Peer Influence in Marketing

Published by Colin Finkle on

We know that branding is a powerful phenomenon because no business would choose not to have a brand. Ever wondered why? I do, a lot. There are a few things about human nature that make branding work: our propensity to spot patterns, the reputations brain maintains of people, places and things, the natural ease with which our brain’s makes associations, and peer influence. I have never studied peer influence, so I thought I better brush up. What I found was fascinating.

Peer influence is how the behavior of the people around us impacts our own behavior. Though the influence of peers on our behavior peaks at age fourteen, people around us continue to impact our behavior our entire lives. When it comes to marketing, purchasing is the behaviour that marketers try to influence, as well as the actual use of the product. Therefore peer influence in marketing is how the behavior of others influences our likelihood to buy and use a product.

WARNING The knowledge in this article could theoretically be used to make people do things against their will. There are aspects of peer influence that are subconscious and could make people automatically do behaviors without a conscious choice. Using the knowledge to mindlessly do something is unethical; you should enable choice instead of usurping it.



A+ or F? How does your logo design score?
Logo Scorecard
Available now when you sign up for
BMB articles via email.
Let's Go! >



A group of peers on a double date.

Peer influence is what often compels us to copy, comply, and try to impress the people around us, in turn affecting what brands we buy, wear, or use.

Simply put, peer influence is when the behavior(s) of others in our environment affects our own behavior. Peer influence can be approached from a variety of broad angles, such as when a peer asks us to do something, when we change our own behavior to match the behavior of a peer that is being rewarded (or the opposite), or we can also change our behavior to impress or distance our peers.

Some of this behavior change is conscious, like making an active choice to agree to a friend’s request or to buy a product on someone’s recommendation, but most of it is subconscious; our brains are working in the background leading us to act in ways that will preserve or improve our social status with our peers. It is a survival mechanism for social animals like us.

Everyone (and I mean everyone) lets other people influence their behavior. Even the most rebellious of us wear clothes and walk on sidewalks. We all have brains that are constantly reminding us that “life just works better if we go along with the behaviours of a social group” because it is those social groups that helped our ancestors survive.

There are a few classifications of peer influence:

Conformity

Conformity is how we adjust our behavior or thinking to match the practices or rules of a group that we belong to. An example of conformity is when we dress, do our makeup, and/or style our hair in a way that is similar to the way others in our peer group are. When we conform, we may also fail to consider other viewpoints leading to the so-called “group think.”

We can see this conformity in professional software; one brand often dominates the market share of a category. There is a functional reason for this: everyone using the same software allows us to share files and collaborate more efficiently. But we do not consider going outside the norms of our profession. Putting ourselves out there could be perceived as incompetence.

In a pole done by digital-photography-school.com, 65% of people used one of the three variations of Adobe Photoshop: Lightroom, Photoshop, or Photoshop Elements. The dominance of Adobe is especially surprising considering that most of the alternatives to Photoshop are free!

Social Norms

American Eagle hit by a change in social norms. "Not Cool Bro"
American Eagle’s revenue was hurt by a sudden change in social norms among teens around pronounced clothing labels.

Social norms are at play when we let behavior accepted as normal by our culture influence our behavior. We drive on the right side of the road, have haircuts according to our gender, and carry a smartphone without even thinking about our actions because these are accepted, normal behaviors in our culture.

A few years ago, it became a social norm for teenagers to avoid apparel with large brand names on it. It was seen as distasteful, with this trend particularly hurting American Eagle. A rapid change in social norms hurt a brand.

But changes in social norms be the rocket ship brands use to achieve success. Apple lead when our social norms around phones changed from cell phones to smart phones. We explore this in our Ten Ways The iPhone Changed Culture article.

Peer Pressure

Peer pressure happens when those participating in a common behavior do not accept the different behaviour of someone outside the group and actively tries to get “the outsider” to behave in ways that the main group does. We often hear about the many bullying examples of peer pressure, but even group members urging their friend to buy an iPhone so they can use iMessage is a form of peer pressure.

Currently, there is general, societal peer pressure to buy and use products eco-friendly brands, or at the very least to not buy things that do damage in their production and use. Can you name any fur brands? Probably not. But if you were from the 1920s, I bet you could. The lack of fur brands now is because there are negative consequences in the form of nasty comments and looks of disgust by a persons’ peer and community group, for example, if someone were to choose to wear fur in this day and age. Essentially, they are pressured by their peers not to wear products containing real fur.

Peer Endorsement

Girl wearing Adidas to show off on Instagram.
Someone wears Adidas in an Instagram photo and it gets more likes, then they are more likely to buy and wear Adidas in the future.

We all tend to do something more when our peers mention that they like it. This is peer endorsement: a behavior is more likely to happen when our peers praise it.

Our brains get a rewarding hit of dopamine when one of our peers applaud our action(s). Now technology has taken peer endorsements to another level with likes, follows, shares, retweets, and a variety other endorsements in social media.

Online peer endorsement can lead to some seriously strange behavior; “do it for the ‘gram” is a phase in our culture. Here in Toronto, there was a woman who climbed up a crane and needed to be rescued by the police and fireman. Why? She said she was seeking Instagram fame.

If someone is sharing on social media about a brand they like and use, and that post gets plenty of praise, they are more likely to continue to purchase and use that brand in the future. If I am wearing my Adidas sweater with the black stripes and it gets a bunch of likes, and someone comments about how good it looks, then I am more likely to wear Adidas in photos and purchase Adidas in the future.

Automatic Mimicry

Automatic mimicry is an unconscious process to match our behavior to be more like the people we are interacting with. When we automatically nod our heads when others are nodding, or smile when someone else does, automatic mimicry is at play.

I am not going to get into any sort of detail with regards to automatic mimicry because it really doesn’t affect products and thus marketing. But just know it exists, it influences a lot of out behavior, and you can read more here on PubMed .

The strength of peer influence depends on…

The likelihood that we change our behavior(s) to match that of others depends on the social status of the other person or group that we are trying to be like.

People listen to authority figures.

An actor being wired into the Stanley Milgram experiment
Stanley Milgram experiment’s demonstrated human nature to listen to authority figures… to an extreme degree.

We often let authority figures influence our behavior to an extreme degree. Someone values and respects an organization that gives the person they look up to their authority, allowing this influence their future behavior even more.

An example of how extreme our behavioural compliance is with those in positions of authority is hilghlighted by a now-classic psychological experiment from the early 1960s. Stanley Milgram, ran an experiment where an authority figure asked a participant to increase the voltage on a shock device.

One-third of Milgrim’s participants would comply until the voltage until the person was visibly in pain. The other two-thirds would comply until the shock was at its maximum voltage! Thankfully, no one was hurt because everyone involved were actors (except for the participant, of course).

Elon Musk demonstrating the Boring Company flamethrower

We see this authority effect modify purchasing behavior. If a professor tells us we need a specific textbook, we buy that textbook. If Elon Musk tells us to buy an overpriced, novelty flamethrower, then it sells out in minutes.

Our close peers are powerful.

Feedback from someone in our peer group often affects our behavior more than the same feedback received from someone outside of it. We will often adjust our behavior to match what is accepted by our chosen peer group to stay in good standing with them. Respect for our peers and a belief that they have our best interests at heart will also impact how we behave.

When a friend, colleague, or fellow community member endorses a product, it affects our opinion on the brand and our perception of the product more than a stranger, or even a celebrity

The most used metric used to measure brand depth is Net Promoter Score (NPS). To measure NPS, you ask your customers to rate on a scale from one to ten: How likely is it that you would recommend our company / product / service to a friend or colleague?

The wording of that question promotes honesty because of the very aspects of peer influence we have bee discussion: we would only recommend companies / products / services that benefits our peer group while not risking our own standing. We may risk giving a recommendation to a poor product to a stranger, but we wouldn’t to a friend because we want to maintain their friendship.

We desire to get “in” with a peer group.

Young man playing a guitar and a group of teens in the backgrounds.
We act and present ourselves differently when we want to join a desirable peer group.

We engage in new, or different, behaviors to move closer to social groups we want to be a part of, i.e. “the cool kids.” It is stereotypically a teenage thing because the effect is most significant in our teens (as we explain later), but we change our behavior(s) to get closer to companies we want to work for, people practicing a lifestyle we want to participate in, and communities we want to join.

We can and do adjust the brands we choose based on how “in” they are with a social group we are a part of or aspire to be a part of. For example, if we join a hot yoga gym and want to participate and win friends, we might go and buy the clothes we see them wearing.

Learn more about the power of lifestyle brands.

Lifestyle brand Series by BMB

The desire to be part of a social group is one of the reason why lifestyle brands are so powerful; the marketing used shows what behavior(s) are required of a person to imitate to achieve the desired acceptance in the group. Lifestyle brands convey this message through models, copy, and advertising .

Most people believe that there are attractive people in advertising because “sex sells.” Well, sex doesn’t sell. What sells is that an attractive people are generally part of groups that we want to be a part of. We subconsciously think “I want to be a part of a group that would have him or her as a member.”

Woman teaching a rooftop yoga class.

Someone modeling a divergent behaviour decreases peer pressure, social norms and conformity.

Peer influence goes unchallenged when there is no one engages in a behavior outside of the accepted norm. A “divergent” behavior is either punished or rewarded, but it’s presence makes peer influence less effective overall.

When we see one or more people acting in a way that defies the accepted behaviours of the broader group, we may be less likely to go along with the group behavior. As a result of those divergent behaviours being either permitted or rewarded, others become more likely to imitate these behaviors in the future to join up with the new divergent group.

Social norms are why it is so hard for alternative brands to break into markets that have overwhelming acceptance in a particular culture or society. No one has modeled the rewards of the alternative. As soon as someone visibly wears an alternative brand and gains positive social rewards for doing so, others are more likely to start associating with that brand as well to receive the same positive rewards.

Peer Influence peaks in adolescence.

The impact of the behaviour of others on our own behavior typically peaks at age fourteen and remains exceptionally powerful until the age of eighteen. After the age of eighteen, the influence of peer behaviours on our gradually decreases, though never disappears.

But, back to the teens. It is hardwired into adolescent brains to be specially attuned to how and when their friends are observing them. The adolescent brain is wired, through the ventral striatum, to not only be more sensitive to noticing when they are being observed, but to also pay more attention to the rewards of behavior rather than to the risks.

When it comes to brands, there is a significant convergence of adolescent neurology and behavior science where adolescents are hardwired to be both hyper aware of peer attention, and hyper aware of the social rewards for the purchase and use of products that match those used in their peer group.

This convergence of neurology and behavioral science is how you end up seeing a local dominance of certain brands of clothing, social media, and technology., for example, the market share of the iPhone among teens is substantially higher than the rest of the population (70% for teens and 43% for everyone else.) 

Are the people of Gen Z and Millennial generations more likely to bow to peer influence?

Peer influence has the most significant effect on us when we are in our adolescents (peaking at 14), and has less of an impact as time goes on. Therefore, it is impossible to say whether either Gen Z or Millenials are uniquely more influenced by their friends due to the culture and technology they grew up with.

Group of friends taking a selfie in front of a castle parapet
Older generations are quick to think Gen Z and Millennial people are more influenced by their peers, but that is not yet clear.

While the people Gen Z are very influenced by their peers, and Millennials are not far behind. But, that is what we would expect given the median age of Gen Z is 12, and the median age of Millenials is 31. The effect of peer influence may change as the people of these generations grow out of the stage of life where they take the opinions of their peers into high consideration.

Gen X and Boomers may not have grown up with the internet connecting them to peers at all times, but they had their own ways social influence worked. Whether or not Gen Z and / or Millenials are more affect by peer influence than past and future generations is an open question.

The young people of today may grow us to be grumpy old people shouting “get off my lawn” from the rocking chair on their porch! We just don’t know.

The Business of Peer Influence

Every organization, for-profit, non-profit, and government, is in the business of behavior change. They want certain people to do certain things at certain times; this is all peer influence.

But, the behavior we as brand builders are interested in the choosing, purchasing, use, and abandonment behavior of consumers in relation to certain brands.

Who should you pay for endorsements: Influencers or Celebrities?

Paid endorsements are business as usual for industries like makeup, fragrance, and activewear. But do they work?

The answer is yes. Celebrity endorsements drive brand awareness, while smaller scale influencers drive purchasing behavior.

Do you want to make ten million people aware of your charity? Get George Clooney on the phone. Want to sell a thousand pairs of leggings? Reach out to Hope Scope

The effect of peer influence differs between celebrities and middle influencers. The people with tens of thousands of followers, or middle influences, are more accessible and are more relatable to the peer group people aspire to be a part of. Celebrities, on the other hand, belong to an exclusive, inaccessible group.

Aaron Marino aka AlphaM
Aaron Marino, aka Alpha M, is a influencer well known for his YouTube channel.

Men wanting to be stylish are more likely to listen to Aaron Marino than Brad Pitt because Aaron is seems somehow closer to the average person, whereas the celebrity Brad Pitt is on an pedestal.

“The sweet spot for reach and engagement from our study is typically between 35k and 65k in followers.”

Collective Bias, a group that studies the power of endorsements.

That sweet spot is where the “middle influencers”, like AlphaM are, they are the ones that drive purchase decisions.

“A new study by Collective Bias has found that 30 percent of consumers are more likely to consider purchasing a product in-store when it is endorsed by a non-celebrity blogger, compared to just 2.8 percent of consumers who are more likely to buy a product in-store due to a celebrity endorsement.”

Collective Bias

Conclusion: Struggling to get “in”? Think smaller groups.

Brand builders often feel like they hit a brick wall when they put their offering out there. They try to explain the benefits they know people could have if they purchased it over the current more inferior product, leaving us to wonder why inferior products have such high status with certain groups?

Read about how Athleta served active women when no one else would.

Athleta Brand Profile by BMB

Well, the answer is often peer influence. By embracing the state of the market and by applying an understanding of peer influence, consumer behavior, and peer pressure, you can develop a successful go-to marketing strategies for your brand.

For example, if I were trying to build a clothing brand to teens, I would work on dominating local markets one by one. It is going to be more potent if one in ten people in a high school in Indiana is wearing my product rather then one in a thousand nationally. A significant portion of peers modeling a brand is going to have a powerful, viral effect. People will take notice.

Now it is time to take action to build your brand.

Are there peer influence factors at play in your market?

Go through the list of peer influence effects and rate them on how likely this is to be at play, and investigate further by talking to your customers.

Then you can develop strategies based on peer endorsement and influence, middle influencer authority, what your target group find rewarding, and/or how to model divergent behavior to have smarter, more successful, marketing strategies.


Colin Finkle

Colin Finkle is a brand marketer and designer with ten years of experience helping Fortune 500 companies tell their story at retail. You can see his work at finkle.ca

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.