How social norms influence consumer behavior

Newswise – Researchers from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, HEC Montreal and the University of New South Wales, UNSW Sydney have published a new article in the Marketing Journal which performs a meta-analysis of existing research on social norms to establish several new empirical generalizations.

The study, to appear in the Marketing Journal, is entitled “The influence of social norms on consumer behavior: a meta-analysis” and is written by Vladimir Melnyk, François A. Carrillat and Valentyna Melnyk.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in several new behaviors that health experts want to discourage, such as reusing the same mask, as it is harmful to society. The good news is that social norms, which consist in communicating what others are doing (ex: “2/3 of people avoid using the same mask again”) or what to do (ex: “do not use the same mask again”). not reusing the same mask is essential ”), are the most useful in preventing people from adopting these behaviors.

Defined by researchers as “rules and norms which are understood by members of a group and which guide and / or constrain social behavior without the force of law”, social norms influence various forms of daily consumption, including food choices, responses to new products, and loyalty. For example, signs in a hotel stating that other hotel guests are reusing their towels increases towel reuse. Social norms are often exploited by traders and policy makers to encourage a variety of socially approved behaviors, such as conserving energy, complying with product recalls, and paying taxes. They are also used to discourage socially frowned upon behaviors, such as environmental pollution, smoking, and excessive alcohol or drug use.

In this study, researchers clarify the effects of social norms for a wide range of consumption behaviors and detail how practitioners and government officials can use actionable moderators, such as the use of appropriate communication elements for certain behaviors, countries and consumers. This should improve the success of these policies and recommendations, which has been mixed to date. They also discover how cultural differences can determine the effects of social norms on socially approved and disapproved behaviors.

Communication strategies for marketers:

The content of communications should present descriptive rather than invasive forms of social norms (i.e. describing what (most) people actually do rather than what they should be doing). Vladimir Melnyk adds: “We also recommend that marketers avoid specifying explicit sanctions and rewards associated with social norms. Instead, strategies that highlight the benefits to others or to consumer freedom, such as communicating with a postscript that says “it’s your decision”, can ease resistance and thus be more effective. effective in inducing the target behavior. “

Practitioners may worry about highlighting a specific organization when communicating about social norms, but findings suggest that referring to a specific company, government agency, or NGO may make communications about social norms more influential. . Social norms are also more powerful when they cite people perceived to be close to target consumers. In contrast, the results indicate that references to authority figures do not reinforce the influence of social norms on consumer behavior.

When communicating standards, marketers can recognize the monetary costs associated with targeted behaviors. François Carrillat explains that “Although this is a financial barrier, monetary costs also appear to increase the desirability of behavior, so social norms can be particularly effective in promoting expensive behaviors like giving or giving away. purchase of organic food (more expensive). Moreover, social standards are just as effective regardless of the effort required and the time invested in complying with them.

Cultural differences between countries:

The impact of social norms on socially disapproved behaviors varies considerably by country of implementation, but it is stable across countries for socially approved behaviors. Social norms have a weaker influence on socially disapproved behaviors in countries where religion is less important, which value variety and self-expression, and where people are more free to make choices for themselves ( i.e. most western countries). These findings have important implications for public health when group behavior is essential. To encourage mask-wearing in most Western countries, for example, public officials should communicate that mask-wearing is socially approved behavior that other relatives adopt. In most developing countries, communications should stress that not wearing a mask is socially frowned upon.

“These findings provide information to marketers and policy makers by identifying effective strategies, and some commonly used but ineffective, to improve the impact of social norms on consumer behavior,” says Valentyna Melnyk. The results also suggest that the influence of social norms may prompt private acceptance. Thus, this research can help marketers and policy makers leverage social norms to encourage private and public behavior.

Full article and author contact details available at:


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The Marketing Journal develops and disseminates knowledge on real world marketing issues useful to academics, educators, managers, policy makers, consumers and other societal stakeholders around the world. Published by the American Marketing Association since its founding in 1936, JM has played an important role in shaping the content and boundaries of the discipline of marketing. Christine Moorman (T. Austin Finch, Senior Professor of Business Administration at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University) is the current editor.

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About Marjorie C. Hudson

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