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Message for Marketers: Customer Behavior May be Driven by How They Define Their Social Class

Message for Marketers: Customer Behavior May be Driven by How They Define Their "Social Class"

As an avid reader of restaurant and hotel reviews, Jae Hoon Lee, assistant professor of marketing and logistics at FIU Business, noticed that some consumers separated the service quality from the food taste — or the appearance and cleanliness of a hotel room — when writing a review, while others combined all aspects of the experience into their evaluation.

"I wondered whether the difference could be traced to different ways of processing information," said Lee.

What Lee found was an intriguing parallel between the individual's perception of their own social class and the way they evaluated their experience.

His research, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, reveals that individuals who describe themselves as lower-class or working-class are more likely to assume food will be less delicious if the person serving them is inattentive or rude. These people tend to perceive all elements of their situations as interconnected and holistic, he found. By contrast, people who identified themselves as being in higher social levels were less likely to make such assumptions. They tended to be more analytical thinkers who looked at each aspect of the service experience independently.

"I found that it's all about how they see themselves, what class level they put themselves in."

Jae Hoon Lee, Assistant Professor, Marketing and Logistics

Lee conducted four studies using a process-failure scenario, delving into the processes underlying consumer judgments and focusing on how perceived social class comes into play in their responses to different situations. In the first three studies, Lee surveyed 216 consumers recruited from an online panel. The last study was with undergraduate students at Southern Illinois University.

Class, he said, was a matter of personal perception.

"It was pretty hard for me to understand what class they were in unless I asked a specific question regarding their perception of what class they're in," said Lee "I found that it's all about how they see themselves, what class level they put themselves in."

Lee noted that the study delivers proactive insight for marketers who have traditionally focused their messaging on higher-class consumers, thereby neglecting a large portion of consumers. The difference in psychological thinking and judgment patterns has to be top of mind.

"Marketers have to give these consumers the right products and services that are inclusive of their perception," he said. "If one fails, they may think the brand, or the entire service, is bad and avoid the product or the establishment."