The teenage market is huge, and growing all the time. By 2020, nearly 2.5bn people around the world will be under 18, and multinational firms selling music, clothes, and other products increasingly target teens with their campaigns.
Several researchers have looked at the way teens shop, but they have tended to focus on particular countries. In fact, there are big differences from country to country, and from culture to culture. For example, Chinese-Canadian children tend to be more practically minded than their Caucasian-Canadian friends; as a result, they are sometimes overwhelmed when faced by wide choices of brands and stores.
We wanted to look into the way different national cultures affect teenagers’ shopping behaviour. To do this, we decided to compare teens in the US and France, analysing the way different social motivations drive the way they shop. We chose these two countries because of the contrasts in the way people think about their individuality in relation to those around them.
Being alike, being different
All teenagers share the need to belong. Being a teenager is about breaking away from your parents and forming a new bond to your peer group. Teens very often express this through shared tastes, particularly in areas such as fashion. However, they also have a need for differentiation, which might be reflected in the ‘little touches’ that teens bring to a shared dress style.
These two motivations are known as Susceptibility to Peer Influence and Need for Uniqueness respectively, and we expect them both to be positively related to teens’ need for social belonging.
The same need to belong operates at the level of entire countries, but in different ways for different cultures. Because Americans prize individual autonomy, they teach their children to be independent and stand out. But the French are much more interdependent, and encourage respect for authority and a concern for what other people think.
As a result, American teens quickly learn to shop on their own, while in France they often get help from others. So we would expect the relationship between the need for social belonging and Need for Uniqueness to be stronger among American teenagers, while Susceptibility to Peer Influence should be more important for French teens.
Fun and fashion
When teens go shopping, they aim to satisfy two social needs: to find new and fashionable things to buy, and to enjoy shopping itself as a group activity. Since finding new things is a way to emphasize individuality, we expect Need for Uniqueness to be positively related to novelty/fashion consciousness.
However, this effect may be stronger in the US than in France, for two reasons. First, as we’ve seen, the US is a highly individualistic culture. Secondly, American culture has low uncertainty avoidance, meaning people don’t mind exploring risky new directions, while French people are less likely to take a leap into the unknown.
Need for Uniqueness is also positively related to the idea of shopping as a fun thing to do with friends, and a way to assert freedom and individuality. However, independent-minded American teens like to assert their own style within a group, so we would expect that this relationship would be stronger for them.
All fashion-conscious teens look to their friends to find out what’s cool, so Susceptibility to Peer Influence is positively related to novelty/fashion consciousness. But in France, where teens like clothing that reflect their connection to others, we would expect this effect to be more powerful.
Finally, shopping with friends reduces the uncertainty of buying new clothes, helping teens make the ‘right’ choices for their group – so Susceptibility to Peer Influence is related to shopping for fun. But this is particularly important for French teens, who place greater value on the opinions of others.
Analysing the data
To test our theories, we collected the views of 570 14–18-year olds, 297 from France and 273 from the US. A first survey of some of the teens helped to validate our measurement scales, then a full survey gathered the actual data.
Our measures were based on previous researchers’ work in this area. We measured Susceptibility to Peer Influence based on ‘normative influence’ (conforming to other people’s expectations) and ‘informative influence’ (getting information from others). Need for Uniqueness was measured based on ‘creative choice counterconformity’ (the tendency to choose products that are a little different from the norm) and ‘avoidance of similarity’ (deliberately avoiding popular products or brands).
Once the data had been statistically analysed, we found that it confirmed most of our theories. Teens’ shopping behaviour was shown to be affected by their peers across the board. As we expected, Need for Uniqueness affects American teenagers’ search for novelty and fashion and their pursuit of shopping as a fun activity, but does not affect French teenagers so powerfully. When we look at Susceptibility to Peer Influence, we find that French teenagers are strongly influenced by their peers when shopping – but so are American teenagers, to a slightly lesser degree. It seems that all teenagers seek peer approval, not just those in more collectivist cultures like France.
Lessons for marketers
All teenagers share the desire to fit in, but the way they satisfy this desire differs across cultures. In individualistic countries like the US, the need for uniqueness is key, while in more interdependent and uncertainty-avoidant cultures like France, social assimilation is more important.
Learning from this, brands can change the way they market to teens in different countries. Fashion retailers targeting French teens should emphasise the social side of shopping, for example by designing stores with more space for groups to browse and try on clothes. In contrast, marketers hoping to appeal to US teenagers should stress personal benefits and uniqueness, perhaps by offering invitations to special events like fashion shows or pre-collection launches.
While different in some ways, the cultures of France and the US have much in common. In the future, we hope that researchers will look at other countries where cultural contrasts are more pronounced, such as China, Japan, Brazil, or India. It would be fascinating to learn about the way cultural globalisation, driven by mass media, interacts with the traditional values taught by parents in those countries.
"Unique but integrated: The role of individuation and assimilation processes in teen opinion leadership", published in Journal of Business Research.