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Modern Tribes: How Groups Influence Consumer Decisions

New research from FlexMR highlights the challenges of understanding modern consumer behavior, from the surprising influence of group-based decision making to the complexities & mysteries of loyalty.

In a modern, competitive marketplace, consumer preferences can change on a whim. Technology is the catalyst that is relentlessly accelerating the pace of change – leading to new products, new behaviors and new brands that threaten even the very existence of their predecessors.

Loyalty is a marketing metric that is given a huge amount of attention in boardrooms as the key to both growing a new brand and defending against decline. Earlier this year, we embarked on a journey to better understand loyalty in more than a behavioral sense. Instead of measuring how many interactions consumers had with a brand, we wanted to look at loyalty in a more holistic sense – to understand the beliefs, values, and constructs of identity that drive such behaviors, and draw distinctions between forced and freely given loyalty.

Is someone truly loyal because a brand is the only option in the area, or because it currently offers the most convenience right now? Probably not, but our current metrics struggle to identify and interpret the difference between these consumers and those who are loyal because they want to be.

Of course, at this point – it’s fair to ask, does it matter? Should we care about why an individual is loyal, so long as they are? Well, yes. By better understanding the reasons a person may regularly purchase from a particular brand, it’s possible to identify both opportunities for growth and threats before they develop.

To achieve this, we knew we needed to look across the research spectrum and not just the silo of consumer insight. We would need to draw in political and social facets of consumers’ lives and identify patterns in decision making across all three strata. To be completely honest, we weren’t sure if we’d even find anything of note. But we did.

In particular, we found:

  • Modern marketing places individuals in the spotlight, often overlooking the role of groups, or tribes, in shaping identities. It’s time to recognize this imbalance and tap into the complex, but rewarding, power of groups.
  • Tribes are groups of individuals that form shared belief systems, such as families, pockets of political supporters and brand communities. It is this desire to be part of a group that drives much human behavior.
  • Loyalty and trust are more than skin deep. There are clear differences in an individual’s propensity to be loyal that are reflected in their beliefs and identity in addition to their behavior.
  • If loyalty is truly about attitudes and beliefs, then brands must look to align themselves with an individual’s identity in order to drive robust repeat purchasing behaviors.

Perhaps the most important two conclusions we have been able to draw are that groups play a more of a role in our decision making than we are aware of, and loyalty may be a trait that individuals are more or less pre-disposed to display, rather than a level playing field.

When asking about politics we found that, on average, UK citizens reported that their own personal views made up approximately 58% of their political opinion. Family & friends, as well as TV news,  came in joint second place – comprising 10% of individuals’ political opinion each. However, in contrast, when asking about how these same people voted in the most divisive event in recent British memory, Brexit, we discovered that 80% of people reported that everyone in their household voted the same way. Similarly, more than one in four (27%) of British citizens reported to always the way the same way as their parents.

When our line of questioning turned to brands and consumption decisions, there was an even clearer link. The factor most likely to influence an individual to try a new brand is seeing their family use it. This held true across both low and high-value categories of purchases.

Secondly, we discovered that certain groups are more likely to show tendencies towards loyalty across their political, social and decisions. The loyal segment that we identified were more likely to stick with a brand for longer (even after a consistently poor experience) more likely to trust all sources of news and, most importantly, consider external factors of greater importance to their personal identity.

In fact, our group of loyalists was more likely to state that their political opinions, views on social issues, economic status, careers and consumption decisions were more important to their identity than other participants. We theorize that this tendency to consider external factors as more important to their identity is a key reason that leads to the behaviors that we consider to be indicators of loyalty. Perhaps these individuals are not loyal because they are positively motivated to be, but because it is more difficult for them to change their decisions as they have been internalized as part of a greater identity.

These considerations and complexities all come to a head when we asked how people would vote if the Brexit referendum were to be re-run today. 12.6% of Leave voters would if asked to vote again today, change their mind. That makes them just over 20% more likely to change their mind than Remain voters.

The prevailing narrative of the day would suggest that this is due to the revelations have occurred since the initial vote. But our findings suggest that even this simple, binary decision may not be as straightforward as it first appears. Perhaps, more Leave voters would change their mind, not because of anything that has happened since, but because they have a greater propensity and capacity to do so than their Remain voting counterparts.

And that pre-disposition towards loyalty and transience should scare and excite marketers in equal part.

The full report, Tribes: An Exploration of Political, Social and Brand Loyalties, is available to download from the FlexMR website. While there is still much research to do in order to fully understand consumer loyalty – one thing is clear. There is much more to it than the resulting behaviors. For brands to defend against constant threats and take full advantage of emerging opportunities, it’s vital to understand not just how loyal customers are; but why.

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