Reading: Social Factors

People Influencing People

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

Culture

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. Canadian culture is often referred to as a “Canadian mosaic” because of our multicultural society. We tend to look at a general culture that is common to all Canadians. That said, Canada’s culture is heavily influenced by the Western (European) French and English populations, yet two other significant groups influence Canadian culture, First Nations as well as recent immigrants to Canada.  There are more than 600 First Nations communities in Canada with over 1.4 million people that identify themselves as aboriginal. The Canadian government has set significant growth targets for new Canadians that make this fourth group one that can’t be ignored. The Canadian government’s latest  target is to welcome one million immigrants between 2020 -2022. According to Statistics Canada, Asia was Canada’s largest source of immigrants between 2006-2011,  although the share of immigration from Africa, Caribbean, Central and South America increased slightly.[1]

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 behaviour 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.

The University of Waterloo publishes a Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) that measures Canadian values.

It begins with the belief that our cornerstone value as Canadians is the principle of “shared destiny”: that our society is often best shaped through collective action; that there is a limit to how much can be achieved by individuals acting alone; that the sum of a good society and what it can achieve is greater than the remarkably diverse parts which constitute it.

From this cornerstone principle of shared destiny and collective action, and from extensive public consultations with Canadians, a number of core consensus values informed the development of the CIW:

fairness diversity equity
inclusion health safety
economic security democracy sustainability

Canadians said quite clearly that their top priorities for quality of life were: primary and secondary education, health care access, a healthy environment, clean air and water, social programs, responsible taxation, public safety and security, job security, employment opportunities, a living wage, balanced time use, and civic participation.[2]

Greeting card that reads, "Happy Mother's Day Greetings to You!" Card has a bouquet of pink and purple crocheted flowers in the center.Customs are traditional, culturally approved ways of behaving in specific situations. For example, in Canada Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated on the second Monday in October 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 a 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 North Americans who buy Valentine’s Day flowers in February, chocolate Easter eggs in April,  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.[3]

Subculture

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: Western Canadians, Quebecois, Atlantic Canadians, etc.
  • Ethnicity: Colombian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, etc.
  • Religion: Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Baptists, Muslims, etc.
  • Nationality: Italians, South-Korean, Hungarians, Japanese, Ethiopians, etc.
  • Occupation: military, technology worker, government employee, 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 Canada, many organizations and marketing activities focus on major ethnicity-based subcultures such as French, Asian Canadians, and African Canadians. Each subculture has distinct experiences living and working within the broader Canadian 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.[4][5]

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

 

You can view the transcript for the video “Demise of the Mall and Reinvention”. (opens in new window)

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 behaviour 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 Canada, social class is more permeable, and people can move between classes more easily based on their circumstances, behaviours, and life choices. Social class mobility is an important value in mainstream Canadian culture and is part of our collective belief system about what makes the country great.

In Canada, the most common social classification system is illustrated below.

Classes can be divided according to how much relative power and control members of a class have over their lives. On this basis, we might distinguish between the owning class (or bourgeoisie), the middle class, and the traditional working class. The owning class not only have power and control over their own lives, their economic position gives them power and control over others’ lives as well. To the degree that we can talk about a “middle class” composed of small business owners and educated, professional, or administrative labour, it is because they do not generally control other strata of society, but they do exert control over their own work to some degree. In contrast, the traditional working class has little control over their work or lives. Below, we will explore the major divisions of Canadian social class and their key subcategories.

The Owning Class

A luxurious house and grounds.
Figure 9.8. Members of the upper class can afford to live, work, and play in exclusive places designed for luxury and comfort. (Photo courtesy of PrimeImageMedia.com/Flickr)

The owning class is considered Canada’s top, and only the powerful elite get to see the view from there. In Canada, the richest 86 people (or families) account for 0.002 percent of the population, but in 2012 they had accumulated the equivalent wealth of the lowest 34 percent of the country’s population[6]. The combined net worth of these 86 families added up to $178 billion in 2012, which equaled the net worth of the lowest 11.4 million Canadians. In terms of income, in 2007 the average income of the richest 0.01 percent of Canadians was $3.833 million [7].

Money provides not just access to material goods, but also access to power. Canada’s owning class wields a lot of power. As corporate leaders, their decisions affect the job status of millions of people. As media owners, they shape the collective identity of the nation. They run the major network television stations, radio broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, and sports franchises. As philanthropists, they establish foundations to support social causes they believe in. They also fund “think tanks” like the C.D. Howe Institute and the Fraser Institute that promote the values and interests of business elites. As campaign contributors, they influence politicians and fund campaigns, usually to protect their own economic interests.

Canadian society has historically distinguished between “old money” (inherited wealth passed from one generation to the next) and “new money” (wealth you have earned and built yourself). While both types may have equal net worth, they have traditionally held different social standing. People of old money, firmly situated in the upper class for generations, have held high prestige. Their families have socialized them to know the customs, norms, and expectations that come with wealth. Often, the very wealthy do not work for wages. Some study business or become lawyers in order to manage the family fortune.

New money members of the owning class are not oriented to the customs and mores of the elite. They have not gone to the most exclusive schools. They have not established old-money social ties. People with new money might flaunt their wealth, buying sports cars and mansions, but they might still exhibit behaviours attributed to the middle and lower classes. For example, Toronto politicians Rob and Doug Ford are estimated to hold family assets worth $50 million, yet they present themselves as just “average guys” who stand with their blue-collar constituents against “rich elitist people”[8][9]. Rob Ford’s infamous crack cocaine smoking, public binge drinking, and use of foul language would not make him at home within the circles of old money in Canada.

The Middle Class

Women talking at a table.
These members of a club likely consider themselves middle class. (Photo courtesy of United Way Canada-Centraide Canada/Flickr)

Many people call themselves middle class, but there are differing ideas about what that means. People with annual incomes of $150,000 call themselves middle class, as do people who annually earn $30,000. That helps explain why some sociologists divide the middle class into upper and lower subcategories.

Upper-middle-class people tend to hold bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees. They’ve studied subjects such as business, management, law, or medicine. Lower-middle-class members hold bachelor’s degrees or associate’s degrees from two-year community or technical colleges.

Comfort is a key concept to the middle class. Middle-class people work hard and live fairly comfortable lives. Upper-middle-class people tend to pursue careers that earn comfortable incomes. They provide their families with large homes and nice cars. They may go skiing or boating on vacation. Their children receive quality education [10].

In the lower middle class, people hold jobs supervised by members of the upper middle class. They fill technical, lower-level management or administrative support positions. Compared to traditional working-class work, lower-middle-class jobs carry more prestige and come with slightly higher paycheques. With these incomes, people can afford a decent, mainstream lifestyle, but they struggle to maintain it. They generally do not have enough income to build significant savings. In addition, their grip on class status is more precarious than in the upper tiers of the class system. When budgets are tight, lower-middle-class people are often the ones to lose their jobs.

The Traditional Working Class

A man is shown scrubbing floors and walls beneath a group of sinks in a restaurant kitchen.
This man is a custodian at a restaurant. His job, which is crucial to the business, is considered lower class. (Photo courtesy of Frederick Md Publicity/Flickr)

The traditional working class is sometimes also referred to as being part of the lower class. Just like the middle and upper classes, the lower class can be divided into subsets: the working class, the working poor, and the underclass. Compared to the middle class, traditional working-class people have less of an educational background and usually earn smaller incomes. While there are many working-class trades that require skill and pay middle-class wages, the majority often work jobs that require little prior skill or experience, doing routine tasks under close supervision.

Traditional working-class people, the highest subcategory of the lower class, are usually equated with blue-collar types of jobs: “wage-workers who are engaged in the production of commodities, the extraction of natural resources, the production of food, the operation of the transportation network required for production and distribution, the construction industry, and the maintenance of energy and communication networks”[11]. The work is considered blue collar because it is hands-on and often physically demanding. The term “blue collar” comes from the traditional blue coveralls worn by manual labourers.

Beneath those in the working class are the working poor. Like some sections of the working class, they have unskilled, low-paying employment. However, their jobs rarely offer benefits such as retirement planning, and their positions are often seasonal or temporary. They work as migrant farm workers, housecleaners, and day labourers. Some are high school dropouts. Some are illiterate, unable to read job ads. Many do not vote because they do not believe that any politician will help change their situation[12].

How can people work full time and still be poor? Even working full time, more than a million of the working poor earn incomes too meagre to support a family. In 2012, 1.8 million working people (including 540,000 working full-time year-round) earned less than Statistic Canada’s low-income cut-off level, which defines poverty in Canada[13]. The minimum wage varies from province to province, from $9.95/h in Alberta to $11/h in Nunavut and Ontario [14] However, it is estimated that a living wage—based on a 35-hour work week—is $19.14/h in Vancouver, $16.60/h in Toronto, and $14.95/h in Hamilton (differences due to the difference in cost of living in these locations). A living wage is the amount needed to meet a family’s basic needs and enable them to participate in community life[15].  Even for a single person, the minimum wage is low. A married couple with children will have a hard time covering expenses.

The underclass or lumpenproletariat is Canada’s lowest tier. Members of the underclass live mainly in inner cities. Many are unemployed or underemployed. Those who do hold jobs typically perform menial tasks for little pay. Some of the underclass are homeless. For many, welfare systems provide a much-needed support through food assistance, medical care, housing, and the like.

Source: Chapter 9. Social Stratification in Canada in Introduction to Sociology 1st Canadian Edition by William Little. CC BY licence

 

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 behaviour 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, playgroups, 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 behaviour. 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 our behaviour in order to fit in with group norms. Norms are “normal” behavioural 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, stockbrokers, 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.)

Family

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 in the family. A consumer’s family has a major impact on attitude and behaviour, 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 in 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.[16]


  1. Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity in Canada: National Household Survey, 2011 (2011). Statistic Canada. https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-010-x/99-010-x2011001-eng.cfm
  2. University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Reflecting Canadian values. https://uwaterloo.ca/canadian-index-wellbeing/about-canadian-index-wellbeing/reflecting-canadian-values
  3. Jui, P. (2011, May 16).Walmart’s Downfall in Germany: A Case Study. Journal of International Management. https://journalofinternationalmanagement.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/walmarts-downfall-in-germany-a-case-study/
  4. Bell, L. (2015, October 12). Why Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s & Ford are Catering to the Black Consumer. Fox News. https://www.foxbusiness.com/features/why-procter-gamble-mcdonalds-ford-are-catering-to-the-black-consumer/
  5. Black Enterprise. (2018, September 17). Black media mourns one of its champions. Target Market News. http://targetmarketnews.com/storyid06071201.htm
  6. McDonald 2014
  7. Yalnizyan, Armine. (2010). The Rise of Canada’s Richest 1%. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2010/12/Richest%201%20Percent.pdf
  8. McArthur, Greg. (2013, November 23). Assessing the financial affairs of ‘average guy’ Mayor Rob Ford.  Toronto Globe and Mail. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/assessing-the-financial-affairs-of-average-guy-mayor-rob-ford/article15574327/
  9. Warner, Brian. (2014). Rob Ford Net Worth: How Much is Rob Ford Worth? Celebrity Networth.  http://www.celebritynetworth.com/richest-politicians/republicans/rob-ford-net-worth/
  10. Gilbert, Dennis. (2010). The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality. Newbury Park, CA: Pine Forge Press.
  11. Veltmeyer, Henry. (1986). Canadian Class Structure. Toronto: Garamond. p. 83
  12. Beeghley, Leonard. (2008). The Structure of Social Stratification in the United States. Upper Saddle River. NJ: Prentice Hall.
  13. Johnstone, A. &  Cooper T. (2013). It Pays to Pay a Living Wage. CCPA Monitor. https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/it-pays-pay-living-wage[
  14. Minimum Wage by Province. RCC: The Voice of Retail. (2014). Retail Council of Canada. http://www.retailcouncil.org/quickfacts/minimum-wage
  15. Johnstone, A. &  Cooper T. (2013). It Pays to Pay a Living Wage. CCPA Monitor. https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/it-pays-pay-living-wage
  16. El-Assal, K., Thevenot, S., Moetaz, M., Miekus, A. (2020, March 12). Canada to welcome up to 390,000 immigrant in 2022. CIC News. https://www.cicnews.com/2020/03/canada-to-welcome-up-to-390000-immigrants-in-2022-0313872.html#gs.9kyqch

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Introduction to Marketing I 2e (MKTG 1010) by NSCC & Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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