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Conflicting consumer traits: reconciling conformity with distinctiveness

December 08, 2012

The latest issue of the Journal of Consumer Behavior has an evocatively titled academic paper "If I want you to like me, should I be like you or unlike you?" written by a professor of marketing at the College of Business at San Francisco State University.

The paper delves into long established but "conflicting results regarding social influence in consumer decision" and notes "there is empirical evidence that suggests that people conform to other members of their groups. On the other hand, several studies demonstrated the opposite pattern, namely, that individuals seek distinctiveness from others in the group." The researcher seeks to reconcile these apparently contradictory desires in consumers.

The paper posits that "whether a person will conform to or seek distinctiveness from others in a particular consumption situation is contingent on the absence or presence of one’s prior positive interaction with the group." The author also suggests "that this effect will occur in a public
context, that is, when an individual’s choice is visible to other group members."

That consumers often emulated the consumption choices of others particularly in the case of "conspicuous" products is received wisdom that sits on time tested empirical analyses.  That appears to conflict with more recent findings which demonstrate that people looked for distinctiveness in the presence of other members of their group with consumers agreeing  "that sometimes they bought products or brands that made them stand out of their group."

The Journal paper's hypothesis that a "particular consumption situation depends on the presence or absence of one’s prior positive interaction with the group (they interacted with)"is borne out by the study when individuals who had not had prior interactions with a group tended to conform but in the aftermath of an interaction, which in general tended to be positve, were more likely to express their need for distinctiveness or to stand out.

The foregoing (seemingly) divergent consumer instincts has always had marketing implications in a variety of industries from skiing to hotels where brands cater to those seeking conformity while boutiques appeal to those seeking to set themselves apart.

What drives skiers to choose a boutique made ski over a major brand is perhaps a little more that a sheer drive for distinctiveness (likely the custom quality of the skis) while in the case of hotels most guests make their lodging choice based on a desire for a custom experience. Regardless, the paper's thrust points to what is possibly a material driver for the boutique business which increasingly competes with and even emulate brands: the ability to stand out by patronizing boutiques while conforming and deriving approbation in a group setting via loyalty programs.

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