Humans are social animals. Their actions, behaviours and aspirations are significantly influenced by those of their reference groups. This is particularly true for the behaviour of consumers: once the basic needs have been covered, consumption can often be seen as an act of identity-creation, with every purchasing decision bringing the consumer closer to either their peer group or an aspirational, high status group. The dynamics of this process are not straightforward, however, and they go well beyond mere imitation. Several factors affect the degree of influence of a given reference group.
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Consumer behaviour is significantly influences by one's peers. However, consumers will always belong to several groups simultaneously and some will be more influential than others. Those more important for shaping the decisions of the consumer, like family or classmates, are called "primary reference groups". Those less important -- but still influential -- like neighbours or acquaintances, are called "secondary reference groups".
Consumer behaviour can be influenced by high-status groups and role models, with purchasing decisions aimed toward achieving greater closeness to a given group. In contrast to those aspirational buying decisions, there are dissociative purchases, where the consumer will seek to distance himself from a given group perceived as undesirable.
Group influence is more noticeable and relevant for high-visibility, high-status products like cars or designer clothes. In the other end of the spectrum, group influence is seldom relevant for low-visibility necessities: For example, it would be unusual for someone to seek a particular brand of beans because of peer pressure.
The emergence of online communities and social networks can often increase the size and geographical distribution of the groups that can influence consumer behaviour. Viral marketing seeks to create interesting, memorable messages with potential for spreading online. Viral marketing campaigns will often fall flat or even backfire, but the highly interconnected nature of online groups can translate into exponential increases in reach.
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