Reference Groups

Reference Groups

A reference group serves as a frame of reference for an individual and influences his/her behavior. A reference group can have considerable influence on the consumption decisions of an individual consumer. An individual’s reference group can range from a family to a nation or a culture.

Types of Reference Groups

Reference groups furnish points of comparison by which one can evaluate attitudes and behavior. An individual can be a member of a reference group such as the family and would be said to be part of a membership group.

This same individual may aspire to belong to a cricket club and would be said to be a part of an aspiration group. A disclaimant group is one to which an individual may belong or join and then reject the group’s values.

An individual may also regard membership in a specific group as something undesirable and to be avoided. Such a group is a dissociative group.

Membership groups and aspiration groups are viewed positively; disclaimant and dissociative groups are viewed negatively. Marketers advertise to appeal to the desire to be part of a group and very rarely appeal to the desire to avoid or disclaim a group.

Even ad appeals used to encourage non-conformity are made on a positive note to being different from everyone else. Marketers tend to focus on membership and aspiration groups.

Membership Groups

Positive reference groups are important and classified as primary or secondary and formal and informal. If a person maintains regular contact with family members, friends, and business associates, all those individuals constitute a primary group.

People, who meet less frequently such as those who meet during morning walks, or club members, constitute a person’s secondary groups.

From the marketer’s point of view, primary groups are more important because they influence consumer’s product beliefs, tastes, and preferences and have a more direct effect on buying behavior. Research supports the view that members of primary groups are more likely to buy the same brands.

Groups can also be divided on the basis of whether they have a formal structure such as a president, executive, secretary, etc. in a hierarchical order with specific roles. The structure of an informal group is loosely defined.

For example, when three individuals become friends while pursuing a course on computer applications and on every last Saturday of each month meet for dinner, then it would be considered an informal group.

Aspiration Groups

Non-membership groups, with a positive attraction, are called aspiration groups and exert a strong influence.

Two types of such groups are anticipatory aspiration groups and symbolic aspiration groups. Individuals frequently purchase products that they believe are used by a desired group in order to achieve actual or symbolic membership in the group.

  • Anticipatory Aspiration Groups: These are groups that an individual anticipates joining at some future time. The individual, generally, has some direct contact with such group(s). For instance, the individual may wish to join a group higher in the organizational hierarchy.

    The individual’s aspiration is more likely to be an outcome of anticipated rewards that go with a higher position in an organization such as power, status, prestige, money, and other perks.

    Marketers appeal to the desire of individuals to increase their position by moving to a higher aspiration group and frequently advertise clothing, autos, liquors, and other products within the context of business success and prestige.

  • Symbolic Aspiration Groups: The individual admires these groups but is unlikely to join them despite acceptance of the group’s beliefs and attitudes. In a study by Robert J. Fisher and Linda L.

    Price found that individuals establish a vicarious connection with such a group by purchasing a product associated with the aspiration group. For example, a tennis fan may buy a Nike sports jacket and shoes because many tennis stars wear these.

    It is important for such an influence that the product is visually obvious. Marketers use certain celebrities to advertise the product and thereby appeal to the symbolic aspirations of consumers.

Reference Group Influences on Consumers

Reference groups have been found to exert influence on a wide range of consumption behavior. Research indicates that groups exert informational influence, comparative influence, and normative influence.

Informational Influence

Reference groups and other influence sources can exert informational influence by offering information to help make decisions. For example, chat groups on the Internet often provide information on subjects such as Internet travel sites.

This type of influence occurs when a consumer accepts the information as credible from a reference group member and believes that the information will enhance knowledge about product choice. Informational influence is important because it can affect how much time and effort consumers devote to information search and decision-making.

Consumers who can get reliable information from others may easily be reluctant to engage in time-intensive information searches when making purchase decisions. Although informational influence can reduce time devoted to information search, it is sometimes important for marketers to increase the likelihood that consumers engage in information search.

If a product or service is new and superior, few consumers are likely to know about its benefits. Thus, ad campaigns that enhance product awareness and encourage consumers to compare products may be necessary.

Informational influence is based on either the similarity of the group’s members to the individual or the expertise of the influencing group member. For instance, an individual may notice several members of a given group using a particular brand of sports shoes.

She/he may then take it as evidence that it is a good brand and decide to buy it. Or, one may decide to buy a particular brand and model of inkjet printer because a friend who is very knowledgeable about printers owns or recommends it.

In these instances, conformity is the result of information shared by the group members.

Comparative Influence

Consumers tend to constantly compare their attitudes with reference to those of members of important groups. They serve as a benchmark and the individual’s urge is to seek support for her/his attitudes and behavior.

To accomplish this, individuals are inclined to associate with groups with which they agree and stay away from groups with which they disagree.

As a result of this, the process of comparing oneself to other members of the group and evaluating whether the group would be supportive becomes the basis for comparative influence.

The consumer’s objective is self-maintenance and enrichment in accepting the comparative influence. To enhance her/his self-concept, the individual associates with groups that have similar attitudes and behavior.

This provides reinforcement and ego gratification. The source of power is referent power and the individual identifies herself/ himself with the group.

Normative Influence

There is a fine residential educational institution for women in Rajasthan, Banasthali Vidyapith, having the status of a deemed university. Teachers, students, and other staff members are required to wear only khadi and remain vegetarian.

Although many students or teachers may love non-vegetarian dishes and prefer wearing dresses not made from khadi, they have to conform to the expected code of conduct on campus.

Robert J. Fisher and D. Ackerman note that normative influence, also called utilitarian influence, refers to social pressure designed to encourage conformity to the expectations of others to gain a direct reward or to avoid any sanctions.

Consider, for example, the type of clothes, music, or shoes, etc. you buy, or for that matter hairstyles you adopt and compare with your friends. Chances are you and your friends have made similar choices.

  • Jim Blythe, (2013), Consumer Behaviour, SAGE

  • Frank Kardes, Maria Cronley and Thomas Cline, (2014), Consumer Behaviour, Cengage Learning

  • Leon G. Schiffman and Leslie Lazar Kanuk, (2007), Consumer Behavior, Pearson Education

  • Dr. A Sarangapani, (2009), A Textbook on Rural Consumer Behaviour in India – A Study of FMCGs, Laxmi Publications Ltd.

  • Satish K Batra and S.H.H. Kazmi, (2009), Consumer Behaviour2nd, Excel Books





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