A study of reference group influence on brand decisions of students and home makers investigated the relevance of three types of reference group influence (informational, utilitarian and value expressive) to a consumer’s selection of a brand or model. The consumer was assumed to have already decided to buy the product but was undecided on the brand or model.
The study showed, for example that among students ratings of informational influences were most important or half of the products studied, followed by utilitarian influences, with value expressive influences least important for the products studied. Those products most likely to be subject to informational influence generally were items with greater technological complexity (like color TVs). Those products most subject to utilitarian and value expressive influences were products that were important means of conforming to group norms or obtaining group identification and support through self expression (such as automobiles and clothing). This study therefore, indicates that for these subjects and products, informational benefits appear to outweigh the role of utilitarian and value-expressive benefits from the group.
Often, therefore consumers buy products that others in their groups buy, not to establish some self-fulfilling role relationship to others nor to obtain reward or avoid some punishment from the group, but simply to acquire what they perceive as a good product. In a similar way, an individual in a shopping situation may use the reactions of other shoppers as a basis for inferring the value of products that she or he is unable to assess completely from direct observation.
Other research studies support the idea that groups may be used by consumers more for the information they provide than for the reward and identification they offer. The consequence of such findings for the marketer may be that more information oriented advertising can be utilized with groups or referent individuals. In particular the use of typical consumers in advertising to impart information to influences seems to be in order. Current industry practice emphasizing hidden camera interviews with consumers appears to support this.
Variability by situation
Several of the research studies cited previously related the variability of reference group influence to a behavioral situation. That is, reference group influence was seen to be related in some cases to the type of product, the item’s social visibility, and so forth. Several other research studies also indicate that the nature of the consumer situation has an important impact on the nature of reference influence For example, investigation of group influence on brand usage of inexpensive grocery items, on patronage among various retail stores and on utilization of certain services ( such as a plumber or a physician) has shown that the areas of retail store patronage and service utilization are perhaps more susceptible to group influence than is brand usage of group products. Apparently too the mount of pressure exerted by a group in one behavioral context is not necessarily likely to be exerted in another context. That is, conformity influences appears, to be a situation specific phenomenon.
Marketers should therefore, carefully assess the extent to which reference group influence exists for their product, what type of influence appears to be more pervasive and how customer segments may differ in their responsiveness to such influences. The situational nature of such influence also needs to be understood. From such knowledge more effective marketing strategies may be developed incorporating referent power.
Variability among Individuals
The strength of reference group influence not only varies among products and group type, but also among different consumers. That is, some individuals are more susceptible to reference group influence than others are. What individual characteristics seem to be associated with a consumer’s susceptibility to reference group influence? It appears that both demographic and psychological factors are relevant.
Firstly, personality factors are important. Conformity has been found to vary by personality type and is positively related to the following personality traits: low intelligence, extroversion, ethno-centrism weak ego, poor leadership, authoritarianism, need for affiliation being a first born or only child and feelings of personal inferiority or inadequacy.
The type of social character of consumers may also affect reference group influence. An important consumer typology related tot his is Riesman’s inner-directed and other directed individual. This theory describes inner directed individuals as those who turn to their own inner standards and values to guide their behavior. Early in childhood they are taught by parents, the church and other cultural institutions to accept and internalize these standards and to use them as a frame of references for future behavior. These internalized values are relatively durable and change little over the individual’s lifetime.
Other directed individuals depend on others around them for direction and guidance. They have been taught to look to other people for correct standards of behavior and to be sensitive to the values and attitudes of their respected reference groups and associates. An analogy which distinguishes these two social character groups is to think of inner-directed as being equipped with a gyrocompass while other-directed are guided by radar.
A second set of factors relating to reference group susceptibility is the consumer’s demographic attributes. For example differences in reference group influence have been found between males and females, married couples and singles younger and older people, and between different nationalities.