Peer Pressure: The Most Powerful Consumer Influence?

If you’re like most people, you want to listen to the best music, stay current on hot news and prevailing opinions, forego the things that have fallen out of favor, embrace the right causes, wear the right shoes and so forth. Symbols of social status and what’s emerged as personal branding are central themes in today’s most pressing first-world issues — just as they were for many American consumers in the newly prosperous economy in the 1920s, following WWI. 

So take a moment to think about how much consumers rely on the advice and social cues of friends and people they admire. But don’t make the mistake of assuming this is anything new. Today’s share-crazy social culture is remarkably similar to the glamour-seeking, social status–focused world of WWI-era flappers. Consumers still buy the right stuff to live the best life.

Fashioning a self-conscious culture

When the first graphics-based ads emerged in the 1920s to promote consumer products that could be mass produced after WWI, fear-based messaging began leveraging people’s known anxieties — mostly related to social standing. It went like this: If you don’t use this kind of deodorant, you’ll have B.O. and squander your social standing.

During this period of sudden prosperity and consumerism, many ads showed people being incredibly happy doing everyday things such as mopping floors — as long as they have the right stuff. And with the right hair products and brand of cigarettes, people could presumably have a life of glamour and social prestige. The effect was an intense feeling of inadequacy among people who didn’t have the modern necessities of life, or didn’t look like the people they saw in the ads and movies.

Today’s social media activity seems to be having the same effect. A recent Psychology Today article on the impact of smiling on emotional health pointed out that social media is basically a collection of peak experiences that shows people living an ideal life. That’s why perusing sites such as Facebook seems to induce feelings of envy, sadness, and other negative emotions in people who may end up feeling like they’re missing out or leading a less successful life than their peers.

Considering that 3,500 photos are uploaded to Facebook every second and people of every age group spend about 25 hours a week online (mostly social networking), consumers are finding plenty of opportunity to feel upstaged. And this is great for business because consumers who are dissatisfied with their appearance, lifestyle and social standing are far more profitable than the self-confident and assured set.

Keeping up appearances with purchasing power

One industry making big bucks in the modern race to keep up appearances is the wedding business. After all, throughout the world, no event or personal milestone carries greater weight for social status than a wedding. Just consider the ever-ballooning budgets of modern weddings: U.S. couples spend an average of $28,427 on their nuptials; in New York City, the average goes up to $76,687. That’s not even including the honeymoon!

“Couples are increasingly less concerned with the economy,” says Carley Roney, cofounder of The Knot. “And are comfortable investing more than ever in the once-in-a-lifetime experience of planning their wedding and making it a fabulous experience for their guests.”

So how do businesses in the wedding industry get their slice of the … cake? For starters, they develop messaging and placement strategy that resonates with specific types of engaged women as well as the people who influence them. Knowing what worries target customers and how they want to be perceived socially is the first step to effective branding.

For example, active, nature-loving brides are probably not looking for information about how to plan a wedding in the same places as fashion-conscious women envisioning a luxurious affair. They’re certainly not inspired by the same imagery and values. So smart businesses are making sure that their brand aligns with the social interests, concerns and personal branding of their most valuable consumer groups.

The tools have evolved in dramatic ways. Social media technology puts consumers, not businesses, in the marketplace driver’s seat. But the motivating triggers of buyer behavior are still rooted in consumer anxiety and insecurity about keeping up with the proverbial Joneses. That’s why consumer marketing initiatives continue to create a sense of need and feelings of inadequacy — and then present the answers to make it all better.

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