What is 'Normal' Anyway?

“The new normal” is the latest catch phrase adorning media headlines in the wake of the global pandemic, but what exactly is normal – and who gets to decide what is normal and what is not?

Individuals as well as consumers seldom make their decisions in complete isolation and are often influenced by their social environment. Individuals tend to take the expectations and behaviour of others into consideration when deciding what is appropriate and what is not, hence social norms profoundly influence personal preferences and consumer behaviour.

Social norms and the pressure experienced by individuals to conform to norms is a variable that influences our day to day decisions and behaviour. A norm is something that is considered normal, an unwritten rule or guideline, such as a stern shaking of hands when introducing yourself to someone or leaving a tip for the waiter at a restaurant. Social norms are also shaped by the cultural environment and in turn make up the cultural environment.

Who Gets to Say What is Normal and What is Not?

A norm exists when the sanctions imposed on violators of a certain behaviour create an expected cost for non-compliance that exceeds the expected cost of compliance. It is also true that people seek the good opinion or respect of others which may lead to them following a certain behaviour which may in turn create a norm.

Social norms differ from group to group, and each group defines a norm. In some countries for instance, looking someone in the eyes when speaking to them may be the norm, whereas in other countries it may be seen as being impolite, rude or even aggressive. If you are a part of a group, or would like to belong to a specific group, you would most likely base your actions and decisions or begin to modify them, based on that group’s established norms. The type of decisions influenced by social norms vary from the less serious decisions such as which fashion trends to follow, or whether you should order your skinny latte with cow’s milk or almond milk, to more serious decisions such as values, moral and ethical beliefs .

Descriptive Norms vs Injunctive Norms

Social norms consist of two parts that affect human motivation, namely descriptive norms and injunctive norms. After watching Swan Lake at the theatre for instance, you are more likely to stand up and clap your hands after the show if that is what everyone else is doing (even if deep down, you actually wanted to leave during the intermission). This is an example of the descriptive norm. The descriptive norm refers to what people actually do and involves the perception of which behaviours are typically performed by individuals. Descriptive norms are generally based on the observations one makes of the individuals who surround you. The descriptive norm is usually in the present because it states the what ‘is.’ One famous social experiment is the conformity waiting room experiment which demonstrates just how quickly a descriptive norm can lead one to behave irrationally.

On the other hand, when you enter a library and bump into someone you know there, you will most likely whisper when greeting them, because that is what you have been conditioned to believe is the acceptable social behaviour in a library (as opposed to offering a loud greeting involving a high-five). The injunctive norm involves the perceptions of which behaviours are generally approved or disapproved by a given group. This type of norm refers to how things ‘ought’ to be. Both types of social norms assist individuals in determining whether certain actions are acceptable or unacceptable social behaviours and individuals base their decisions accordingly.

Descriptive and Injunctive Norms as a Marketing Tool

Social norms have the ability to motivate consumers to perform certain types of behaviour. For instance, consumers are more likely to purchase a product if other individuals, whose opinion they value, are already using it. They may furthermore experience a sense of belonging when using the product too. Social norms are therefore likely to guide relevant decisions in purchase behaviour and product choice within groups.

The theory of normative conduct states that normative perceptions tend to provide a shortcut in terms of guiding decisions. For example, if students think most other students only support fair trade coffee, they start to believe that supporting fair trade coffee is the appropriate and approved type of behaviour within this group. If a fair trade coffee supplier in Cape Town wants to promote fair trade coffee among students, they could market their offering in ways that leverage this existing norm such as saying ‘Cape Town students drink fair trade coffee’ (descriptive norm) or ‘students in Cape Town should support fair trade coffee’ (injunctive norm).

Descriptive norms seem to obtain their power from social proof and the desire individuals have to conform to others. ING Bank in the Netherlands, attempted to motivate their client base to increase their savings by telling them that most of their neighbourhood has higher savings than they do. Clients that received this information visited the ING savings webpage more often than clients who did not receive this information. By knowing that they are not saving as much as their neighbours, they are aware of the fact that they are not the same as others in their social norm group and therefore they sought to modify their behaviour given their desire to conform to others (Check out the experiment done by ING Bank).

In contrast, injunctive norms refers to what people believe in how others think they ought to be or do. In order to increase certain desired buying behaviour norms, consumers need to believe that this behaviour is expected of them. For example, many cafés such as Vida e Caffé and Costas no longer make use of plastic take-away mugs. Cafés and restaurants are becoming more aware of their responsibility to contribute to a more eco-friendly future. They also believe that their customers should support and contribute to a more eco-friendly lifestyle. A perfect example of an injunctive norm is a café in the US who feels strongly about the fact that we should all support a more eco-friendly way of living.

It is important when using injunctive norms during your campaign that your target audience is convinced that a certain behaviour is expected from them by the relevant others. Another suggestion would be to use individuals throughout the campaign to whom the target group can relate and whose opinion they value highly. Individuals tend to seek approval from their peers as well as similar demographic groups, and tend to avoid social disapproval or even punishment by following injunctive norms.

Influencers and celebrities can also play a powerful part in forming a norm. When a certain target market tends to admire and follow a celebrity or social media influencer, those individuals have the ability to even create a social norm. If you feel like the words ‘vegan’, ‘veganism’, ‘vegan influencers’ and ‘vegan bloggers’ are getting much more airtime lately, it is because they are. There is no doubt that veganism is no longer a trend and is becoming a social norm in certain groups. Celebrities and influencers such as Zac Efron, Ellen De Generes, Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus have played a big role in forming this social norm by sharing their beliefs about veganism, on various social media platforms.

Consumers often face marketing messages using social norms in many situations where different goals are dominant. In previous studies it has been found that campaigns are more successful when using descriptive norms, through a promotion focused campaign rather than a prevention focused campaign. A promotion focused campaign involves the motivation to achieve gains, and focuses on aspirations and ideals (for example an anti-smoking campaign that focuses on promoting the benefits of quitting smoking). A prevention focused campaign involves the motivation to avoid loss or risk, with an emphasis on obligations and responsibility (for example an anti-smoking campaign that focuses on the terrible consequences of smoking). Injunctive norms on the other hand work well in both promotion-focused and prevention- focused campaigns.

Although you might like to believe that you are unique and that your decisions are not influenced by others, studies have shown that this is far from the truth and that you are influenced on a daily basis by social norms. If marketers use this knowledge in an ethical, transparent and fair manner, it can become a very powerful marketing tool to use existing social norms to your advantage (or even provide your customers with the opportunity to develop social norms around your products and services).


Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting normative messages to protect the environment. Current directions in psychological science, 12(4), 105-109. Cialdini, R.B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (Vol. 55, p. 339). New York: Collins.

Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of personality and social psychology, 58(6), 1015.

McAdams, R. H. (1997). The origin, development, and regulation of norms. Michigan law review, 96(2), 338-433. Melnyk, V., van Herpen, E., Fischer, A. R., & van Trijp, H. C. (2013). Regulatory fit effects for injunctive versus descriptive social norms: Evidence from the promotion of sustainable

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