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3.5 Societal Factors That Affect People’s Buying Behavior

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain why the culture, subcultures, social classes, and families consumers belong to affect their buying behavior.
  2. Describe what reference groups and opinion leaders are.

Situational factors—the weather, time of day, where you are, who you are with, and your mood—influence what you buy, but only on a temporary basis. So do personal factors, such as your gender, as well as psychological factors, such as your self-concept. Societal factors are a bit different. They are more outward. They depend on the world around you and how it works.

The Consumer’s Culture

CultureThe shared beliefs, customs, behaviors, and attitudes that characterize a society used to cope with their world and with one another. refers to the shared beliefs, customs, behaviors, and attitudes that characterize a society. Your culture prescribes the way in which you should live. As a result, it has a huge effect on the things you purchase. For example, in Beirut, Lebanon, women can often be seen wearing miniskirts. If you’re a woman in Afghanistan wearing a miniskirt, however, you could face bodily harm or death. In Afghanistan women generally wear burqas, which cover them completely from head to toe. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, women must wear what’s called an abaya, or long black garment. Interestingly, abayas have become big business in recent years. They come in many styles, cuts, and fabrics. Some are encrusted with jewels and cost thousands of dollars.

To read about the fashions women in Muslim countries wear, check out the following article: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1210781,00.html.

Even cultures that share many of the same values as the United States can be quite different from the United States in many ways. Following the meltdown of the financial markets in 2008, countries around the world were pressed by the United States to engage in deficit spending so as to stimulate the worldwide economy. But the plan was a hard sell both to German politicians and the German people in general. Most Germans don’t own credit cards, and running up a lot of debt is something people in that culture generally don’t do. Companies such as Visa and MasterCard and businesses that offer consumers credit to purchase items with high ticket prices have to deal with factors such as these.

The Consumer’s Subculture(s)

A subcultureA group of people within a culture who are different from the dominant culture but have something in common with one another, such as common interests, vocations or jobs, religions, ethnic backgrounds, or sexual orientations. is a group of people within a culture who are different from the dominant culture but have something in common with one another—common interests, vocations or jobs, religions, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and so forth. The fastest-growing subculture in the United States consists of people of Hispanic origin, followed by Asian Americans, and blacks. The purchasing power of U.S. Hispanics is growing by leaps and bounds. By 2010 it is expected to reach more than $1 trillion.Larry Watrous, “Illegals: The New N-Word in America,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 16, 2009, 9B. This is a lucrative market that companies are working to attract. Home Depot has launched a Spanish version of its Web site. Walmart is in the process of converting some of its Neighborhood Markets into stores designed to appeal to Hispanics. The Supermarcado de Walmart stores are located in Hispanic neighborhoods and feature elements such as cafés serving Latino pastries and coffee and full meat and fish counters.Jonathan Birchall, “Wal-Mart Looks to Hispanic Market in Expansion Drive,” Financial Times, March 13, 2009, 18.

Figure 3.10

Care to join the subculture of the “Otherkin”? Otherkins are primarily Internet users who believe they are reincarnations of mythological or legendary creatures—angels, demons, vampires—you name it. To read more about the Otherkins and seven other bizarre subcultures, visit http://www.oddee.com/item_96676.aspx.

Marketing products based the ethnicity of consumers is useful. However, it could become harder to do in the future because the boundaries between ethnic groups are blurring. For example, many people today view themselves as multiracial. (Golfer Tiger Woods is a notable example.) Also, keep in mind that ethnic and racial subcultures are not the only subcultures marketing professionals look at. As we have indicated, subcultures can develop in response to people’s interest. You have probably heard of the hip-hop subculture, people who in engage in extreme types of sports such as helicopter skiing, or people who play the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons. The people in these groups have certain interests and exhibit certain behaviors that allow marketing professionals design specific products for them.

The Consumer’s Social Class

A social classA group of people who have the same social, economic, or educational status in society. is a group of people who have the same social, economic, or educational status in society.Princeton University, “WordNet,” http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=social+class&sub=Search+WordNet&o2=&o0=1&o7=&o5=&o1 =1&o6=&o4=&o3=&h= (accessed October 14, 2009). To some degree, consumers in the same social class exhibit similar purchasing behavior. Have you ever been surprised to find out that someone you knew who was wealthy drove a beat-up old car or wore old clothes and shoes? If so, it was because the person, given his or her social class, was behaving “out of the norm” in terms of what you thought his or her purchasing behavior should be.

Table 3.1 "Social Classes and Buying Patterns: An Example" shows seven classes of American consumers along with the types of car brands they might buy. Keep in mind that the U.S. market is just a fraction of the world market. As we explained in Chapter 2 "Strategic Planning", to sustain their products, companies often launch their products in other parts of the world. The rise of the middle class in India and China is creating opportunities for many companies to successfully do this. For example, China has begun to overtake the United States as the world’s largest auto market.“More Cars Sold in China than in January,” France 24, February 10, 2009, http://www.france24.com/en/20090210-more-cars-sold-china-us-january-auto-market (accessed October 14, 2009).

Table 3.1 Social Classes and Buying Patterns: An Example

Class Type of Car Definition of Class
Upper-Upper Class Rolls-Royce People with inherited wealth and aristocratic names (the Kennedys, Rothschilds, Windsors, etc.)
Lower-Upper Class Mercedes Professionals such as CEOs, doctors, and lawyers
Upper-Middle Class Lexus College graduates and managers
Middle Class Toyota Both white-collar and blue-collar workers
Working Class Pontiac Blue-collar workers
Lower but Not the Lowest Used Vehicle People who are working but not on welfare
Lowest Class No vehicle People on welfare

The makers of upscale brands in particular walk a fine line in terms of marketing to customers. On the one hand, they want their customer bases to be as large as possible. This is especially tempting in a recession when luxury buyers are harder to come by. On the other hand, if the companies create products the middle class can better afford, they risk “cheapening” their brands. That’s why, for example, Smart Cars, which are made by BMW, don’t have the BMW label on them. For a time, Tiffany’s sold a cheaper line of silver jewelry to a lot of customers. However, the company later worried that its reputation was being tarnished by the line. Keep in mind that a product’s price is to some extent determined by supply and demand. Luxury brands therefore try to keep the supply of their products in check so their prices remain high.

Figure 3.11

The whiskey brand Johnnie Walker has managed to expand its market share without cheapening the brand by producing a few lower-priced versions of the whiskey and putting them in bottles with different labels.

Some companies have managed to capture market share by introducing “lower echelon” brands without damaging their luxury brands. Johnnie Walker is an example. The company’s whiskeys come in bottles with red, green, blue, black, and gold labels. The blue label is the company’s best product. Every blue-label bottle has a serial number and is sold in a silk-lined box, accompanied by a certificate of authenticity.“Johnnie Walker,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnnie_Walker (accessed October 14, 2009).

Reference Groups and Opinion Leaders

Of course, you probably know people who aren’t wealthy but who still drive a Mercedes or other upscale vehicle. That’s because consumers have reference groups. Reference groupsGroups a consumer identifies with and wants to join. are groups a consumer identifies with and wants to join. If you have ever dreamed of being a professional player of basketball or another sport, you have a reference group. Marketing professionals are aware of this. That’s why, for example, Nike hires celebrities such as Michael Jordan to pitch the company’s products.

Opinion leadersPeople with expertise certain areas. Consumers respect these people and often ask their opinions before they buy goods and services. are people with expertise in certain areas. Consumers respect these people and often ask their opinions before they buy goods and services. An information technology specialist with a great deal of knowledge about computer brands is an example. These people’s purchases often lie at the forefront of leading trends. For example, the IT specialist we mentioned is probably a person who has the latest and greatest tech products, and his opinion of them is likely to carry more weight with you than any sort of advertisement.

Today’s companies are using different techniques to reach opinion leaders. Network analysis using special software is one way of doing so. Orgnet.com has developed software for this purpose. Orgnet’s software doesn’t mine sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, though. Instead, it’s based on sophisticated techniques that unearthed the links between Al Qaeda terrorists. Explains Valdis Krebs, the company’s founder: “Pharmaceutical firms want to identify who the key opinion leaders are. They don’t want to sell a new drug to everyone. They want to sell to the 60 key oncologists.”Anita Campbell, “Marketing to Opinion Leaders,” Small Business Trends, June 28, 2004, http://smallbiztrends.com/2004/06/marketing-to-opinion-leaders.html (accessed October 13, 2009). As you can probably tell from this chapter, exploring the frontiers of people’s buying patterns is a fascinating and constantly evolving field.

The Consumer’s Family

Most market researchers consider a person’s family to be one of the biggest determiners of buying behavior. Like it or not, you are more like your parents than you think, at least in terms of your consumption patterns. The fact is that many of the things you buy and don’t buy are a result of what your parents do and do not buy. The soap you grew up using, toothpaste your parents bought and used, and even the “brand” of politics you lean toward (Democratic or Republican) are examples of the products you are likely to favor as an adult.

Family buying behavior has been researched extensively. Companies are also interested in which family members have the most influence over certain purchases. Children have a great deal of influence over many household purchases. For example, in 2003 nearly half (47 percent) of nine- to seventeen-year-olds were asked by parents to go online to find out about products or services, compared to 37 percent in 2001. IKEA used this knowledge to design their showrooms. The children’s bedrooms feature fun beds with appealing comforters so children will be prompted to identify and ask for what they want.“Teen Market Profile,” Mediamark Research, 2003, http://www.magazine.org/content/files/teenprofile04.pdf (accessed December 4, 2009).

Marketing to children has come under increasing scrutiny. Some critics accuse companies of deliberating manipulating children to nag their parents for certain products. For example, even though tickets for Hannah Montana concerts ranged from hundreds to thousands of dollars, the concerts often still sold out. However, as one writer put it, exploiting “pester power” is not always ultimately in the long-term interests of advertisers if it alienates kids’ parents.Ray Waddell, “Miley Strikes Back,” Billboard, June 27, 2009, 7–8.

Key Takeaway

Culture prescribes the way in which you should live and affects the things you purchase. A subculture is a group of people within a culture who are different from the dominant culture but have something in common with one another—common interests, vocations or jobs, religions, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and so forth. To some degree, consumers in the same social class exhibit similar purchasing behavior. Most market researchers consider a person’s family to be one of the biggest determiners of buying behavior. Reference groups are groups that a consumer identifies with and wants to join. Companies often hire celebrities to endorse their products to appeal to people’s reference groups. Opinion leaders are people with expertise in certain areas. Consumers respect these people and often ask their opinions before they buy goods and services.

Review Questions

  1. Why do people’s cultures affect what they buy?
  2. How do subcultures differ from cultures? Can you belong to more than one culture or subculture?
  3. How are companies trying to reach opinion leaders today?