"A good model can advance fashion by 10 years."--Yves Saint Laurent, 1984
Fashion is an area where interpersonal communications have been found to be highly important in the diffusion of information. Additionally, the frequent introduction of new clothing styles each season makes the fashion market a desirable study for diffusion research focusing upon innovativeness (Baumgarten, 1975).
According to Rogers (1995,) an innovation is any idea, practice or object perceived as new. Fashion is characterized by constant innovations, whether real or perceived that often include small changes from the previous season or year. Because fashions are constantly changing, but the fashion changes are not extreme innovations, they can be classified as dynamically continuous innovations (Rogers, 1995). Understanding the diffusion process for fashion therefore is crucial to marketers in the industry since fashion is so dynamic in nature.
The study of how new (whether real or perceived) fashions gets diffused has been given lots of attention to in the literature (e.g. Baumgarten (1975), Darden (1972), Darley (1993), Fernie (1997), Hirschman (1978), Kaigler (1978), King (1980), Mitchell (2001), Moore (2000), Reynolds (1973), Sproles and Burns (1994), Summers (1970), Tigert (1980) etc.) The results have typically shown that the fashion diffusion process is similar to that of any category, with fashion innovators being the first to try a new style (comprising approximately 2.5% of the population,) followed by early adopters (comprising approximately 12.5% of the population) who pick up some of the new styles from innovators. If fashion opinion leaders are among this category, then the new look has a greater chance of becoming an established fashion, and of increasing the next category, the early majority, (referred to as mass market consumers by Sproles and Burns (1994)) to make this new style into a full-fledged fashion trend. This category of adopters, together with the next category of late fashion followers comprises about 68% of the total adopters. Finally, in the last category are the laggards, or fashion isolates who are fairly uninterested in fashion and who comprise the remaining 16% of the population (Sproles and Burns (1994), Hirschman and Adcock, (1978)).
As alluded to above, the early adopter category has a tremendous impact on the successful adoption of a fashion by the masses. More specifically, the opinion leaders in this category are key members of society that are crucial in disseminating information on the latest fashion trends to the rest of the population. Opinion leadership is defined as "the degree to which an individual is able to influence other individual's attitudes or overt behavior informally in a desired way with relative frequency" (Rogers, 1995). If designers can determine who these opinion leaders are, and target them effectively, then the introduction of a particular fashion has a much higher probability of becoming adopted. We propose that for the fashion industry, specifically for the teen market, celebrities are key opinion leaders in influencing them to adopt a new style. The objective of this paper therefore is to explore the roles of celebrities in the diffusion of fashion amongst teenagers in the United States by examining them as opinion leaders who influence teens to try and ultimately adopt new fashion styles.
What is Fashion?
According to Oscar Wilde, "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every 6 months." Fashion is not merely the objects that designers produce, but rather it is a social process that continually modifies the meanings of styles (Sproles and Burns, 1994). More specifically, "fashion is a way of behaving that is temporarily adopted by a discernable proportion of members of a social group as socially appropriate for certain times and situations" (Sproles and Burns, 1994).
The term fashion can be broken down into several subcategories: fad, classic, high fashion and mass fashion. (Sproles and Burns, 1994). A fad is defined as a fashion that is short lived. It is typically characterized by the quick acceptance of a relatively small group of people and is then followed by a rapid decline. In contrast, a classic is a style that endures for many years in that it continues to be accepted by a large segment of buyers. The term high fashion or "haute couture" refers to styles or designs that are produced by prestigious fashion designers and generally sold in small quantities at high prices to upscale consumers. Finally, mass fashion is fashions that have achieved considerable popularity and are mass-produced and sold in large volume in all price ranges and kinds of stores.
What we are interested in is how we can get consumers to adopt a new fashion so that it can be classified into the "mass fashion" category. Designers may propose and present new ideas, but without a substantial number of consumers adopting their styles, a concept referred to as reaching the minimum threshold (Roger, 1995) the successful diffusion of fashion will not occur.
This is where opinion leaders come in. Opinion leaders are crucial for the social legitimation of new innovations and fashion ideas (Rogers, 1995). If a new look is adopted by fashion opinion leaders, then it has an increased chance of becoming a fashion adopted by the rest of the population, and the teen market is no exception.
Teenagers as Target Market
Tremendous buying power makes teenagers a significant segment of the consumer market, and marketing experts almost unanimously agree that teens are an impressionable group that has money to burn, in that they typically have no rent, no heavy bills and no one else to buy things for except themselves (Retail Merchandiser, 2003). Other research has shown that brand loyalty is formed early among teenage shoppers and that teens act as trendsetters (Darley , 1993).
Irma Zandl, president of the Zandl Group, a research-marketing group, says teens respond to products that are innovative, trendy and that offer a clear-cut benefit or image. Additionally, teens like "newness" and therefore like to try new products, brands and fashions (Mogelonsky, 1998). In a letter to his son, Lord Chesterfield (1750) eloquently stated that ""If you are not in fashion, you are nobody." This is particularly true for teenagers who feel an extra pressure to be dressed well so as to be accepted by their peers. The key question then is who this segment turns to for fashion advice, expertise and information. The answer that we offer is celebrities. We propose that celebrities are influential opinion leaders for this segment, and that through them, marketers of fashion can reach the teen market and target them effectively.
THE IMPORTANCE OF OPINION LEADERS
In fashion, industry is a more powerful change agent than the consumer (Mitchell, 2001). However, though fashion is determined before it reaches the consumers' level, industry cannot dictate what fashion innovations will be accepted. Rather, it is the consumers, specifically opinion leaders, who are instrumental in the process of fashion acceptance (Sproles and Burns, 1994).
A basic assumption in diffusion theory is that some individuals, referred to as opinion leaders, are influential in persuading others to adopt products within a given social structure. The diffusion of information and how it influences lies at the heart of opinion leadership. Many attempts have been made to identify the characteristics of opinion leaders, and the findings will be presented in the next few paragraphs.
According to Cosmas (1980), opinion leaders are individuals who are knowledgeable about various topics and whose advice is taken seriously by others. They also tend to be very socially active and highly interconnected within the community (Darley and Johnson, 1993). Moreover, effective opinion leaders tend to be slightly higher than the people they influence in terms of status and educational attainment, but not so high as to be in a different social class (Rogers, 1995). This way, the leaders are still a part of their audience's reference group.
Opinion leadership is not a trait, but rather a role taken by some individuals under certain circumstances (Mitchell, 2001) and therefore everyday opinion leaders are difficult to locate. Two different techniques are typically used to identify common opinion leaders: the self-designation method and sociometry (Summers, 1970).
The self-designation method is the most commonly used technique in opinion leader identification. This method entails asking consumers whether they consider themselves to be opinion leaders. The problems with this method are obvious and therefore the results are not necessarily accurate. For example, in their study of male fashion opinion leaders, Darden (1972) found that some people who are truly influential may downplay their influence or may deny they even have this quality, while others overrate themselves. The second method, sociometry, involves tracing the communication patterns among group members. Those who tend to be sources of information can be identified by interviewing people and asking them who they seek out when they need information. In addition, sociometric methods can be used to track referral paths. This method is the more precise method but is also more difficult to conduct.
Opinion leaders are also seen as having special kinds of power: expert, knowledge, social and referent. (Rogers 1995) First, these leaders are perceived to possess "expert power" because they are technically competent and are convincing. Second, product opinion leaders have knowledge power because they generally have prescreened, evaluated, and synthesized product information in an unbiased way. They are attributed social power due to their standing in the community. Finally, they have referent power since they usually tend to be homophilous, or similar in terms of education, social status, and beliefs with their opinion-seeking counterparts (Rogers, 1995)
The reason opinion leaders are so important for a marketer is because they can directly affect the diffusion of innovation by spurring new product interest as well as trial. Therefore, if a company wants to spread the word about a new product, they need to do whatever it takes to get the product in the hands of opinion leaders who bring legitimacy to the product by having perceived special knowledge about it. As mentioned above, it is often difficult to determine who the opinion leaders are for a particular segment, and even more difficult to figure out how to target them effectively. However, for the fashion industry, we believe that we can diminish this problem by naming celebrities as opinion leaders, in that that through them interpersonal communication about the latest fashions are facilitated.
Celebrities as fashion opinion leaders
Fashion opinion leaders represent a significant target market with high sales potential for the fashion marketer and furthermore, beyond their individual purchase capacity, they represent important change agents in disseminating fashion information to others during the fashion season. The goal of the marketer in reaching these opinion leaders is to stimulate positive word of mouth communication via them to the masses. In other words, the communication message should be tailored so that it's communicable in interpersonal channels, and can therefore lead to the diffusion of the particular fashion.
Previous research has shown that fashion opinion leaders compared to opinion followers tend to be more involved with the product class, tend to be more innovative in their purchases and are more knowledgeable about as well as more interested in fashion (Darley and Johnson, 1993). Additionally, they are involved in interpersonal communications about dress, involved in social activities and have high fashion interest (Darden 1972, Summers 1970). Baumgarten (1975) says that the general profile of opinion leaders are those who are cosmopolite, well integrated into peer social groups, socially active, younger and more gregarious. He adds that with fashion opinion leadership, research results have been consistent with those of the general profile. Finally, it has also has been shown in general that people who are innovative tend to have higher opinion leadership in the product category. (Darley and Johnson, 1993).
Based on the above statements, it seems reasonable to suggest that celebrities would fall under the category of fashion opinion leaders as they tend to be more innovative, are trendsetters, interested and knowledgeable about fashion and viewed as experts in this category. One might call them innovative communicators (Hirschman, 1978) in that an innovative communicator is characterized by early adoption which has some degree of innovativeness and by opinion leadership which has a measure of communicativeness (Hirschman, 1978) and celebrities tend to rank high on both innovativeness and opinion leadership.
The one aspect of opinion leadership mentioned in the previous section that celebrities do not fulfill is that of being peers to the general population, or more specifically of teens. Nevertheless, they may still serve as reference groups and thus as opinion leaders to this segment. This can be explained in part because reference groups have shifted to upper-income groups (Schor 2000), such as celebrities, and further, those who we wish to emulate are people higher up on the social ladder, with celebrities again serving as an illustration of this idea. Specifically, it is believed that preferences are determined socially in relation to the positions of individuals in the social hierarchy and individuals emulate the consumption patterns of other individuals situated at higher points in the hierarchy (Trigg 2001).
This is particularly true with products that are easily observable by others, or what Thorstein Veblen (1899) termed the "conspicuous consumption" of goods. Veblen's comment that "probably at no other point is the sense of shabbiness so keenly felt as it is if we fall short of the standard set by social usage in this matter of dress" (Veblen 1899, 103) is as apt today as it was then. Fashion and dress continue to be one of the main forms of conspicuous consumption, and therefore celebrities have tremendous potential power in helping to diffuse a particular fashion and getting others, namely teens to adopt it.
What Do Teens Think?
In the previous sections of the paper, we discussed what we meant by fashion, why teens are an important segment to target, the important role of opinion leaders in the diffusion process, and why we believe that celebrities may serve as the ultimate opinion leaders for the teen fashion industry. We wanted gain more insight into our proposed phenomenon of celebrities as fashion opinion leaders for this segment and therefore conducted a personal survey with 50 teenage students (30 female, 20 male), age 14-17, who lived in the NY area to get their opinions and thoughts on this matter. The survey consisted mostly of open ended questions asking them their thoughts on fashion, which celebrities they liked and other related questions. We then did a content analysis on the data and found that various themes emerged from the qualitative data with regards to teenagers feelings about celebrities as opinion leaders in the fashion market.
We present our findings in the following section, which is organized according to the major characteristics that fashion opinion leaders have been found to possess, namely high involvement with the product class, more innovative in their purchases, high fashion knowledge and interest, involvement in social activities, involvement in interpersonal communications, integrated into peer social groups and on a whole, younger in age.
Involvement with the product class (i.e. fashion)
There was unanimous support for celebrities fulfilling this criterion of opinion leadership. This is important because in order to have credibility in a particular product class, it is important that the leader be personally involved with it. Everyone agreed that celebrities as a whole were more involved with fashion than the typical consumer. Partly because "how they look and dress is very important to their image, so they have to be involved" a 16 year old female offered. They also "never know when they're gonna be photographed, so they have to make sure to look good" she continued. Additionally, according to a 15 year old female, "celebrities always know the latest fashions and often attend the latest fashion shows to keep up with the latest styles, so they are more involved with fashion."
Innovative in their purchases
Again, no one contested that celebrities tend be more innovative in their fashion purchases than the average consumer. First of all, "they have so much money that they can afford to buy the latest fashions," an eloquent 15 year old male stated. Additionally, "celebrities are always on the brink of the latest styles. If a new fashion is in, you can be sure that celebrities will be strutting it around" a 14 year old chimed in. There was general agreement that celebrities tended to be on "the cutting edge" with their purchases. A 16 year old female offered that "celebrities want to stand out from each other and from the rest of us ... and because they're celebrities, they don't have to worry that others will think they're crazy for trying something new." A different 16 year old female added that "They like to start trends and by being innovative they can do this."
Fashion knowledge and fashion interest
Similar to the responses above, there was general agreement amongst the students that celebrities are highly knowledgeable about and interested in the latest fashion trends and styles. However the students differed on what the celebrities did with this knowledge. For example, one 14 year old female stated that, "take Christina Agulera for example. I'm sure she is aware of what's in and what's out, so why does she dress like a total skank?" Similar comments were made about Brittany Spears. Yet despite these comments, it was generally agreed that celebrities had more knowledge available to them via "their stylists, designers and other celebrity friends," as a female 15 year old put it. Finally, it was felt that because celebrities tend to be in the spotlight, "it is like a job requirement for them to be knowledgeable about the latest fashion trends because they do not want to commit fashion faux pas."
Involved in social activities
The reason that this is an important aspect of opinion leadership, specifically for the fashion industry, is because the key to the successful diffusion of a particular fashion is that it be seen. In other words, the opinion leaders must make their dress socially visible so that others are aware that this new fashion is "in." Typically, this would be done at local parties or functions, however for celebrities this is clearly not the case, as they do not typically mingle with the average teenager. However, because of their many public appearances, hence their exposure to teens, this does not seem to be a problem. The primary mediums the students mentioned that they typically use to view what celebrities were wearing were award shows, "I love watching the Oscars and Golden Globes to see what all the celebs are wearing" TV interviews "TRL, Access Hollywood and E! are my favorites" and various other celebrity functions that are typically televised or photographed such as weddings, movie premieres and concerts.
An interesting finding that the teens pointed out was that seeing an advertisement featuring a celebrity in a new fashion or style did not have the same effect on them as seeing a celebrity in a non-paid form of media. For example, a 16 year old male stated, "If they're getting paid for it, how do I know that they really like what they're wearing?" A 15 year old female similarly said that "I'll never call my friends after seeing an ad on TV or in a magazine and say 'did you see what they're wearing in that?' Because it's not real ... But, if it's an unposed for picture, I'm more likely to consider it a fashion I would try too."
Involvement in interpersonal communications
Typically, the opinion leader learns about an innovation through mass advertising and then passes along the message via word of mouth to his/her friends. The goal of this type of communication is to get people talking and thinking about the innovation. While celebrities may be involved in interpersonal communications with each other, they are clearly not directly involved in communications with the general teenage segment. Nonetheless, celebrities fulfil this criteria by being visible and getting people to see them, and more importantly, getting them to talk about what they are wearing. One might argue that this is an even more effective measure of interpersonal communication because "seeing is believing." Apparently, the teens felt the same way. For example, an enthusiastic 16 year old female stated "After watching an award show, I'll spend the next few weeks talking with my friends about what all the celebrities were wearing, and then we'll go shopping and try to find similar things for ourselves." Other students responded with similar statements.
Integrated into peer social groups
It was not our intention to argue that celebrities were peers of teenagers per se but rather that teenagers wanted to be like celebrities and dress like them despite the difference on the social ladder. We were particularly interested in which celebrities teens most closely identified with. The results were particularly interesting for this question in that there was general support for our first argument, but with very specific opinions on which celebrities the teens wanted to emulate and which they didn't.
The overwhelming majority of them named various celebrity singers as stars that they most closely identified with and looked to for fashion advice and styles. For the females, names like Jennifer Lopez (J Lo), Madonna, Ashanti, Lil Kim, Alicia Keys, Eve, Avril Levine, Jessica Simpson, and Mandy Moore ranked high. For the males, Snoop Dog, P. Diddy, Fabulous, Lincoln Park, Metallica, Eminem, Puffy, Nelly and Jay Z were commonly cited.
When asked specifically about what made them want to dress like these celebrities, various answers were offered. One 15 year old female stated that "They have their own unique fashion. They don't look to others for trends but set their own." Another 15 year old female said "They're fashionable and cool and wear things I like to wear." A 16 year old female similarly believed that "They're just very cool and dress really well." A 14 year old female liked that "Ashanti can look very classy and gangsta at the same time.... Lil Kim is very outgoing and doesn't care what anyone says." The most common adjectives cited amongst the females were "cool, real, stylish and trendy."
The males had somewhat similar responses. A 15 year old male particularly liked P Diddy because "he's cool, dresses well and is popular." Another said "I like their style and their clothing." Overall, the males particularly liked the "baggy jeans, spikes, grungy clothes, rebel" look that these celebrity singers seem to have going.
Tend to be younger
Interestingly, the ages of the celebrities that seemed to serve as reference groups for the teens ranged from late teens (e.g. Mandy Moore) to early 40's (e.g. Madonna), with the overwhelming majority of them being in their early 20's and 30's. In addition to the singers mentioned above, some of the other celebrities looked to for their fashion taste and advice were Sarah Michelle Gellar, Melissa Joan Hart, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Anniston, all women who are significantly older than the teens sampled. Even more interesting was that none of them cited younger teenagers closer to their own age as fashion experts. When this was pointed out to them, with the Olsen twins used as an example, the typical response was "while they (Olsen twins) are cute, they're too teeny boppery, we're way passed that stage ... my little sister likes them, not me!" as a 15 year old female put it.
There also appeared to be a division amongst the female students with regards to whose style they most wanted to emulate: those of the actresses mentioned here versus the singers mentioned previously, with the overwhelming majority belonging to the latter group. For the group who favoured the actresses, reasons such as "they dress more classy and fine" were given, whereas with the singers adjectives such as "casual, stylish and cool" were more commonly cited.
IMPLICATIONS AND LIMITATIONS
Our research has several implications for fashion designers in the diffusion of their continuously dynamic innovations. First, rather than spend enormous amounts of time and money on figuring out who the local opinion leaders are for a particular segment and determining how to best reach them, which as mentioned previously is a complicated expensive process, designers can spend more time on influencing celebrities, (as based on our research there seemed to be overwhelming support that teenagers view celebrities as fashion opinion leaders,) to wear the new styles in pubic places such as award shows, interviews, on their daily excursions and other places typically seen by teens. This will have the same desired effect of word of mouth communications facilitated by traditional opinion leaders, because as demonstrated above, people that see them dressed in a particular fashion are likely to talk about it with their friends. And even more importantly, they are likely to try a new style if they see a celebrity wearing it.
Second, it appears that not all celebrities serve as opinion leaders for the teen market. For example, much younger celebrities (e.g. the Olsen twins) were not mentioned and neither were models. However, there was a lot of interest in celebrity singers, who were considered to be cool, stylish and real. It therefore appears that if designers can get these aforementioned celebrities to wear the new styles, this will likely result in a successful diffusion of it for the teen segment. And depending on the style, (i.e. funky vs. classy) different types of celebrities (i.e. singers vs. actresses) could be used to be most effective.
Finally, one of the more interesting findings that our research yielded was that the effect of seeing a celebrity wearing a particular style in a commercial or some other paid form of advertisement was much less effective for teens than seeing them on an award show or pictured casually in a magazine, which they felt displayed a more real and legitimate image. Apparently, credibility was a big issue for the teens and they felt that being paid to wear something was not reflective of personal tastes or likes by the celebrities and therefore would not be influential in getting them to adopt a new fashion.
As far as limitations, clearly this research is more exploratory in nature than conclusive and therefore lacks external validity. We also only focused on the teen market and therefore cannot generalize the results to the rest of the population. Further, the teens we selected were all from New York, and may have been more interested in fashion than teens around the country, due to the fact that New York is one of the major fashion houses in the world. Yet, despite these limitations, we believe that our findings provide a good foundation for future research looking at the roles of celebrities as opinion leaders for teens as well as other segments. More interviews can be conducted to gain further insights, and then ideas can be tested more formally via surveys and questionnaires.
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Suri Weisfeld-Spolter, Nova Southeastern University
Maneesh Thakkar, Radford University…