Consumers influence each other in several ways: they exchange information through communication, seek or give opinions and copy each other’s behaviour. Researchers recognise the giving and seeking of opinions as one of the most important word-of-mouth influences on brand and product choice (Bristor, 1990 and Weimann, 1994). Especially in fashion, social groups and opinion leaders influence product and brand evaluations (Amaldoss and Jain 2008). Fashion consumers often refer to fashion opinion leaders who they desire to be alike. The Internet and social media speeded up the way of communication within reference groups and made it possible to share interests without physical interaction. The following essay will outline an overview of fashion opinion leaders and reference groups before giving a better understanding of how fashion retailers make use of fashion opinion leaders in order to influence customers.
2. Reference groups and reference group influences
Consumers use several sources when they seek information or opinions on decisions; informal and social (Goldsmith and Clark 2008). This aspect of consumer behaviour is described as opinion-leadership-opinion-seeking, word-of-mouth, buzz or social communication (Goldsmith and Clark 2008). This means that consumers refer to something or someone when they seek information and clears the way for the term referential or reference group. Solomon and Rabolt (2009) define Humans as social animals that try to fit into certain groups, please others and take “cues about how to behave by observing the actions of those around” (p. 422) them. A group can simply be defined as two or more people sharing common goals and interests. All members of a group interact by certain patterns, frameworks and networks. A group member must therefore be perceptible to belonging to this group. Groups can be primary (family), secondary (professions), formal (churches), or informal (certain group of friends).
Belonging to a herd or group, makes consumers want to identify themselves psychologically and physically with desirable individuals of this group. Thus, an individual or group conceived of having significant relevance upon an individual’s sociological attributes, such as evaluations, characteristics, aspirations, or behaviour is defined as reference group (Park et al, 1977). As stated by Holton (2004), Merton hypothesized that individuals compare themselves with reference groups of people who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires. Hence, the group becomes the individual’s frame of reference and influences his ideas and decisions. Reference group influence can occur in different ways. According to Solomon and Rabolt (2009), group members of reference groups can be influenced informational, utilitarian or value-expressive.
Furthermore, individuals are also mostly influenced by normative referents of the group, such as parents, teachers, or peers (Childers and Rao, 1992). There are also so called aspirational groups of which individuals aspire to be a member of. This phenomenon can be considered as comparative referents, such as public opinion leaders or celebrities. Belonging to a group, aspirational or not, can influence the buying behaviour of individuals, and decisions are often based on what the group members please in order to be accepted (Joel et al 1972). According to the above, a reference group is as an individual or group that significantly influences an individual’s behaviour (Bearden and Etzel 1982).
2.1 Online referential groups and virtual consumption communities
Literature mostly concentrates on face-to-face interaction within reference groups on a regular basis or on aspirational groups without direct interaction (Pentina et al, 2008). However, Sheth and Parvatiyar (1995) stated that it is not directly necessary to have physical contact and interactions with members of a group in order to refer to it. More common forms of reference groups are online reference groups, which only exist in the World Wide Web. Within the age of the Internet, arising social media networks and communities it is possible to share interests with people who the individual never met personally (Solomon and Rabolt, 2009). A virtual community of consumption is defined as “a collection of people whose online interactions are based on shared enthusiasm for and knowledge of a specific consumption activity” (Solomon and Rabolt, 2009, p 426), such as fashion for instance.
In the concept of virtual communities any group of people can share common bonds, without being dependent on physical interaction and common graphic location (McDonough, 1992). But the issue of relationships between each other still lies at the heart of virtual communities (Farquhar and Rowley, 2006). Although online sharing of interests takes place on blog websites, social media platforms, like facebook or twitter or sharing services like as Pinterest, members build up relationships when sharing.
On facebook, for instance, members liking other people’s post in certain theme groups and commenting on those can explain a relationship. Solomon and Rabolt (2009) state that the impact of virtual communities on individual’s product preferences and decisions are huge. Because of that, an online referential group can be considered as consumers who write about their opinions towards certain topics, seek information, publish recommendations, and post products or services.
2.1.1 Online referential groups in fashion and fashion bloggers
Fashion and apparel shopping are seen as the most popular discussion topic among social networks (Thomas et al, 2007). In fashion, online communities are seen mostly through social media emergence such as blogs or facebook groups. Fashion blogs are mostly run by one person who writes or “blogs” about different products, occasions or events within the fashion industry. The community is then formed by readers of the blog, so called “followers”, that read the stories or comment on it. With gaining popularity bloggers are also able to gain money by advertising on their blog websites. According to the Telegraph, the most popular bloggers make up to £10,000 a month in advertising (Telegraph, 28/10/2012). Meanwhile, also fashion retailers look into the blogging business. For retailers the building up of social media groups could help them to gain direct feedback from consumers while monitoring discussions in referential groups online. Burberry for example not only has its own group on facebook, but also launched a blog, showing images of people wearing their trench coats (The Art of Trench, 28/10/2012).
3. Fashion opinion leadership
Referring to an opinion leader is one of the social or informal sources of decision and opinions seeking, named by Goldsmith and Clark (2008) in reference group behaviour. A person who has knowledge about a certain product and whose advice is seriously taken by others explains opinion leadership. An opinion leader or influential is a person, who is frequently able to influence attitudes and behaviour of others (Solomon and Rabolt 2009) Further, it can be explicated by the desire of leaders to distinguish themselves from followers, while followers pursue the countervailing desire to assimilate with leaders (Amaldoss and Jain 2008). Feick and Price (1987, p. 95) state that opinion leaders are more likely in product categories in which association with the product provides a form of self-expression. Fashionable clothing embodies information about the personality and status of its wearer to other people (Dodd et al, 2000).
However, Amaldoss and Jain (2008) argue that in fashion, this occurrence is mostly seen within the purchasing of luxury clothing and accessories. There are several types of opinion leaders that can be observed in fashion. Firstly, some heavy consumers of fashion clothing who become extremely interested and preoccupied with it, so that their interest, knowledge and experience qualifies them to become fashion opinion leaders for others (Goldsmith, 2000). Today, these types of fashion opinion leaders occur mostly online, such as fashion bloggers. Secondly there are people who are in the public spotlight, such as celebrities. Celebrities mostly look adorable and therefore individuals follow their look because they desire to assimilate with this leader (Amaldoss and Jain 2008). But sometimes celebrities are being dressed up by personal outfitters in order to create, perform and accomplish a certain image without actually having the interest or knowledge in the area.
This shows that also the perception that individuals have about a person can make the person an opinion leader. Of course, there are also people whose profession is related to fashion that can be an opinion leader for individuals, such as designers, fashion photographers, models or fashion magazines. A recent study on Mintel shows that fashion content in celebrity, lifestyle or fashion magazines, newspaper supplements and makeover shows has a direct influence on the shopping behaviour of 2 – 3.5 million people. Especially women are most likely influenced by such coverage (Mintel, Fashion Online, 29/10/12). As the fashion magazine example illustrates, an opinion leader does not have to be only one person, it can also be a company or an organisation.
3.1 Fashion opinion seeking
“Opinion seeking is the behavioural counterpart to opinion leadership” (Goldsmith and Clark, 2008, p 309) and is important to the diffusion of new fashion products because it can spread word-of-mouth about the advice gotten from opinion leaders. Unlike opinion leaders, opinion seekers do not have the same knowledge of and interest in a product category than opinion leaders in this segment do (Goldsmith, 2000). Opinion leaders do also absorb risk (Solomon and Rabolt, 2009) for opinion seekers when buying a new product. Therefore, Opinion seekers consider opinion leaders as appropriate sources for information and advice (Bertrandias and Goldsmith, 2006). Nevertheless, opinion seekers are very important to opinion leaders because they act on the information they got from the opinion leader.
The fashion industry is one of the industries that show the most frequent changes in trends and styles. When consumers determine on buying a new product they might ask or even search for information about the desired fashionable product. Because of that they often make use of informal or social sources when seeking information (Goldsmith and Clark 2008) or opinions on decisions from fashion opinion leaders in any form. Consumers can seek for an opinion through various types of social communication, word-of-moth recommendations, observing opinion leaders, researching a subject or buzz (Goldsmith and Clark 2008). In an online perspective, consumers can use social network communities as sources for apparel shopping.
3.1.1 The process within referential groups in fashion: coherence of opinion leaders and opinion seekers
The basis of forming referential groups in virtual communities is the process combining interpersonal connectivity, social enhancement and sharing of information. Dholakia and Bagozzi (2004) state that interpersonal connectivity between members is important to retain social benefits of participating online. In fashion opinion leadership and fashion opinion seeking, the process is based on the social need of each other, shown in figure 3.
Figure 1: The process of fashion influence between fashion opinion leaders and fashion opinion seekers in referential groups, adapted from Goldsmith and Clark, 2008
This process can especially be observed in online communities where opinion leaders post pictures of themselves wearing a new product. Several opinion seekers may like the product and give a positive feedback to the opinion leader or even share it with others, which shows symbolic validation to the opinion leader and creates a loop.
3.1.2 Victoria Beckham as fashion opinion leader for the Birkin Bag
A good example for an opinion leader in fashion is Victoria Beckham. The ex-singer, designer and wife of English football star David Beckham is referred to being an A-list celebrity in the public spotlight. She is not only famous for designing fashion and wearing high-heels, but also for her collection of the Hermes Birkin Bag. The Birkin Bag is a hand-made handbag designed by the luxury fashion brand Hermès and is estimated to start at $6,000 (Branch, 2004). The bag is often seen adorning the arm of celebrities and has become a cult fashion phenomenon (Tonello, 2009) and is an example of a fashion product that gained high popularity. Its brand, Hermés limited its production, to limit its accessibility. Victoria Beckham is presumed of possessing the largest collection of Birkins (Fashionthroughtravel, 26/10/12). The following figure shows an example of her and her Birkin Bag collection.
It can be the fact that Victoria Beckham is popular and has a lot of people referring to her what made the bag so famous and desirable. Followers or referents to her then adopted the product, Birkin Bag. The more leaders adopt a product, the higher value is crated among its followers. “Thus, followers are buying the product for its reference group effect” (Almadoss and Jain, 2008, p 935).
Therefore individuals that look up to their opinion leader may want to follow his choices (Amaldoss and Jain, 2008). As being outlined before, fashion clothing transmits a certain personality and status of its wearer to other people (Dodd et al, 2000) and is also a form of self-expression. Wearing certain trends or accessories like a Birkin Bag show commitment to a certain image of being wealthy, belonging to a higher class or having a sure feeling of trends and fashion.
4. Why and how marketers make use fashion opinion leaders
The innovator theory by Rogers (1962) shows that consumer attitudes towards purchasing products can be classified into five categories. The following figure shows Rogers’s adoption of innovations curve.
Depending on how quick consumers are to purchase they are either:
1. Innovators or Designers (2.5%),
2. Fashion opinion leaders or early adapters (13.5%),
3. Early majority (34%),
4. Late majority (34%),
5. Laggards or late adapters (16%)
Directly after innovators or designers of the product, opinion leaders come second in purchasing or adapting this trend. According to the theory, opinion leaders are the key to product diffusion (Mituse, 05/11/12). Although innovators and opinion leaders combined account for no more than 16% of the overall market, a company can try to target opinion leaders already in early product stages and see if product diffusion will spread to the early and late majorities (Mituse, 05/11/12). Following Rogers’s theory and transferring it to the fashion industry, it can be argued that it is from extreme importance for fashion retailers to get opinion leaders on board in order to establish their designs and products within the market. Thus, the reasons why fashion opinion leaders influence others by sharing information are extremely important for companies (Bertandias and Goldsmith, 2006).
Fashion retailers make use of “key opinion leaders” to influence the purchasing behaviour of consumers through their perceived position of authority. Therefore employing opinion leaders as advertising mascots or models in commercials or adverts, as seen in the figure below, is common in fashion retail.
Figure 4: Fashion opinion leaders advertising for retailer
Furthermore, collaborations with opinion leaders that are famous for their profession are common in fashion retail. This can be underlined by collaborations between mass retailer h&m and designers like Donatella Versace (2012) and Jimmy Choo (2009) or online premium retailer NET-A-PORTER and Karl Lagerfeld, as figure 5 illustrates below.
Figure 5: Collaborations of retailers and designers as fashion opinion leaders
Nevertheless, marketing products or brands effectively today requires tools that reach beyond normal advertising methods: by prior targeting fashion opinion leaders, marketers are able to engage positive word-of-mouth behaviours (Bertrandias and Goldsmith, 2006) about their products. According to Chaney (2001), opinion leaders act as human information processors and are an attractive marketing tool as part of the overall communication strategy. Influences by fashion opinion leaders are not only verbal, but also visual (Bertrandias and Goldsmith, 2006). In fashion, a product has to be desirable to a consumer. If no one is seen with a certain product, most consumers don’t see a reason in buying it. If someone famous is seen with the product, the probability of referential groups buying or wanting the product as well increases. When word-of-mouth networks are generated around opinion leaders, it can pave the way for spreading news or opinions about certain fashion products.
Thus, it is beneficial to address fashion-marketing communications directly to opinion leaders of this segment in order to speed up advertising messages. Therefore, advertisers may address womenswear or accessories fashion campaigns directly to opinion leaders like celebrities or high-fashion magazines. Because of the important role they may have in influencing markets, advertisers may also hand out free fashion product samples to opinion leaders (Yahoo, 29/10/12). Handing out such testimonials, which often embody free designer clothes, handbags or shoes, retailers encourage opinion leaders to wear the brand in order to influence reference groups around the opinion leader visually. Outfitting celebrities that have public appearance for free, mostly sees this occurrence, exemplarily stated in the below figure.
Figure 6: Celebrities on the red carpet, adapted from ELLE
By doing so, the marketer uses the position of the opinion leader to carry and break down its message to influence its relevant target group. Well-established magazines such as Vogue, Elle or Glamour can also be expected to have high influences on fashion decisions of opinion seekers. A fashion magazine even has the ability to cluster a whole group of fashion opinion leaders together: celebrities, photographers, editors, industry experts and fashion journalists. This might be a reason why opinion seekers use those magazines as information source when seeking for an opinion. Thus, advertising in fashion magazines, outfitting celebrities, or using fashion opinion leaders in adverts can influence target groups in their purchasing behaviour.
‘Reference groups in fashion’ are defined as fashion consumers who are heavy fashion users and highly involved in seeking or reflecting opinions about fashion brands and products with others who share the same interests. Further, it is differentiated between fashion opinion leaders and fashion opinion seekers. As being part of a referential group, opinion leaders and opinion seekers are positively related to each other, as the one can’t exist without the other.
Today, fashion opinion leaders are often classified as celebrities, people standing in the public spotlight, magazines, or bloggers, surrounded by networks of reference groups that admire to be like them. Especially in the age of social media it has become more important to marketers to understand the process of providing, sharing and seeking of information between fashion opinion leaders and opinion seekers. Therefore opinion leaders are seen to be an important marketing tool in fashion as they are able to influence reference groups in their product or brand purchasing decisions.
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