When Social Influence is Anti-Social

In July 10, 2017
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We’ve talked about how social influence leads people to do the same as others, to imitate those around them. But does it always lead people to conform, or does social influence sometimes lead us to do something different?

A number of years ago, Unilever released a new deodorant brand called Axe. They did a lot of market research and they segmented men. And they found that there was a certain group of men that the brand should particularly appeal to. They describe them as insecure novices, people that lack self-esteem and could be easily persuaded that Axe is the key to their success with women. They were looking at young boys, 13 and 14 years old and they found that these boys would really use deodorant to ramp up their self-confidence. They came out with a series of 30-second commercials that played on exactly this idea, how using the brand Axe would make these teenagers irresistible to women. The ads were pretty effective. Axe became an instant hit and soon became the number one male brand deodorant in the category. This early success though soon began to backfire. The ads actually worked too well, because what they did is lead geeks and dorks everywhere to buy Axe by the caseload. Lots of geeks were saying, I wanna be irresistible to women and that was hurting the brand’s image. Because if only geeks were using the brand, lots of other people said well maybe it’s not for me. And the important point here is that social influence is really just like a magnet. It can attract or lead people to do the same as others, but it can also repel or lead people to avoid what others are doing.

Imagine, for example, you met someone at a party and they tell you that they drive a BMW. What might you think about them? What inferences might you make about who they are, what they like, and what they enjoy doing in their spare time?  You might think they listen to a certain type of music or potentially drink wine rather than beer. Now imagine for a moment I told you that, that person drives a Toyota. Would you make the same inferences about them or might you make different inferences about who they are? We do this all the time. Whether at a party or at work when we meet a new person for the first time, or even talking to someone we’ve met before, we make inferences about who they are based on how they’re dressed and what they do. If someone told you they’re a lawyer, for example, versus an art historian you’d make different inferences about what they might do with their spare time. And so importantly, consumption, the things we buy and what we do has meaning. What we buy, say, and do can act as a signal of our identity to others. It can communicate unobservable things to us about others around us. Someone drives a BMW, might assume that they’re wealthy, or showy, or drink wine again, rather than beer. They drive a Toyota, maybe they’re a little bit more functional, a little bit more utilitarian. Maybe they care a little bit more potentially about their family.

And so importantly, we buy products not just for what they do or their functional benefit, but also what they mean, what they symbolise or communicate about us. So one question is, well, where do products or ideas get that identity from? Where does meaning come from in the first place? One way consumption gains meaning is through brand positioning, what the brand puts out there on the world. Whether it’s an ad or the store experience. Take Abercrombie and Fitch, for example, they use lots of black and white photos with attractive young men and women seeming like they’re having a huge amount of fun wearing the clothes. Or you walk into the store, and it has a certain smell and feels to it that associates the brand with particular things.

The brand has spent a lot of time and money associating them with a particular identity. BMW’s done the same, their ads show attractive people driving fast cars around beautiful scenery, encouraging a certain image to be associated with the brand. But importantly the brand doesn’t totally control what it means to use that product. Take for example the Honda Element. Honda built this car to appeal to people in their mid-20s. They built ads that showed people using the car, surfing and skiing and snowboarding. And they played fun music in the background, showing young people having a great time using the brand. All of this was to get that target market to buy the car. But that isn’t exactly what happened. Because just like Axe meant to appeal to a certain segment but attracted another one, the Honda element did the same. Senior citizens ending up loving the car because it had lots of headroom and was easy to get into. And as a result, younger people became less interested in buying the brand. Because if lots of seniors are using it, they didn’t wanna use it as well.

And so the signal values depends on a lot not only what the brand says, but who else is using it. If people wanna convey a certain meaning, they may adopt things that signal that meaning to others. We all wanna seem wealthier, smarter, and fitter than we actually are, so we may buy products or use brands that communicate those desired identities. But importantly, adoption by outsiders can change the meaning of a particular brand. Burberry, for example, is a very high-end brand associated with lots of wealthy Brits. But lots of soccer hooligans in Britain were also buying knockoff Burberry to show themselves to seem wealthy to others. And so as a result, it shifted the meaning of consumption. It changed what the brand meant from a signal of wealth to a set of wannabes who wanted to seem wealthy. And a result, lots of truly wealthy people ended up abandoning the brand and moving to something else.

But it’s not just Burberry, people diverge all the time. The jocks don’t want to look like the geeks. Kids don’t want to look like their parents. And Republicans don’t want to look like Democrats and vice versa. So one group avoid what the other group is doing to avoid sending undesired identity signals.

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