Principles of Marketing

Module 7: Consumer Behavior

Factors Influencing Consumer Decisions

The consumer decision process helps you understand the steps people go through when they are deciding whether and what to buy. Many different factors can influence the outcomes of purchasing decisions.

Some of these factors are specific to the buying situation: what exactly you are buying and for what occasion. Other factors are specific to each person: an individual’s background, preferences, personality, motivations, and economic status. Because no two people are exactly alike, it is difficult to predict how the tangled web of influencing factors will ultimately shape a final purchasing decision.

For marketers, an understanding of these factors provides a more complete view into the mind of the customer. As you learn more about what influences decisions for your particular target segment, product category, brand, and competitive set, you can use these influencing factors to your advantage. What you say to customers, the words you use, the people who say them, the images they evoke—all of these things can link back to that web of influencing factors at work in a purchaser’s mind. Great marketing uses those connections powerfully and effectively to win the minds and hearts of customers.

The specific things you’ll learn in this section include:

  • Describe situational factors that influence what and when consumers buy:

    • Buying situation
    • Market offerings

  • Describe personal factors that influence what and when consumers buy:

    • Demographics (age, economic status, etc.)
    • Life stage
    • Lifestyle

  • Describe psychological factors that influence what and when consumers buy:

    • Motivation and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as it pertains to marketing
    • Perception, learning, belief

  • Describe social factors that influence what and when consumers buy

    • Culture, subculture, social class, family, reference groups
    • Culture and marketing in different countries

What, Exactly, Influences a Purchasing Decision?

While the decision-making process itself appears quite standardized, no two people make a decision in exactly the same way. People have many beliefs and behavioral tendencies—some controllable, some beyond our control. How all these factors interact with each other ensures that each of us is unique in our consumer actions and choices.

Although it isn't feasible for marketers to react to the complex, individual profiles of every single consumer, it is possible to identify factors that tend to influence most consumers in predictable ways.

The factors that influence the consumer problem-solving process are many and complex. For example, as groups, men and women express very different needs and behaviors regarding personal-care products. Families with young children tend to make different dining-out choices than single and married people with no children. A consumer with a lot of prior purchasing experience in a product category might approach the decision differently from someone with no experience. As marketers gain a better understanding of these influencing factors, they can draw more accurate conclusions about consumer behavior.

We can group these influencing factors into four sets, illustrated in the figure below:

  • Situational Factors pertain to the consumer’s level of involvement in a buying task and the market offerings that are available
  • Personal Factors are individual characteristics and traits such as age, life stage, economic situation, and personality
  • Psychological Factors relate to the consumer’s motivation, learning, socialization, attitudes, and beliefs
  • Social Factors pertain to the influence of culture, social class, family, and reference groups

Factors Influencing Consumer Decisions. Three levels in image from top to bottom: the factors influencing consumer decisions, the consumer, and the consumer making process. The four main factors influencing consumer decisions at the top are as follows: Situational Factors, Personal Factors, Psychological Factors, and Social Factors. Bulleted list underneath Situational Factors consists of two items: Buying Task, Market offerings. Bulleted list underneath Personal Factors consisting of four items: Demographics, Life stage, Lifestyle, and Personality. Bulleted list underneath psychological factors consists of three items: Motivation, Learning, and Attitudes and Beliefs. Bulleted list underneath Social Factors consists of four items: Culture / subculture, Social Class, Family, and Reference Groups. The five steps in the consumer decision making process listed at the bottom of the graphic are as follows: 1: Need Recognition, 2: Information Searching and Processing, 3: Identification and Evaluation of Alternatives, 4: Purchase Decision, and 5: Post-Purchase Behavior.

Situational Factors

Buying Task

The buying task refers to the consumer's approach to solving a particular problem and how much effort it requires. The level of consumer involvement is an important part of the buying task: whether the buyer faces a high-involvement decision with lots of associated risk and ego involved, versus a low-involvement decision with little risk or ego on the line.

Product or brand familiarity is another, related dimension of the buying task. When a consumer has purchased a similar product many times in the past, the decision making is likely to be simple, regardless of whether it is a high- or low-involvement decision. Suppose a consumer initially bought a product after much care and involvement, was satisfied, and continued to buy the product. For the buyer, this is still a high-involvement decision, but now it's simpler to make. The customer’s careful consideration of a product and the subsequent satisfaction have produced brand loyalty, which resulted from involvement in the product decision.

Once a customer is brand loyal, a simple decision-making process is all that is required for subsequent purchases. The consumer now buys the product through habit, which means making a decision without additional information or needing to evaluate alternatives. Selling to and satisfying brand-loyal customers can be a great position for marketers, although it's important not to rest on one's laurels and take them for granted. New competitors are always looking for ways to break existing brand-loyal habits and lure the consumer into an enticing new product experience.

Market Offerings

The available market offerings are another relevant set of situational influences on consumer problem solving. The more extensive the product and brand choices available to the consumer, the more complex the purchase decision process is likely to be. And the more limited the market offerings are, the simpler the purchase decision process is likely to be.

Samsung Galaxy smartphone For example, if you already have purchased or are considering purchasing a smartphone, you know that there are multiple brands to choose from—Samsung Galaxy, Apple iPhone, Sony, LG, HTC One, and Nokia, to name several. Each manufacturer sells several models that differ in various features–design, screen size, memory, speed, camera quality, and so on. What criteria are important to you? Is purchasing a smartphone an easy decision? If a consumer has a need that can be met by only one product or one outlet in the relevant market, the decision is relatively simple: Either buy the product or let the need go unmet.

This is not ideal from the customer’s point of view, but it does happen. For example, suppose you are a student on a campus in a small town many miles from another marketplace. Your campus and town have only one bookstore. You need a textbook for class tomorrow; only one particular book will do, and only that bookstore carries it. Amazon and other online retailers have the book at a lower price, but they can't get the book to you overnight, so you're stuck. In this case the limitation on alternative market offerings has a clear influence on your purchase behavior. 

As you saw in the smartphone example, when the extent of market offerings increases, the complexity of the problem-solving process and the consumers’ need for information also increase. A wider selection of market offerings is better from the customers' perspective, because it allows them to tailor their purchases to their specific needs. However, lots of choices may also confuse and frustrate the consumer, such that less-than-optimal choices are made.

Marketers can find opportunities in either scenario—a crowded competitive set and a complex decision for the consumer, or a narrow competitive set with limited choices and a simpler decision for the consumer. In a crowded field, the marketer's challenge is to make compelling offerings and useful information prominent in the consumer's processes for gathering information and evaluating alternatives. In a narrow field with limited choices, effective marketing can help the consumer feel good about the choice they had to make. A good experience with the product during and after purchase is a recipe for brand loyalty.

Personal Factors

In addition to situational factors, there are also individual traits and characteristics that can shape purchasing decisions. These include things like demographics, life stage, lifestyle, and personality.


Demographics are an important set of factors that marketers should not overlook when trying to understand and respond to consumers. Demographics include variables such as age, gender, income level, educational attainment, and marital status. Each of these can have a strong influence on consumer behavior.

Historically, marketers have made much of generational differences—focusing on the best ways of reaching different cohorts such as Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, Millennials, and so on. Many of the distinctions between these groups are related to  the groups' ages and related needs at any given point. For example, as Baby Boomers head into their retirement years, marketers target them with messages about prescription drugs and other health care products, insurance, home and financial security—all issues of growing concern for people as they age. Generational differences can also be factors in they ways people use media and where they go for information to inform their consumer choices. A 2013 study found that Millennial moms (birth years 1981–1997) were online "followers" of 22.5 brands, on average, while Generation X moms (birth years 1965–1980) followed just 13.7 brands online.[4] Understanding differences like these can be essential to developing the right marketing mix whenever age is an identifying factor in market segmentation.

Gender is also a defining characteristic for many consumers, as is the marketing that targets them. You have only to watch TV ads during an NFL game and the TV ads during the women-oriented talk show The View to see how the different needs and wants of men and  women are translated into marketing messages and imagery.

Photo of diamond ring DeBeers Limited, which has commanded an 80 percent share of the market for diamonds used in engagement rings, employs a consumer demographic profile in the development of its promotional programs. Their primary target market for engagement rings is single women and single men between the ages of 18 and 24. The company combined this profile with some additional lifestyle-related factors to develop a successful promotional program.

The demographic marker of economic status is another strong influencer in consumer decisions. Not surprisingly, people in different income brackets tend to buy different types of products, shop in very different ways, and look for different qualities. Many designer clothing shops, for example, aim their marketing at higher-income shoppers. Meanwhile, a retail chain like Wal-Mart sticks closely to its "lowest prices" positioning in order to maintain its appeal for middle- and lower-income shoppers.

Life Stage

Linked to demographics is the concept of life stage: consumer behavior is tied to the significant life events and circumstances people are experiencing at any given moment. Moving out of your parents' home, going to college, getting married, buying a house, starting a family, sending children to college, retiring: all of these are life events that shape consumer attitudes, behaviors, and decisions.

A photo of a young boy literally up to his neck in LEGOs. Life stage has a big enough impact on consumer decisions that many marketing organizations develop proprietary segmentation schema to help them better understand this dimension of the consumer experience and better target products and services to individual needs. A representative example is the set of lifestyle segments developed by the consumer data company Experian. Experian's life stage segments include Independent Youth, Young Families, Maturing Couples & Families, Elderly Singles, and six other segments it uses to encompass the entire U.S. adult population.

American consumers experience life-stage marketing when offers relevant to their life events appear in their in-boxes, mailboxes, and even in the checkout line. Producers and sellers of baby products like Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and Target send a barrage of product samples, coupons, and other promotions to expecting and new parents. Families of young children are invited to sign their kids up for LEGO's free quarterly magazine and become part of the Toys-R-Us Rewards program for frequent shoppers. Financial services companies target new college students and their parents with credit card offers and banking plans. Home Depot, Lowe's, and even the U.S. Postal Service send promotional welcome packets to new homeowners, hoping to win their business as they settle into a new residence.


One of the newer and increasingly important set of factors that's being used to understand consumer behavior is lifestyle. In this context, "lifestyle" refers to the potential customer's pattern or being or living in the world combined with his or her psychographics (a set of attitudes, opinions, aspirations, and interests). The variables determining lifestyle are wide-ranging:

  • Activities and interests (e.g., hunter; fitness enthusiast; fashionista; foodie; lawyer; musician; pet lover; farmer; traveler; reader; homebody; crafter, etc.)
  • Opinions about oneself and the world (e.g., politically conservative; feminist; activist; entrepreneur; independent thinker; do-gooder; early adopter; technophobe; populist; explorer, etc.)

Lifestyle variables reveal what consumers care about, how they spend their time, what they're likely to spend money on, and how they view themselves. Inevitably these individual characteristics impact consumer decisions—and brand preference in particular. The criteria that determine lifestyle are often things consumers feel passionately about. When a consumer identifies your brand as consistent with his interests, attitudes and self-identity, it paves the way for building a long and loyal customer relationship. It is the multifaceted aspect of lifestyle research that makes it so useful in consumer analysis. A prominent lifestyle researcher, Joseph T. Plummer, summarizes the concept as follows:

. . . lifestyle patterns combines the virtues of demographics with the richness and dimensionality of psychological characteristics . . . Lifestyle is used to segment the marketplace because it provides the broad, everyday view of consumers lifestyle segmentation and can generate identifiable whole persons rather than isolated fragments.
Marketers are often attracted to lifestyle as a segmentation schema because it helps reveal a deeper, more vivid picture of consumers and what makes them tick. As marketers try to create strong emotional connections between the brands they promote and the consumers they serve, they are selling more than product features. They are selling a sensibility, an attitude, a set of values they hope will resonate strongly with the target segments they want to reach.

Photo of an elegant chocolate cake with the words Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart are interesting comparative examples of extremely successful marketing that uses a lifestyle orientation to attract and keep devoted consumers. Both brand empires are built around strong, successful, self-made women, and they both target women consumers. Oprah Winfrey's brand is architected to appeal to women who are socially conscious seekers, readers, idealists, self-helpers, working women, striving for balance and self-fulfillment. Martha Stewart's brand, on the other hand, is carefully curated to appeal to women with a passion for fine food, design, beautiful surroundings, cultural experiences, arts and crafts, and the creative act of doing it yourself. The strong lifestyle-oriented identity of each brand makes it relatively easy for individual consumers to recognize which one is most consistent with their own identity and values.


Personality is used to summarize all the traits of a person that make him or her unique. No two people have the same personalities, but several attempts have been made to classify people with similar traits. Perhaps the best-known personality types are those proposed by Carl Jung, which are variations on the work of Jung's teacher, Sigmund Freud. His personality categories are introvert and extrovert. The introvert is described as defensive, inner-directed, and withdrawn from others. The extrovert is outgoing, other-directed, and assertive. Over the years, several other more elaborate classifications have also been devised.

Personality traits may also include characteristics linked to they ways people view themselves and calibrate their behavior in the world: for example, sincerity, self-confidence, empathy, self-reliance, adaptability, and aggression.

Various personality types are likely to respond in different ways to different market offerings. For example, an extrovert may enjoy the shopping experience and rely more on personal observation to secure information. In this case, in-store promotion becomes an important communication tool. Knowing the basic personality traits of target customers can be useful information for the manager in designing the marketing mix. Marketers have found personality to be difficult to apply in many cases, primarily because it is not easy to measure personality traits. Personality tests are usually long and complex; many were developed to identify people with problems that needed medical attention. Translating these tools into useful marketing data is no small feat, and marketers have turned to lifestyle analysis instead.

Where personality does come into play more prominently is in the notion of brand personality. Brand managers strive to cultivate strong, distinctive, recognizable personalities for the brands they promote. The personality gives dimension to the brand, opening the door for consumers to connect with the brand emotionally and identify its personality as consistent with their own values and self-identity. In this case there is a blurry line between the use of lifestyle and personality to understand and appeal to target customers. If you run down a list of super-brands, though, it is easy to recognize the power of brand personality at work: Apple, Coca-Cola, Walt Disney, Star Wars, Google, and Nike, to name a few.

Psychological Factors

Consumer Decisions and the Workings of the Psyche

When we talk about psychological factors that influence consumer decisions, we are referring to the workings of the mind or psyche: motivation, learning and socialization, attitudes and beliefs.


Black-and-white photo of two teenage girls lounging on couch, TV remotes in hand.A motive is the inner drive or pressure to take action to satisfy a need. A highly motivated person is a very goal-oriented individual. Whether goals are positive or negative, some individuals tend to have a high level of goal orientation, while others tend to have a lower level of goal orientation. People may display different levels of motivation in different aspects of their lives. For example, a high school junior may be flunking trigonometry (low motivation) while achieving champion performance levels at the video game Guitar Hero (high motivation).

In order for any consumer purchasing decision to happen, the need must be aroused to a high enough level that it serves as a motive. At any given time, a person has a variety of needs that are not of sufficient urgency to generate the motivation to act, while there are others for which he is highly motivated to act. The forces that create a sense of urgency and motivation may be internal (people get hungry), environmental (you see an ad for a Big Mac), or psychological (thinking about food makes you hungry).

For motivation to be useful in marketing practice, it is helpful for marketing managers to understand how motivation plays into a specific purchasing situation—what triggers consumers to set goals, take action, and solve their need-based problems.

Motivation starts with an unmet need, as does all consumer problem solving. One of the best-known theories about individual motivation is the work of A. H. Maslow, known as the hierarchy of needs. Maslow developed a model that lays out five different levels of human needs. These needs relate to one another other in a “need hierarchy,” with basic survival-oriented needs at the lower levels of the hierarchy, building up to higher emotional needs associated with love, self-esteem, and self-fulfillment. This hierarchy is shown in the figure below:

Pyramid graphic depicting Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. From the bottom to the top: the bottom level is physiological needs; next is safety and security; next is love and belonging; next is self-esteem; at the top is self-actualization. Physiological needs are at the first level of Maslow's hierarchy: hunger, thirst, and other basic drives. All living beings, regardless of their level of maturity, possess physiological needs. Physiological needs are omnipresent and recur throughout nature.

Safety and security are second in Maslow’s hierarchy. Safety and security needs imply a continued fulfillment of physiological needs, as well as the absence of the threat of physical harm. Safety and security encompass both physical and financial security, because financial security is linked to a person's ability to have her physiological needs met. Health and physical well-being and protection from accidents are also associated with this level of need. This is considered an extension of the more basic needs.

Love and belonging are third in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Love encompasses the needs for belonging, friendship, human intimacy, and family. They involve a person’s interaction with others and the need to feel accepted by social groups, large or small.

Self-esteem is the fourth level. Self-esteem includes the need to feel good about oneself, to be respected and valued by others, and to have a positive self-image.

Self-actualization is the fifth and highest level in Maslow’s needs hierarchy. Also described as "self-fulfillment," this is the need humans feel to reach their full potential and to accomplish all that they can with their talents and abilities. Different people may express this need in very different ways: for one person, self-actualization might involve musical or artistic pursuits, for another, it's parenting, and for a third the focus might be athletics. At different points in their lives, individuals may express this need through different pursuits.

In his work, Maslow asserts that these five levels of needs operate on an unconscious level. In other words, people may not even be aware that they are concentrating on one particular level of need or an assortment of needs. Maslow's theory suggests that lower levels of need must be met before an individual can focus on higher-level needs. At the same time, a person may experience several different needs simultaneously. How an individual is motivated to act depends on the importance of each need.

When we think about Maslow’s needs hierarchy in the context of marketing and segmentation, we might use the hierarchy to help identify a common level of needs for a given segment. Effective and powerful marketing may operate at any level of Maslow's hierarchy. Consider the following examples:

  • In-N-Out Burger's freeway billboards featuring a giant, 3-D cheeseburger (physiological needs)
  • Procter & Gamble's "Thank You Mom" ad campaign featuring dedicated parents of Olympic athletes and their loving relationships (love & belonging)
  • The U.S. Army's famous "Be All You Can Be" slogan and advertising campaigns encouraging young adults to join the army (self-actualization), shown in the following video.

Learning and Socialization

In the context of consumer behavior, learning is defined as changes in behavior that result from previous experiences. Learning is an ongoing process that is dynamic, adaptive, and subject to change. Learning does not include behavior associated with instinctive responses or temporary states of an individual, such as hunger, fatigue, or sleep.

Learning is an experience and practice that actually brings about changes in behavior. For example, in order to learn to play tennis, you might learn about the rules of the game and the skills tennis players need. You would practice the skills and participate in tennis games to gain experience. Learning can also take place without actually participating in the physical experience. You can learn about something conceptually, too. In other words, you could learn to play tennis by observing experts and reading about it without actually doing it. This is called nonexperiential learning.

Picture of an elderly man sniffing a glass of red wine. A woman is in the background. Consumer decisions can be influenced by both experiential and nonexperiential learning. Take an example of buying wine. Suppose you are at a winery and you are considering buying a bottle of zinfandel, which you have never tried before. If you taste the wine and discover you don't care for the strong, spicy flavor, you have learned experientially that you don't like zinfandel. On the other hand, you could ask the tasting-room host about the flavor of zinfandel, and she might say that it resembles strong ginger ale, in which case you might decide not to buy the wine because you don't like ginger ale. In this second case, you have learned about the product nonexperientially.

Marketing relies heavily on nonexperiential learning, using tactics like customer testimonials, case studies, and blogger reviews to teach new customers through the experiences and opinions of others. Consumers themselves seek out resources for nonexperiential learning when they read book and product reviews on Amazon, film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and restaurant reviews on Yelp.

Another characteristic of learning is that the changes may be immediate or anticipated. In other words, learning may be taking place even if there is no evidence of it. We can store our learning until it's needed, and we do this often with purchasing decisions. For example, a person might read up on product reviews for the latest set of tablet computers even though she doesn't expect to buy one soon. Eventually she may be in the market, and at that point she can put her learning to use.

Reinforcement is the process of having your learning validated through rewards or punishments, which confirm that what you learned was correct. Over time, reinforcement can shape strong patterns of behavior. Suppose a consumer's first car purchase is a Subaru. He loves the car and finds it to be safe, reliable, energy efficient, and a great value for the money. Each positive experience with his car rewards him and reinforces what he has learned about Subarus: they are great cars. When he decides to replace the car, positive reinforcement will almost certainly lead him to consider a Subaru again. Reinforcement can work in positive or negative ways, with consumers experiencing rewards or punishments that influence their decisions.

Socialization is the process by which people develop knowledge and skills that make them more or less able members of their society. Socialized behaviors are learned and modified throughout a person's lifetime. This social learning approach stresses "socialization agents" (i.e., other people), who transmit cognitive and behavioral patterns to the learner. These people can be anyone: a parent, friend, celebrity spokesperson, teacher, role model, etc. In the case of socialization in consumer behavior, this takes place in the course of the person's interaction with other people in various social settings. Socialization agents may include any person, organization, or information source that comes into contact with the consumer.

Consumers acquire this information from other individuals through the processes of modeling, reinforcement, and social interaction. Modeling involves imitation of the agent's behavior. For example, a teenager may acquire a brand-name preference for Adidas from friends and teammates. Marketers can take advantage of this idea by employing product spokespeople who have strong credibility with their target consumers, as in the case of NBA star LeBron James for Nike.  As noted above, reinforcement involves either a reward or a punishment mechanism used by the agent. When a colleague compliments a coworker on her outfit, it conveys a rewarding message about the type of clothing to wear to work. Marketers may use reinforcement by providing good product performance, excellent post-purchase services, or some similar rewarding experience. Social interaction may include a combination of modeling and reinforcement in a variety of social settings. These variables can influence learning by having an impact on the relationship between the consumer and other people.

Attitudes and Beliefs

Attitudes and beliefs represent another psychological factor that influences consumer behavior. A belief is a conviction a person holds about something, such as "dark chocolate is bitter," or "dark chocolate is delicious," or "dark chocolate is good for baking." An attitude is a consistent view of something that encompasses the belief as well as an emotional feeling and a related behavior. For example, an attitude toward dark chocolate may be expressed as a belief ("dark chocolate is delicious"), a feeling ("dark chocolate makes me happy"), and a behavior ("I eat dark chocolate every afternoon as a pick-me-up").

People have beliefs and attitudes about all sorts of things: food, family, politics, places, holidays, religion, brands, and so on. Beliefs and attitudes may be positive, negative, or neutral, and they may be based on opinion or fact. It is important for marketers to understand how beliefs and attitudes affect consumer behavior and decision making. If an incorrect or detrimental belief exists among the general population or a target audience, marketing efforts may be needed to change people's minds.

For example, in 1993, rumors erupted and spread widely about a syringe allegedly being found inside a can of Diet Pepsi. The entire incident turned out to be a hoax, but PepsiCo responded not only with strong immediate public statements but also with videos and a public relations campaign to quell the rumors and reassure consumers that Pepsi products are safe.

Beliefs and attitudes do not always translate into behaviors: in some situations customers may choose to do something despite their personal views. Suppose a consumer likes pizza but doesn't like Pizza Hut. In a social setting where everyone else wants to go to Pizza Hut for dinner, this person might go along with the group rather than dining alone or skipping dinner.

When consumer attitudes present a major stumbling block, marketers have two choices: either they can change consumers' attitudes to conform with their product, or they can change the product to match attitudes. Often it is easier to change the product than to change consumers' attitudes. Attitudes can be very difficult to change, chiefly because they are intertwined with a pattern of beliefs, emotions, and behaviors. Changing the attitude requires changing the whole pattern. As a rule, it is easier for marketing to align with existing attitudes rather than trying to alter them.

However, marketers may look for opportunities to reshape or create new attitudes in moments when consumers may be more open-minded, as with a product redesign or a new product introduction.

Video: Consumer Attitudes and Heinz Baked Beans

Putting Consumer Attitudes and Beliefs to the Test

Just how powerful are consumer attitudes and beliefs? Are they so powerful that they can fool consumers during a taste test?

Watch the following video to see the power of consumer attitudes in action as a journalist conducts a taste test to see whether people's brand-loyal attitudes can overrule the reality of what they are tasting.

Read a transcript for the video "Heinz and Packaging."

Social Factors

People Influencing People

Social factors represent another important set of influences on consumer behavior. Specifically, these are the effects of people and groups influencing one another through culture and subculture, social class, reference groups, and family.


A person's culture is represented by a large group of people with a similar heritage. Culture exerts a strong influence on a person's needs and wants because it is through culture that we learn how to live, what to value, and how to conduct ourselves in society. The American culture, which is a subset of the Western (European) culture, will be the primary focus of this discussion, although other societies in other parts of the world have their own cultures with accompanying traditions and values.

Traditional American culture values include freedom, hard work, achievement, security, self-reliance, community involvement, and the like. Marketing strategies targeted to people with a common cultural heritage might demonstrate how a product or service reinforces these traditional values. There are three components of culture that members of that culture share: beliefs, values, and customs. As discussed in the prior section, a belief is a proposition that reflects a person's particular knowledge or opinion of something. Values are general statements that guide behavior and influence beliefs. The function of a value system is to help people choose between alternatives in everyday life and prioritize choices that are most important to them personally.

Greeting card that reads, Customs are traditional, culturally approved ways of behaving in specific situations. For example, in the United States, Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November with the custom of feasting with family and offering thanks for the things we appreciate in life. Taking your mother to dinner and giving her gifts for Mother's Day is an American custom that Hallmark and other card companies support enthusiastically.

Understanding customs is hugely important for marketing to consumers, because many customs represent occasions for spending money, and culture dictates the appropriate things to buy in order to honor the custom. The power of culture is evident when you think about the tens of millions of Americans who buy Valentine's Day flowers in February, chocolate Easter eggs in April, Independence Day fireworks in July, Halloween candy in October, and all kinds of food and gifts throughout the holiday season.

It is worth noting that for marketers anywhere in the world, it is essential to develop a strong understanding of the local culture and its accompanying beliefs, values, and customs. Culture is how people make sense of their society, its institutions, and social order. Culture frames how and what people communicate, how they express what is proper and improper, what is desirable and detestable. Without an understanding of culture, marketers are not really even speaking the right language to the consumers they want to target. Even if the words, grammar, and pronunciation are correct, the meaning will be off.

An expensive example of a massive cultural blunder was Wal-Mart's short-lived foray into Germany. In 2006, the retailer pulled out of Germany after opening eighty-five stores in six years. The company expected success in Germany using the formula that works well in the U.S.: streamlined supply chain, low-priced products sold in big stores with wide selection and long operating hours. What Wal-Mart didn't account for was the strong cultural preference in Germany for several things that directly oppose the Wal-Mart model. Germans prefer small and medium-sized retailers grounded in local communities. They have a cultural suspicion of low prices, which create concern about quality. German law includes significant restrictions on retail establishments' operating hours and many labor protections, and these laws are viewed, in part, as important in protecting the German quality of life. Due in large part to these cultural disconnects, Wal-Mart was unable to sustain successful operations.[5]


Subcultures are cohesive groups that exist within a larger culture. Subcultures develop around communities that share common values, beliefs, and experiences. They may be based on a variety of different unifying factors. For example, subcultures exist around the following:

  • Geography: Southerners, Texans, Californians, New Englanders, midwesterners, etc.
  • Ethnicity: Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans, etc.
  • Religion: Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Baptists, Muslims, etc.
  • Nationality: Italians, Koreans, Hungarians, Japanese, Ethiopians, etc.
  • Occupation: military, technology worker, state department, clergy, educator, etc.

A young boy and girl dressed in fancy traditional clothing dance together at Latino cultural festival. Subcultures can represent huge opportunities for marketers to make a significant impact within a population that may feel underserved by companies operating in the mainstream market. Individuals with strong subcultural identity are likely to welcome organizations that seem to understand them, speak their subcultural language, and satisfy their subculture-specific needs.

In the United States, many organizations and marketing activities focus on major ethnicity-based subcultures such as Latinos, Asian Americans, and African Americans. Each subculture has distinct experiences living and working within the broader U.S. culture, and it has shared customs and values that shape their consumer needs and preferences. As each of these subcultures grows in size and buying power, they become a distinct market for companies to woo.

A noted example of effective marketing to a subculture is Ford Motor Company's approach to serving the African American community. Ford invests in advertising campaigns that specifically target the black community and celebrate its diversity. Ford supports a number of scholarship and community-building programs at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Through public relations activities, Ford maintains a presence at significant events, such as the Essence Festival and the BET Awards.[6]

The following video shows how a shopping mall managed to save itself by catering and marketing to the Latino subculture.

Read a transcript of the video "Demise of the Mall and Reinvention".

Social Class

Some manifestation of social class is present in virtually every society. It's determined by a combination of factors including family background, wealth, income, education, occupation, power, and prestige. Like culture, it affects consumer behavior by shaping individuals' perceptions of their needs and wants. People in the same social class tend to have similar attitudes, live in similar neighborhoods, attend the same schools, have similar tastes in fashion, and shop at the same types of stores.

In some nations, the social class system is quite rigid, and people are strongly encouraged to stay within their own class for friendships, marriage, career, and other life decisions. In other countries, such as the United States, social class is more permeable, and people can move between classes more easily based on their circumstances, behaviors, and life choices. Social class mobility is an important value in mainstream American culture and is part of our collective belief system about what makes the nation great.

In the U.S., the most common social classification system is illustrated in the figure below.

Social Class in the United States

Upper Class makes up 1% of the population. Characteristics of the upper class include

  • Heirs, celebrities, top corporate executives
  • $500,000+ income
  • Elite education is common

Upper Middle Class makes up 15% of the population. Characteristics of the upper middle class include

  • Managers, professionals
  • $100,000+ income
  • Highly educated, college and graduate degrees are likely

Lower Middle Class makes up 32% of the population. Characteristics of the lower middle class include

  • Skilled contractors, craftspeople, artisans, semi-professionals, autonomy in work environment is common
  • $35,000 to $75,000 income
  • Some college, training, secondary education is likely

Working class makes up 32% of the population. Characteristics of the working class include

  • Clerical, blue- and pink-collar workers, job security is often a problem.
  • $16,000 to $30,000 income
  • High School Education

Lower Class makes up 20% of the population. Characteristics of the lower class include

  • Poorly paid positions and/or reliance on government assistance
  • Some high school education

Source: Thompson, W. & Hickey, J. (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.

For marketers, social class may be a useful factor to consider in segmentation and targeting. It provides helpful context about how consumers view themselves and their peer groups, their expectations, life experiences, income levels, and the kinds of challenges they face. For example, if a marketer wishes to target efforts toward the upper classes, they should realize that, first, this is a very small proportion of the population, and second, the market offering must be designed to meet their high expectations in terms of quality, service, and atmosphere. Having enough money is a persistent concern for people in the lower, working, and lower middle classes, so price sensitivity and value for the money are important for products targeting these groups.

Reference Groups

Consumer behavior can be influenced by the groups a person comes into contact with, through friendship, face-to-face interaction, and even indirect contact. Marketers often call these reference groups. A reference group may be either a formal or informal group. Examples include churches, clubs, schools, online social networks, play groups, professional groups, and even a group of friends and acquaintances. Individuals may be influenced by the groups of which they are members. They may also be influenced by aspirational groups–a reference group a person hopes to belong to one day, such as young boys hoping to grow up and become Major League Soccer (MLS) players.

A group of skateboarders watch as another skateboarder performs an aerial stunt. Reference groups are characterized by having individuals who are opinion leaders for the group. Opinion leaders are people who influence others. They are not necessarily higher-income or better educated, but others may view them as having greater expertise, broader experience, or deeper knowledge of a topic. For example, a local high school teacher may be an opinion leader for parents in selecting colleges for their children. In a group of girlfriends, one or two may be the opinion leaders others look to for fashion guidance. These people set the trend and others conform to the expressed behavior. If a marketer can identify the opinion leaders for a group in the target market, then she can direct efforts towards attracting these people.

The reference group can influence an individual in several ways:

  • Role expectations: Reference groups prescribe a role or way of behaving based on the situation and one's position in that situation. For example, as a student, you are expected to behave in a certain basic way under certain conditions when interacting with a reference group at school.
  • Conformity: Conformity the way we modify out behavior in order to fit in with group norms. Norms are "normal" behavioral expectations that are considered appropriate within the group. To illustrate, in a school lecture setting, you might conform to the group norm of raising your hand to make a comment or question, rather than shouting out to the teacher.
  • Group communications through opinion leaders: As consumers, we are constantly seeking out the advice of knowledgeable friends or acquaintances who can provide information, give advice, or even make the decision for us. In some product categories, there are professional opinion leaders who are easy to identify, such as auto mechanics, beauticians, stock brokers, or physicians. In a school setting, an opinion leader might be a favorite teacher who does a good job explaining the material, a popular administrator who communicates well with students and parents, or a well-liked fellow student who is willing to assist when peers ask for help–or all of these individuals.
  • Word-of-mouth influence: Consumers are influenced by the things they hear other people say. This is "word-of-mouth" communication. It happens every time you ask someone for a recommendation or an opinion about a product or service, and every time someone volunteers an opinion. Do you know a good dentist? Where should we go for lunch? Have you heard that new song from . . . ? Not surprisingly, research consistently shows that word-of-mouth information from people they know is more credible than advertising and marketing messages. Word-of-mouth influence in the school reference group example might include students discussing which Spanish instructor is better, or where to shop for a dress to wear to the homecoming dance.

Reference groups and opinion leaders are essential concepts in digital marketing, where consumers tap into a variety of social networks and online communities. Marketers need to understand which reference groups influence their target segments and who the opinion leaders within these groups are. Those 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 favorable reviews or comments on their blogs, your work with online reference groups is going well. (You'll recall from the module on ethics that this was the strategy Microsoft adopted—and misgauged—when it attempted to influence opinion leaders with its gifts of free laptops loaded with its latest operating system.)


Photo of a family shopping in a household goods store: The father pushes a his young son in the stroller; his wife is next to him, holding the daughter's hand. One of the most important reference groups for an individual is the family. A consumer's family has a major impact on attitude and behavior, and families themselves are critically important in society as consumer units. Many consumer decisions are made by family members on behalf of the family, so understanding the family consumer decision-making dynamics around your product is essential.

Depending on the product or service under consideration, different family members may be in the role of primary decision maker or influencer. In some cases, the husband is dominant, in others the wife or children, and still other cases, families make joint decisions. Traditionally the wife has made the primary decisions around store choice and brands for food and household items, although this has evolved somewhat as more women participate in the workforce. A joint decision is typical for purchases involving a larger sum of money, such as a refrigerator or a vehicle. Teenagers may exercise a lot of influence over their own clothing purchases. Children may heavily influence food and entertainment choices. Of course, decision dynamics within any individual family can vary, but marketers need to understand the general tendencies around family decision making for the product or service in question.

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