the anonymous majority and sometimes there are situations that create this need to feel unique. One situation that triggers this is when you feel too similar to others making the major position undesirable. In this case, you opt for nonconformity (Imhoff, et al., 2009).

Marketing to the Non-Conformists

Where can we find examples of non-conformity in marketing?  Well, all around us actually. If I look at my children’s clothes I find batches of (intentionally) miss-matched socks for kids like mine who can’t usually be bothered to find matching ones. When I went shopping for Christmas presents this year I was amazed to find Barbie dolls that didn’t conform to what I grew up with: they were sized and shaped much more naturally and came with kits representing professions and interests far outside of the stereotypes Barbie has represented for decades.

In pop media we see examples of non-conformists all the time: Lady Gaga is a perfect example of someone who wears their difference with pride. Morty Silber writes, “[s]he is a talented signer and performer that wears mirrored dresses, bubble outfits, rubber suits and lovingly names her fans her “monsters”. She does things differently than all the other artists and she isn’t afraid to take creative risks or create enemies. She owns her differences and many people are drawn to her radically different non-conformist ways (Silber, 2015).

Reference Groups & Opinion Leaders

Reference groups are groups (social groups, work groups, family, or close friends) a consumer identifies with and may want to join. They influence consumers’ attitudes and behavior. A reference group helps shape a person’s attitudes and behaviours.

Opinion leaders are people who influence others. They are not necessarily higher-income or better educated, but perhaps are seen as having greater expertise or knowledge related to some specific topic. For example, a local high school teacher may be an opinion leader for parents in selecting colleges for their children. These people set the trend and others conform to the expressed behaviour. If a marketer can identify the opinion leaders for a group in the target market, then effort can be directed toward attracting these individuals. For example, if an ice cream parlor is attempting to attract the local high school trade, opinion leaders at the school may be very important to its success.

An information technology (IT) specialist with a great deal of knowledge about computer brands is another example of an opinion leader. These people’s purchases often lie at the forefront of leading trends. The IT specialist is probably a person who has the latest and greatest tech products, and their opinion of them is likely to carry more weight with you than any sort of advertisement.

How Reference Groups Influence Individuals

  • Role expectation: The role assumed by a person is nothing more than a prescribed way of behaving based on the situation and the person’s position in the situation. Your reference group determines much about how this role is to be performed.
    As a student, you are expected to behave in a certain basic way under certain conditions.
  • Conformity: Conformity is related to our roles in that we modify our behaviour in order to coincide with group norms. Norms are behavioural expectations that are considered appropriate regardless of the position we hold.
  • Group communications through opinion leaders: As consumers, we are often seeking out the advice of knowledgeable friends or acquaintances who can provide information, give advice, or actually make the decision for us. For some product categories there are professional opinion leaders who are quite easy to identify. For example, auto mechanics, make-up artists, financial advisers, and physicians.
  • Word-of-mouth (“WOM”) influence: Do you have a good dentist? Where’s your favourite place to go for Pho? What would be a good “first dance” song for a wedding? Who’s taken Marketing and which instructor should I get?

Aspirational reference groups, on the other hand, are comprised of those individuals who consumers may not know personally but admire because of their popularity and notoriety. If you have ever dreamed of being a professional player of basketball or another sport, you have an aspirational reference group. These figures hold a sort of power over consumers because others aspire to be like them or live their kind of lifestyles. Famous athletes, musicians, actors, and other kinds of public figures can represent aspirational reference groups.

Reference groups, opinion leaders, and aspirational reference groups are essential concepts in digital marketing, where consumers tap into a variety of social networks and online communities. Marketers need to understand which groups/leaders influence their target segments and who those groups or individuals are. Leaders may be bloggers, individuals with many followers who post frequently on various social media, and even people who write lots of online reviews. Then marketing activity can focus on winning over the opinion leaders. If you manage to get the opinion leaders in your segment to “like” your product, “follow” your brand, tweet about your news and publish favourable reviews or comments on their blogs, your work with online reference groups is going well.

How Proximity & Exposure Influence Consumers

The degree of influence a reference group may have on a consumer depends on two factors: proximity and mere exposure. Proximity, or the extent to which people are physically near us, influence the relationships we build. Research has found that we are more likely to develop friendships with people who are nearby, for instance, those who live in the same dorm that we do, and even with people who just happen to sit nearer to us in our classes (Back, Schmukle, & Egloff, 2008).

Proximity has its effect on liking through the principle of mere exposure, which is the tendency to prefer stimuli (including but not limited to people) that we have seen more frequently. In the months leading up to the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, apparel such as hoodies, toques, and mittens were widely available but hardly seen on the streets. After the torch relay came to Vancouver, the infamous “red mittens” started making an appearance everywhere: eventually after seeing Olympic apparel more and more on TV and around time, consumers were buying anything Olympic that they could get their hands on. Just by seeing the items more often consumers grew to like them enough to buy them.


There is a lack of consensus about what an influencer is. One writer defines them as “a range of third parties who exercise influence over the organization and its potential customers” (Peck et al., 1999). Another defines an influencer as a “third party who significantly shapes the customer’s purchasing decision but may never be accountable for it” (Brown & Hayes, 2008). According to another, influencers are “well-connected, create an impact, have active minds, and are trendsetters” (Keller & Berry, 2003). And just because an individual has a large number of followers does not necessarily mean they have a large number of influence over those individuals (Cha et al. & Berinato, 2010).

Sources of influencers vary. Marketers target easily-identifiable influencers, such as journalists, industry analysts, and high-profile executives. For most business-to-consumer (B2C) purchases, influencers may include people known to the purchaser and the retail staff. In high-value business-to-business (B2B) transactions, influencers may be diverse and might include consultants, government-backed regulators, financiers, and user communities.

Fashion influencer Chiara Ferragni at Milan Fashion Week in 2013.
One of the most well-known fashion influencers and bloggers is Chiara Ferragni. As of 2020, Ferragni has 19.3 million followers on Instagram (“Chiara Ferragni,” 2020). Ferragni started her fashion blog in 2009 and by 2014 her business ventured grossed about $8 million. Her list of public appearances and enterprising activities is extensive: she modeled for Guess and collaborated with Steve Madden; presented at awards shows; walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival; was a guest judge on Project Runway; became a Pantene “global ambassador;” and, became the subject of a Harvard Business School case study!

Brand & Anti-Brand Communities

A brand community is a group of consumers who share a set of social relationships based upon usage or interest in a product. Muniz Jr. and O’Guinn (2001) define a brand community as, “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relations among admirers of a brand.”

Unlike other kinds of communities, these members typically don’t live near each other—except when they may meet for brief periods at organized events or brandfests that community-oriented companies such as Jeep, Saturn, or Harley-Davidson sponsor. These events help owners to “bond” with fellow enthusiasts and strengthen their identification with the product as well as with others they meet who share their passion.

That Time TikTok Users & K-Pop Stans Took on the US President

Sometimes brand communities engage in the most unanticipated ways. For example, in June 2020, a historic merging of two brand communities—TikTok users and fans of Korean pop music—took place when they united to prank the US President Donald Trump by ruining a scheduled campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 19th. TikTok users represent a global community of teens and young adults who use the platform for social sharing and commenting on videos. Fans of Korean pop music are called “K-Pop Stans” and like their TikTok allies, they know a thing or two about working with different platforms’ algorithms to boost exposure of their videos. June 19th marks a special day for Black Americans: it commemorates the 1865 emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. The day has become known as, “Juneteeth,” and in 2020, young Americans were enraged that the President had scheduled a campaign rally in a southern state on such an important holiday.

TikTok users and KPop Stans—many of whom were not even old enough to vote at the time—joined forces and engaged in a wide-scale activism movement that involved creating false reservations for the President’s campaign rally tickets. Videos were created, shared, and then deleted so members outside of these communities had no hint at what was being planned. Soon, the message spread like a wildfire on Tiktok—go online, reserve a ticket, don’t show up, share with others, delete the evidence. Even the media had no idea what all these users were up to.

Within hours of opening the online ticket registration website, the Trump campaign was announcing that over a million seats had been reserved (tickets were free, but those reserving had to provide address information which of course was falsified by the young activists) and an outdoor overflow area had been secured for what they believed to be exceptionally high demand to see the President.

The Tulsa Fire Department reported after the event that the fire marshal counted 6,200 scanned tickets in attendance (Lorenz et al., 2020) and the outdoor overflow area remained empty. Not only had the young activists foiled the President’s plans, their reservation information (addresses and zip codes) contaminated the Republican Party’s Contact List making it impossible to separate the legitimate Trump supporters from those masking as one.

Often we hold a narrow view of what brand communities are and how they interact within the group. We tend to also see them as a vehicle for larger marketing strategies such as advertising and promotional campaigns to draw more attention to a brand. However, the Tulsa event tells us otherwise: a brand community exists to serve its people (Fournier & Lee, 2009) and participation in that community isn’t just about the brand itself. In fact, often, “people are more interested in the social inks that come form brand affiliations than they are in the brand themselves. They join communities to build new relationsips (Fournier & Lee, 2009).

In June 2020, TikTok users and K-Pop Stans showed the world how online communities can come together to organize, mobilize, and become a powerful force for change.

“The antithesis of a brand community,” writes Hollenbeck & Zinkhan (2006), “is an anti-brand community. In the same way that brand communities are forming around commonly used brands, anti-brand communities are forming around common aversions toward brands.” Using the Internet as a vehicle for widespread communications, organization, and activism, anti-brand communities are also geographically dispersed. They may oppose specific brands (e.g., AirB&B; Uber; Starbucks; Facebook; Chick-fil-A), but could also oppose large enterprises and corporate brands (e.g., Monsanto; Nestle; The Weinstein Company; The Trump Organization; Amazon).

Anti-Brand Communities & Coronavirus

At the time of writing, our world is experiencing the Coronavirus global pandemic: many of us are either living in quarantine; lock down; spatial isolation; and/or some other form of extreme social distancing.

Before Covid19 dominated our news stories and conversations, large cities across North America (and presumably in Europe, Asia, and South America), AirBnb, a short-term and “lightly” regulated housing and vacation rental site, had been drawing criticism for its negative impact on housing affordability and diminishing supply. Now, as we all face the necessity of doing our part to “flatten the curve” by staying home (which in some parts of the world has been enforced through law), AirBnb draws even more criticism from society: homeless rates in most urban centres are high because affordability and supply have pushed individuals and families to live in shelters, cars, or in over-crowded situations. Will there be an appetite for the AirBnb business model post-pandemic? Will we return to how things were, or will the AirBnb anti-brand community influence consumer activism that will lead to stricter regulations and policies governing short-term rentals?

Media Attributions

  • The image of influencer, Chiara Ferragni (2021, January 30) is fromWikipedia.

Text Attributions


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