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Social norms can influence choices inconsistent with preferences in Asia

Marketing strategies and campaigns can harness socio-cultural concerns for better results

We make many decisions daily, from minor ones such as buying shoes to major ones such as picking a school for our children.

It might appear that our personal preferences drive our choices, but - in reality - people often choose options they do not necessarily prefer the most.

Why is that so? That was what we set out to investigate with a study that posed this question: Can socio-cultural concerns lead people to choices inconsistent with their preferences?

The answer has huge implications for marketers looking to sway the consumer dollar.

Most marketing strategies focus on the direct appeal of the product, while our research suggested that marketing strategies should target something else: the power of social norms to shift consumer preference.

My team - Insead's Monica Wadhwa, Kyoto University's Yukiko Uchida, National University of Singapore's Yu Ding (who is currently at Columbia University) and M.S. Ramaiah Institute of Technology's N. V. R. Naidu - conducted several experiments to trace the consumer decision-making process, starting from the stated initial preference to the actual final choice, using a simple three-step process.

The participants first expressed their preferences for different products. We then varied the norm. Finally, they completed the cycle by making their choices.

Our aim was to assess that if by varying the normative conditions at the intermediary process, participants would still make a final choice consistent with their first stated preference.

More simply put, we wanted to investigate how powerful normative conditions are in shaping final consumer decisions.

Using previous research that found that Asians are more concerned than Americans about what others thought of them, we picked two communities for our studies - Indians and Americans.

Participants were exposed to subtle social cues, such as smiling eyes or frowning eyes, or asked to write a norm-manipulated essay before they were asked to make their final product choice.

NORM MANIPULATION

Results showed that Indian participants were more affected than the American participants by the norm manipulation.

In another experiment, participants completed a simple survey and were then told if their value profiles were similar to or different from others within their community before they made their final product choice.

Indian participants who were told that their values were similar made final decisions that increased the distance from their peers. But when told that their values were different, they made choices closer to the norm.

By contrast, the Americans' final choices were unaffected by this norm manipulation.

These results show that there is a marked difference between how Indian and American people make decisions.

Asian consumers do not always choose according to their preferences but often in response to what society expects of them, what others are buying and if others will positively evaluate their choices.

Effective strategies for Asian markets thus need to go beyond focusing only on the product to include more socially suggestive messages, such as "This is what most other Singaporeans are choosing", "Your colleagues will envy you if you buy this bag", or "80 per cent of smart consumers already choose this brand of vitamins".

The Government could similarly harness this power when rolling out a new social policy.

Campaigns need to go beyond promoting the terms of the policy, to touting its benefits or emphasising that the rest of the population supports it.

Another strategy could be to provide evidence that a similar policy has been successfully rolled out in a well-respected country, well accepted by its populace and its benefits well-documented - external social validation is a powerful force for the Asian consumer.

The same forces can also be harnessed to reduce negative social behaviour - such as littering, abuse of the elderly or xenophobia - by highlighting that other people are watching, and that they will judge such behaviour unfavourably.

For example, in using celebrities to denounce the consumption of shark's fin, social activists have cleverly used "important" figures to endorse a particular value.

This understanding of the power of social opinion can also be applied to corporations. For example, implementing a new medical or operating system requires significant adjustments on the part of employees.

Management can appeal to the sense of collective opinion, emphasising that most others at the workplace do approve of the new plan, or tout that a highly regarded multinational corporation has already embarked on this same system as a form of extended social validation.

But marketers should note that these strategies may work only in Asian countries. They may not work for consumers in other countries, like the US, as our research has shown that they are less likely swayed by social norms.

Marketers, managements and governments need to understand the different market segmentation and adapt their strategies accordingly.

In essence, our research showed that beyond rolling out just content, influencers in Asia need to extend their effort to shaping the social space around a product or policy.

The writer is an Assistant Professor of strategy, management and organisation at Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University. This article appears in The Straits Times today.

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