Consumer Influences Symbolic Consumption Reference And Cultural Groups Cultural Studies Essay

Consumer psychology

Consumer influences: Symbolic consumption, reference and cultural groups

Wilfried Moutte Exchange student


In our society, shopping is a huge part of our everyday lives. That’s why every day we are surrounded by messages from marketers and advertisers. Since several years lots of companies analyze and study our buyer behavior to know why and how we buy in order to reach us easier and to propose products that we will enjoy (Lindstrom Martin 2008). The way of how and why a consumer is influenced by is psychological needs is a complex issue, because it means enter deeply in his mind. In addition if you ask someone why they bought a product, the likely answer will be: "Because I need it." The most important is that the consumer needs have to be filled. There are not many people who wonder about the origin of their needs. This is the most difficult part, because we are not use to ask ourselves why we buy.

According to Schiffman & Kanuk (2010), "the behavior that consumers display in searching for, purchasing, using, evaluating, and disposing of products and services that they expect will satisfy their needs." Relating to this sentence we can notice that the consumer’s psychological needs are at the origin of the purchase.

However the main issue that we will explain throughout of the following essay is: how and why the consumer’s psychological needs have an impact on our consumer behavior while taking care of our self-concepts. We will also focus on how and why the consumer behavior is influenced by certain kinds of groups, in particular reference and culture group.

The reflective document will be divided in two main parts. First of all, thanks to literature and authors, it will be given a definition of all the marketing terms in order to better understand their impacts on our psychological needs. In a second part, throughout different examples taken from my own experience and others examples, it will be applied these marketing terms in order to know how our psychological needs are influenced.

Key marketing concepts definition

Personal and social self-concept

According to McLeaod Saul (2008) "the term self-concept is in general used to refer to how someone thinks about or perceives themselves".

Personal and social self-concept are part of our self-image. The self-image corresponds to an image of ourselves that we have, which allow us to know ourselves better. Thanks to our self-image, we can know which product or service is adapted for us, (Holland Susan, 2012/13). Our personal self-concept corresponds to our personal identity and our social self-concept to how people could see us, (Holland Susan, 2012/13).

Reference groups

The reference group is a group where the person focuses on to determine his attitudes, convictions and behaviors. Reference group applies some pressures on its members to conform them. A reference group can be only one person or on the opposite a set of several people. Lots of groups can be considered like a reference group: Family, friends, social class…, (Van Vracem Paul and Janssens-Umflat, 1994).

Reference groups have a strong impact on our attitudes and influence our self-concepts. They expose us to new behaviors and lifestyles by creating pressures on us to conform which may influence product and brand choices. Some persons within a reference group are called "opinion leader". These kinds of persons have a strong influence on others because they have special kills, knowledge, strong personality, and other characteristics, (Hawkins & Mothersbaugh, 2010).

Cultural groups

Culture corresponds to all our values, beliefs, traditions which influence and condition the behavior of people in a same group. In others words culture is a specific context which guides peoples in their lives, (Van Vracem Paul and Janssens-Umflat, 1994).

Symbolic consumption

The symbolic consumption is the way of someone chooses a special product or a service in order to play a special role, because this product or service has a particular symbol for him or her, and this symbol has a meaning, (Holland Susan, 2012/13).

How our psychological needs are influenced?

Reference groups

First of all our psychological needs are influenced by the reference groups. When we look around us, it's easy to notice some people who are dressed in a similar manner or people that we can put in a same group. And if someone is different from the others, his entourage can have unexpected reactions. As an example, "a student who comes in class with a suit will generally be asked about the job interview that others will assume is the cause of the more formal clothing" (Hawkins & Mothersbaugh, 2010).

We are going to see throughout the Harley Davidson drivers' example, the power and the influence of the references group on our needs, behaviors and attitudes to maintain our self and social concept.

Example: Harley Davidson drivers

Harley Davidson is a very famous American brand set up in 1903 by William Harley and Davidson's brothers. In 1920 Harley became the most important bike brand all around the world. All the most famous stars have a Harley Davidson like Jack Nicholson or Elvis Presley. However a strong and real competition came from Japanese bike brand to defeat Harley Davidson. To face up to this threat Harley Davidson established a "Harley Davidson community", (Briere Baptiste, 2011).

This community is very active, it organizes lots of events to bring together all its members all around the world. The Harley Davidson members share the same passion and desire. It is not difficult to describe the perfect example of a Harley Davidson driver: he usually is older than the other bikers (the average is 47 years old), he has an influent job (the median income is $82K), he has some tattoos and there is no lots of women who drive an Harley Davidson (less than 12%). The Harley Davidson biker doesn't want a motorcycle but he wants a Harley Davidson, (Briere Baptiste, 2011).

Through this example we can see that the pressure of the reference group is incredibly high on its member. To belong to the group people don't hesitate to appear like others (tattoo, Harley, special clothes…). And their needs are totally influenced by the pressure of the group on them to maintain their self and social concept.

Cultural groups

Our psychological needs are also conditioned by the culture that we received when we were young. The person is not born with his culture, but it's a result of his social environment learning. The culture is teaching by the parents but not only, by others institutions as well (school, companies, charity organization…). We are going to see throughout the religion example, that our culture affects directly our psychological needs and behavior.

Example: Religion as a culture group

The religion is an example of culture group, because its members have a respect for the rules of the group. As an example Jewish which respect the religion, will buy a special kind of meat with a special preparation: kosher meat for example, (Van Vracem Paul and Janssens-Umflat, 1994). They learned from their youth all these religious tradition which influence them now in their way of life. Religion is a real culture group, because it can allow or forbid to buy a special kind of products.

Religion is a kind of culture internalized by a person. This culture has a strong impact on the behavior of this person. His psychological needs are conditioned by his culture learned and his consumption will be in accordance with his culture.

Symbolic consumption

The symbolic consumption has also a real influence on our psychological needs. In this case of influence our products or services that we buy have a strong symbol for us and we buy these products or services especially for the message they send. We are going to see throughout the teenager's consumption how and why they are influenced by the symbolic consumption.

Example: Teenager's consumption

The teenagers are the perfect example of symbolic consumption. Adolescence is a period of changes in the life of the young people. They still need their parents, but they want more independence. They focused on the relations with their friends and are more interested in the social world which surrounds them, (Guichard and Vanheems, 2004).

During adolescence young people can have a lack of confidence and need the recognition of their entourage. They want to differentiate from their parents. During adolescence, teenagers are looking for their independence and identification to a group, (Guichard and Vanheems, 2004).

By their consumption, teenagers try to integrate the society. Therefore, for many young people, their identity construction is defined by the choice to purchase brand clothes or a particular style. The consumption for them is crucial, they buy in order to exist in front their entourage. Their consumption is called "symbolic consumption" because their needs are influenced by the wish to be and their needs are only symbolic because it's not for them but to show their personality to the others.

General example: Watch purchasing process influenced by cultural, reference groups and symbolic consumption

Through this relevant example taken from my own experience I will outline the different factors explained above which influenced me in a way of buying a special thing for me: my watch. When I thought about my watch purchasing I identified that my culture, the reference group and the symbolic consumption played a real role in the buying process.

Since many years I’m passionate by watches. I always promised to myself that one day I will buy a watch with value. And last year after saved money for a long time, I decided to buy the watch of my dreams. If I ask me immediately "why I bought this watch", I would answer because I need it. However if I go deeply in my mind, this need was influenced by something more complex: cultural, reference groups and symbolic consumption.

First of all, to my mind, my culture has played an important role in my need to have a watch. When I was young I learned from my parents some values and ways of life. My parents gave me the taste of value things.

Throughout my youth, I was used to see my parents saving money in order to buy the product or services of their dreams. For a boy is father is like his model, and my father was passionate by watch and he usually spoke to me about his watch and the next one he wanted to buy. In a way of purchase this watch, I unconsciously reproduced the same process like my parents. Without to know my culture played an important role in my watch buying process. My culture learned from my parents had an influence directly on my psychological needs and my behavior.

Secondly the need of purchase my watch was influenced by the reference groups. As I explained above, the reference groups create some pressures on us to conform to the group. I didn’t want to buy any watch, but I wanted a special one. This was not an ostentatious watch, but it had an important cost for me, and it was the one I really wanted. The main issue is why I bought it, of course because I liked it, it was very original and I wanted to try to differentiate. However when I think more about why I bought it, I can now understand that I had a pressure on me from a reference group. I study in a private business school in France, most of people who study in this kind of school in France are comfortable persons. All my friends had a value watch, and unconsciously I wanted to conform to the group I belonged. When I had my watch I was happy to show it to my friend because I was like them. Without to know, the group of my friends puts some pressure on me. When I thought about reference group and its repercussion on us, I can find that most of my choices are influenced by the group I belong. The example is not only able to be applied to my watch but also to many things that I want to buy.

Finally the need of purchase my watch was influenced by the symbolic consumption. As I explained above, the symbolic consumption refers to buy a product or service which has a special meaning. This watch had a real symbol and a special meaning for me. As explained above, students who study in a private business school in France are usually comfortable people. When I think about my watch purchasing, I can affirm that my watch was a symbol of money. I can't tell me that I bought this watch just in order to give a special image on me to satisfy my self and social concept because it would be hard for me to understand however this was the reality. The power of symbol had a strong influence on me, to persuade me to buy this watch. The symbol consumption is a reality, and played an important role in a purchasing process in our everyday life.


Throughout this reflective document with different kinds of examples, we could see that our psychological needs are widely influenced by external and internal factors to maintain our self and social concept. Without to know in our buying process we put up with lots of influences coming from different factors: reference groups, cultural groups and symbolic consumption and nobody can avoid these influences. However most of the time people are not aware about these influences, because they buy without to ask themselves why they bought this product or services. However these influences are really there and persuade us to buy