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‘A Man Is Known By The Company He Keeps'


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‘A Man Is Known By The Company He Keeps'

- An explorative study into the role dissociative reference groups can play in the selection of fitness provider

Subject: Master’s Thesis

Date of submission: 15th of January, 2018 University: Copenhagen Business School

Study programme: Can. Merc. Strategic Market Creation (SMC) Author: Christoffer Molin Surland

Supervisor: Laila Asif

Character count (including spaces): 181.508 Thesis Length: 181.508/2.275 = 79 pages



Table of Contents














4. METHOD ...22




Research Method: ...25

Research Strategy:...26


Preliminary Research:...27

Semi-structured Interviews:...28



5. FINDINGS...32














Executive Summary

Fitness has become the preferred way to exercise in Denmark and as a result the industry has flourished the last decade. The Danish fitness industry constitutes an interesting case study because two nationwide fitness chains in the form of Fitness DK and Fitness World currently dominate the market. On the basis of that, this thesis investigates if dissociative reference groups have an effect on the Danish fitness users’ choice of fitness provider. Specifically, through eleven semi-structured interviews, this study tried to gain a qualitative insight into how Fitness DK and Fitness World- members choose their fitness provider. Based on the literature review, four relevant themes were identified in the context of symbolic consumption and social identity theory: self-presentation, brand user imagery, reference groups and approach/avoidance behaviour, which subsequently were explored in the interviews. A semi-structured format was used to ensure that the main topics were covered while the discussion remained as free-flowing as possible, particularly appropriate for explorative research.

The findings of this study showcase that the majority of the Fitness DK-respondents perceive the brand of Fitness World to be associated with a dissociative reference group, which had implications for their selection of fitness provider. Specifically, the Fitness DK-respondents chose their fitness provider with a reference to avoidance behaviour as opposed to approach behaviour because they regarded the user imagery of Fitness World to be associated with a negative stereotype, which they did not want to be identified with. Inversely, the Fitness World-respondents did not perceive the brand of Fitness DK to be associated with a dissociative reference group. In relation to this, it is interesting that it is precisely the majority of the Fitness DK-respondents, who can be considered relatively concerned for self-presentation in this sample, that perceive the brand of Fitness World to be associated with a dissociative reference group whereas the Fitness World-respondents, who can be characterised as less concerned about self-presentation relative to the Fitness DK-respondents, do not perceive the brand of Fitness DK to be associated with a dissociative reference group. In regards to this, the findings of this study to some extent indicate that self-presentation concerns do not only motivate the effect of dissociative reference groups on consumers’ evaluation and brand preferences, but is also the mechanism underlying dissociative influence.

KEY WORDS: Fitness; Dissociative reference groups; Self-presentation; Brand User Imagery;

Brand Avoidance.



“The creation of meaning via consumption involves both positive and negative choices.”

- Professor Margaret Hogg (1998 p.133)



1. Introduction

“I am so tired of being a member of Fitness DK - the standard is not up to what it used to be and the steam shower is constantly out of order, why should I pay a premium price for something that is not premium?” - “Why don’t you just move, if you are unsatisfied” his friend replied. “Move where to?

– the only other alternative close to me is Fitness World”. “Why don’t you just to go there then?”.

The frustrated man looked at his friend and made an amusing facial expression, and they both started laughing - “You know I do not see myself as the Fitness World-type” the man ended.

An individual’s decision to purchase a product or a brand is often an ordinary task (Salmon, 2008).

With a variety of products or brands available, the option to purchase a product often solely depends on the preferences of the individual. However, this decision can become more complex when aspects such as representation, visibility, and the perceptions of others are taken into consideration. Reference groups are developed from these considerations (Ibid).

Specifically, a reference group is a group that individuals compare themselves with and are highly influenced by (Bearden and Etzel, 1982). Marketers have generally accepted the reference group construct as important in regards to consumer making decisions and have as a result used reference groups in their effort to persuade consumers to purchase their product or brand (Escalas and Bettman, 2003; White and Dahl, 2006; Bearden and Etzel, 1982). One way of convincing the consumer to buy the product or the brand is to link it to prominent/attractive groups of people because it can motivate the target segment to consume the brand in order to close the gap between themselves and the reference group (Bearden and Etzel, 1982). Subsequently, the majority of past reference group research has focused on the effect of positive reference groups i.e. those reference groups the individual wishes to be associated with (Berger and Heath, 2007).

However, White & Dahl (2006) found that negative reference groups, more specifically

‘dissociative reference groups’, also have implications for consumer behaviour. In relation to this, White and Dahl (2006) argue that there are many examples of consumers avoiding particular products or brands associated with particular groups of people. For example, there are the baby boomers avoiding buying products that are associated with being elderly or the college student who avoids dressing “geeky” (White and Dahl, 2006). Both examples accentuate the fact that groups in general also can serve as a negative reference point for how consumers think and behave. In relation to this, the Danish fitness industry provides a very interesting case study because it primarily consists of two fitness brands in the form of Fitness DK and Fitness World. These two fitness


6 providers currently dominate the Danish fitness industry by possessing the majority of centres and customers, especially in regards to Copenhagen where the majority of their centres are located. As a consequence, it is usually a matter of becoming a member of one of the two when consumers want to join the fitness trend (Munch, 2015). However, the two fitness providers have their own distinct brand image, which separates them from each other (Kristensen, 2016). Whereas Fitness World positions itself as a fitness chain in the low-end of the market, Fitness DK positions itself as a more exclusive fitness chain relative to Fitness World. Based on this, it seems plausible that reference groups, positive as well as negative, might have an effect on the fitness users choice of fitness providers.

The fitness industry has undergone a tremendous development over the last twenty years. The interest in fitness has exploded, and fitness has become the preferred way to exercise in Denmark (Becker, 2017). As a result, fitness has gone from being a sub cultural phenomenon to become mainstream. Today, fitness offers much more than previous associations of traditional bodybuilder types. It is a growing industry, which in Denmark alone, translates into more than one billion DKK a year (Zøller and Nørr, 2007).

Flexible opening hours, geographic proximity, individual training programs, independence of others, self-cultivation and the ideal of a healthy body are all aspects that appeal to most modern people. Fitness offers all of that, and the fitness providers have purposefully created the idea that a fit body is equivalent to a successful life (Ibid). Furthermore, the documentation of fit and muscular bodies combined with people portraying their healthy lifestyle manifested by ecological products, gluten free bread and acai porridge on Facebook, Istagram and Snapchat have become rooted into the everyday lives of especially many young Danes, and this has made us more self-aware in regards to how we present ourselves in public (Bølling, 2015). As a result, our health has become a status symbol in that if you take good care of your body and look ‘fit’ and healthy, then you signal to your surroundings that you have surplus in your life and that you ultimately are successful as an individual (Maguire and Stanway, 2008). Inversely, an overweight body is perceived as an expression of lack of discipline, which can be linked to poor working ethics (Bølling, 2015).

Subsequently, it means a lot for people to look good in today’s society (Maguire and Stanway, 2008).


7 The largest group of fitness users in Denmark are currently those classified as the ‘relatively young’, who are between 20 and 35 with a small excess of women (Zøller and Nørr, 2007). In regards to this consumer segment, a consumer survey that included 3,914 participants called “Sweat For Million” conducted by the Danish Sport Institute, accentuated two primary motives to why people practice fitness.

Firstly, the findings revealed that, the younger the fitness user, the more influential is the aesthetic motive (Zøller and Nørr, 2007). Specifically, the young fitness users were more motivated to live up to there own and other’s ideals of a beautiful body. Secondly, the findings exposed that the majority of the older fitness users, specific those over 35 of age, were more motivated by the health- related benefits of fitness as opposed to the aesthetic motive (Ibid).

The consumer survey thus helps to illustrate how important it is for people today to look good in society, especially in regards to the younger fitness users. According to experts, the fitness trend is a natural consequence of the individual training needs and need for self-presentation (Zøllner and Nørr, 2007). Fitness emphasises the individual, and in the fitness centres it is not only allowed, but also more commonly the norm that people worry about how they look and how they present themselves (Ibid). In relation to this, Byager, a well-known Danish lifestyle expert argues:

“Fitness matches the need to work on yourself on the basis of the motto: ‘I get a better life if I have a better body’. In most cases, ‘better’ refers to a body that is stronger and slimmer than the starting point. Self-presentation is also important for many. Therefore, you do not just wear some old pants and go for a run, but instead become part of an identifying community, where it is more than just getting into shape. It should be more about how you put yourself in a frame where you would like to be seen, and which gives you something beyond the exercise aspect” (Zøllner and Nørr, 2007).

This quote highlights that fitness today is very much related to concerns for self-presentation and that there is a significant communicative value associated with having a fit body because it tells a central story in terms of how we choose to conduct ourselves as individuals. As a result, we worry a lot about our appearance, especially when we work out. In that sense, fitness is not just about exercising but also much about being seen working out (Maguire and Stanway, 2008).

However, it seems as if it is no longer enough just to be a part of the current fitness trend because everyone is practically working out today. Now, you also have to be a member of the right fitness brand i.e. be associated with the right group of people if you want to be perceived as successful. In


8 other words, our choice of fitness chain has on equal terms with how we dress, to some extent become a status symbol (Zøllner and Nørr, 2007). Precisely because the fitness culture takes its point of departure in the individual, training becomes a ‘personal project’ and the fitness provider you choose to affiliate yourself with sends signals about who you are, and whom you choose to surround yourself with, hence the notion “a man is known by the company he keeps” is essential.

In summary, if the ‘story’ about an individual is to be perceived as successful in today’s competitive environment, it is important that the individual signals that he or she living a healthy lifestyle (which is accomplished by having a fit body), but it is also important that the individual shows other people that he or she is affiliated with the appropriate fitness brand (Maguire and Stanway, 2008).

Because fitness is practiced in public and because choosing the optimal fitness chain usually involves a high degree of involvement, being able to understand why people select their fitness provider in the context of symbolic consumption can provide valuable insights for marketers. In the context of the Danish fitness industry, the purpose of this thesis is to explore whether reference groups and more specifically, ‘dissociative reference groups’, influence the Danish fitness users’

selection of fitness provider. Exactly because the previous paragraphs have highlighted the general concern for self-presentation in relation to the fitness industry, it seems likely that dissociative reference groups to some extent can have implications for the Danish fitness users’ choice of fitness provider - especially taking into consideration that White & Dahl (2006) found concerns for self- presentation to be positively correlated with the relevance of dissociative reference groups. All in all, this led to the following problem statement:

To what extent do dissociative reference groups affect the Danish fitness consumers’ choice of fitness provider?


Firstly, this thesis has purposefully chosen to delimit the study to only include the fitness chains Fitness DK and Fitness World. This reason behind this decision is that they are the only nationwide fitness chains in Denmark. In relation to this, it is important to stress that there are other fitness chains in within the Danish market besides Fitness DK and Fitness World, such as for example

‘LOOP Fitness’ and the more recently established fitness chains ‘Repeat Fitness’ and ‘Urban Gym’.

However, because previous research has revealed that flexibility and availability are some of the


9 most critical factors when people have to choose their fitness centre (Becker, 2017), this study chose to exclude these fitness providers from the study. Instead, by choosing to concentrate on Fitness DK and Fitness World the location factor could to a certain extent be kept at a minimum because both fitness chains have a large amount of centres distributed in Denmark, especially in regards to Copenhagen where the majority of the respondents were selected.

Secondly, this thesis has chosen to delimit the research to consumers in the age group of 18-27 because a number of previous studies have identified younger consumers to be more concerned about brand meaning (e.g. Piacentini and Mailer, 2004), thus in theory they should be more affected by (dissociative) reference groups since they are a strong source of brand associations (Escalas and Betttman, 2003). Furthermore, this age group is most predominant in relation to the Danish fitness industry (Zøller and Nørr, 2007), which strengthens the relevance of this study.

Lastly, since this study is strictly based on qualitative data in the form of semi-structured interviews, the insights gained are solely based on the respondents’ perspectives and point of views, and cannot be deemed representative for a bigger population. Instead, this study gives an indication of consumer behaviour within this particular context, and can instead be used to formulate some hypothesis for future research based on the findings.

2. Market Overview

Since this thesis takes its point of departure in the fitness industry, it makes sense to provide a brief market overview. The aim of this section is first and foremost to show that fitness has become a national trend in society. Moreover, this section provides some background information in regards to the low-cost development in Denmark, which has made it unusually inexpensive to work out in Denmark in contrast to a lot of European countries. Lastly, it is deemed highly relevant to provide some background information regarding the two fitness chains ‘Fitness DK’ and ‘Fitness World’, which this thesis evolves around.

Fitness has become the ‘national sport’ of Denmark

During the past decade, fitness has become more widespread throughout Danish society due to an increased focus on healthy lifestyle, adequate nutrition, physical activity and mental well-being (Munch, 2015). As a result, treadmills, bench press and spinning have become more popular than


10 ever. The Danish fitness industry has quickly responded to the increasing demand for fitness and given consumers access to a majority of centres, at an extremely low prices (Lauridsen, 2015).

According to Kirkegaard (2012), who has meticulously followed the development of the Danish fitness industry closely since 2006, the number of commercial fitness centres has increased from 334 to 575 centres within the period of 2006-2015, which is equivalent to a 72%-increase. Alone in 2013, sixty-nine centres were opened in Denmark. Furthermore, the number of fitness members has almost doubled from 460.000 to 810.000 members in the period of 2006-2015 (Kirkegaard, 2012).

The development of the industry is however not only prevalent in the city centres, but is dispersed throughout the entire country. In relation to this, Kirkegaard (2012) points out: ”It is very few municipalities that does not posses a fitness centre. It has become nationwide because it speaks to a lot of people. The fitness culture makes it easier to exercise. The technical and social barriers are currently so low, that all can sign up in a gym. And the prices have decreased significantly”

(Kirkegaard, 2012 p.14)

Fitness has become affordable

The fierce competition within the Danish fitness industry has ultimately benefited the consumer (Lauridsen, 2015). The past decade, the average membership fee has decreased by 50% and now all age groups can afford to work out (Ibid). Especially the low-cost fitness chains have had progress in recent years. The rise and rapid success of Fitness World is perhaps the best example of how the low-cost fitness chains have come to dominate the Danish fitness industry. In relation to this, Denmark is actually one of the cheapest countries in Western Europe to work out in (Ibid).

Specifically, the average cost of working out in Denmark is only 233 kr. per month whereas in Finland for example, the average cost of working out is 415 kr. per month, which is almost twice the cost of working out in Denmark (Ibid).

According to Kirkegaard (2012), it is the fierce competition between especially Fitness World and Fitness DK that is the primary reason behind the exceptionally low prices in Denmark: “The reason why the prices are so low is that the competition works within the fitness market. We have seen an intensification of the competition especially between the two biggest chains Fitness World and Fitness DK, which has meant that the average price has decreased year after year the past ten years” (Lauridsen, 2015). As this quote by Kirkegaard indicates, Fitness DK and Fitness World are currently the biggest actors in the market, and therefore they are very relevant to focus on.


11 Fitness DK – Company History

Fitness DK was founded in 2001, and is currently the second biggest Danish fitness chain in Denmark with a total of 45 centres and approximately 127.000 members (Fitness DK, 2017).

Moreover, Forty-four percent of the chain’s centres are currently located in Greater Copenhagen.

In 2001 when the chain launched their first fitness centre, the ambition was to create the biggest and most trendy gym in Danish history (Kirkegaard, 2012). With its 5.000 square metres, the centre on

“Nygårdsvej” fulfilled just that. The opening of the centre created a tremendous hype due to the fact that Mike Tyson used the newly opened gym to train prior to his match with the Danish boxer Brian Mikkelsen (Ibid). The following years, Fitness DK quickly became a dominant commercial fitness chain in Denmark primarily due to the company’s acquisitions of the two competing fitness chains

“Fin Form” and “Hard Work Studio” in 2005 and 2006 respectively (Ibid). With these two acquisitions, Fitness DK undoubtedly became the leading fitness chain with a total of 37 centres, 85.000 members and approximately 1.800 employees (Ibid). In 2006, the success of the newly established fitness chain culminated with the company being bought by the capital fond “Parken Sport & Entertainment” for 300 million kr. (Ibid).

Due to the company’s consistent focus on offering a high standard of quality in terms of equipment, facilities and personal trainers, Fitness DK has always positioned itself as a relatively ‘high-end’

commercial fitness chain (Kristensen, 2016). Specifically, Fitness DK separates itself from the other commercial fitness chains because they have wellness facilities in all their centres, which include:

sauna, turkish bath and solarium. Subsequently, Fitness DK is perceived by many to be a rather luxurious alternative to Fitness World (Ibid).

Fitness DK currently has six different membership types ranging from 229-999 DKK per month, where the most expensive is the VIP-membership called “Anytime Diamond” (Fitness DK, 2017).


12 Fitness World – Company History

Fitness World was established in 2005, and is currently the largest fitness chain in Denmark with a total of 155 centres, 450.000 members and approximately 3.300 employees (Fitness World, 2017).

Approximately twenty percent of the company’s centres are located in Copenhagen. Since its establishment, the chain has acquired competitors such as: Equinox Fitness, Enjoy Fitness, Fitness One, SATS, and most recently the very successful low-cost fitness chain ‘Fresh Fitness’. In 2015, the Norwegian Capital Fond, FSN acquired the fitness chain for approximately 2.5 billion DKK (Friis, 2015).

From the very beginning, Fitness World’s philosophy was that is was going to be a cheap alternative to the established and rather expensive commercial fitness chains at that time such as Fitness DK (Kristensen, 2015). With a monthly membership fee of only 199 DKK at the time, Fitness World successfully differentiated themselves from their competitors by being extremely cheap. Furthermore, Fitness World was the first commercial fitness chain to introduce binding-free subscription agreements, which revolutionized the Danish fitness industry and subsequently made the company the most successful fitness provider in Denmark, highlighted by Kirkegaard: “Fitness World grew big because they offered binding free subscription-arrangements and because the other fitness chains were too stubborn to change their own subscription-conditions, and their significant price-level” (Kristensen, 2015). Prior to the binding-free subscription era, the Danish fitness chains generally required that the members committed themselves for at least twelve months, so in that regard it was a big change for the industry (Johnson, 2009). In connection to this, it took two years before the rest of the commercial fitness chains decided to implement the binding-free subscription arrangements similarly to Fitness World. However, at that time it was too late and Fitness World had grown to become the biggest fitness chain in Denmark within just three years after its origin (Johnson, 2009). Today, the fitness provider owns approximately one quarter of every fitness centre in Denmark and approximately 40% of the customers (Ibid).

In 2014, the company acquired the very successful discount-chain “Fresh Fitness”, which at that time was the third-biggest fitness chain in Denmark (Ibid). By acquiring Fresh Fitness, Fitness World could now also rule the discount-market. According to the director of the Danish Sports Analysis Institute, Henrik Brandt, Fitness World can be compared to ‘Norwegian Airlines’ whereas the recently acquired ‘Fresh Fitness’ can be compared to ‘Ryanair’ (Kristensen, 2015).

Fitness World’s membership types vary from 159-259 DKK pr. month (Fitness World, 2017).



3. Literature Review

The following section will introduce the relevant theories in relation to the sub-questions that will be presented at the end of this section, and which ultimately helps answering the overall problem statement.

Symbolic consumption

According to American Marketing Association, a brand can be defined as a “name, term, design, symbol, or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods and services from one seller or group of sellers” (Keller, 1998 p.2). Keller (1998) states that the purpose of a brand is to make the creator of the particular product identifiable, thus it can act as a short cut for the customer in that he or she does not have to consider the purchase to the same degree if it had not been for the brand. In connection to this, academics often refer to brand equity, which denotes the value of the brand in the market place (Keller, 1998). Based on this understanding, this thesis will take for granted that products always have an increased value beyond its functional values.

Symbolic consumption is the process of consuming products based on their symbolic meaning and value (Sirgy, 1982). Most goods and services are to some extent symbolic in that they carry special meanings for both the people who use them, but also for other people who see them (Ibid). As a result, a significant part of consumption can be considered ‘symbolic’.

In 1959, Levy stated that: “people buy things not only for what they can do, but also for what they mean” (p.118). In that respect, Levy was one of the first to highlight that consumers cannot be regarded as rational actors, who first and foremost put emphasis on the functional value associated with a product. Instead, products should also be regarded as social tools that serve “as a means of communication between the individual and his significant references” (Grubb and Grathwohl, 1967 p.24). However, in order for products or brands to function as communication symbols, a minimum of two conditions must be met. Firstly, the symbol must be identified with a group, and within this group it should communicate similar meaning (Banister & Hogg, 2007).

The process behind symbolic consumption can be illustrated by using Grubb and Grathwohl’s Image Congruency Theory (see figure 1). The theory focuses on the importance of the relationship between the individual (represented by ‘Individual A’), the product/brand (‘Symbol X’), and lastly the audience (‘Audience B’) (Grubb and Grathwohl, 1967 p. 25).


14 Figure 1 (Grubb & Grahtwohl, 1967: 25)

According figure 1, ‘Individual A’ purchases the product/brand (Symbol X) due to its intrinsic and extrinsic value as a means of self-enhancement. The intrinsic value refers to the value the individual gets from transferring the socially attributed meaning of Symbol X to himself (see arrow “a”). This internal and personal communication process between the individual and the symbol becomes a means of enhancing the individual’s self-concept (Grubb and Grathwohl, 1967). Moreover, by assuming that symbol X is also socially meaningful to audience B, the individual will strive for more gratification by attempting to achieve the audience’s approval (Ibid). In summary, the individual enhances himself in two ways: first by his own transfer of the symbolic meaning to himself/herself, and second by the transfer made to his reference group.

According to Onkvisit and Shaw (1987) the ‘self-concept’ is relevant to any study of consumer behaviour because the image a person has of himself or herself ultimately dictates consumer behaviour. The self-concept can be defined as the “totality of the individual’s thoughts and feelings having reference to himself as an object” (Rosenberg 1979 p.7). Specifically, a number of different dimensions of the self-concept have been identified: ‘actual self’ (how a person perceives himself/herself), ‘ideal self’, (the qualities an individual would like to possess) and ‘social self’

(how a person believes others will perceive him or her) (Banister and Hogg, 2007). Basically, the self-concept can be viewed as a dynamic structure that changes according to the nature of the social surroundings or situations (Ibid). In connection to this, Onkvisit and Shaw (1987) argue the basic purpose of all human activity is to protect, maintain and enhance the self-concept also referred to as the ‘symbolic self’ (p.15). In relation to this, product and brands provide two important means for


15 self-enhancement. Firstly, consumers often buy products or brands that maintain or enhance their self-image on the basis of product or brand’s symbolic meanings and images (Levy, 1959; Grubb and Grathwohl, 1967). Secondly, consumers often decide not to buy products or brands, which are perceived as being inconsistent with their own self-image (Ibid). On the basis of that, much literature have investigated the congruency between self-image and product/brand image, and found a positive relationship between the two (Grubb and Grathwohl, 1967; Sirgy, 1982). The notion that consumers prefer brands with images similar to their own self-image is referred to as the image congruency hypothesis, and essentially implies that people are what they buy.

Negative symbolic consumption:

While most self-concept research has focused on how consumers approach products or brands that they perceive as being positively valenced (i.e. there is a congruency between self-image and brand image), considerably less literature has investigated how consumers avoid products or brands that they perceive to be negatively valenced (i.e. there is an in-congruency between self-image and brand image) (Banister and Hogg, 2004; Hogg and Banister, 2001).

Lee et al. (2009) defined ‘brand avoidance’ as: “a phenomenon whereby consumers deliberately choose to keep away or reject a brand” (p.422). Specifically, Lee et al. (2009) identified three primary causes of brand avoidance: experiential avoidance, identity avoidance and moral avoidance. Identity avoidance is the one relevant to this study, and can be defined as: “the inability of the brand to fulfil the individual’s symbolic identity requirement” (Lee et al., 2009, p.173).

In connection to this, disidentification theory suggests that people may develop their self-concept by disidentifiying with brands that are perceived to be inconsistent with the consumer’s own image and values (Lee et al., 2009). Subsequently, a person may avoid a brand because it presents an undesired self or a negative reference group. Overall, the basic assumption is that consumers engage in brand avoidance due to the fact that they do not want to be associated with what they perceive to be negative brand meanings or values. In relation to this, research by Oliva et al. (1992) suggests that brand avoidance can be regarded as the anti-thesis of brand loyalty.

Banister & Hogg (2004) posits that knowing what consumers do not want, is just as valuable as knowing what they want. Specifically, it has been suggested that what consumers choose not to consume is an important aspect of both individual and group identity (Hogg and Banister, 2001).


16 Subsequently, consumers’ rejection of products and brands often say as much about individuals, personally and socially, as what they choose to consume (Ibid). A study conducted by Wilk (1997), found that consumers generally had fewer difficulties in talking about products that they disliked and would not consume compared to expressing their desires and preferences. In relation to this, avoidance groups can have significant influence on consumption decisions because the negative evaluations that become associated with them could lead to stigmatisation (Sirgy et al. 1997).

According to Grubb and Grathwohl (1967), the fashion industry provides a prime example of symbolic consumer behaviour (p.25). This is because clothing is a very symbolic product category due to its publicly visibility, which implies that individuals will often make assumptions about other people purely on the basis of their clothing (Ibid). In their article “Negative Symbolic Consumption and Consumers’ Drive for Self-esteem”, Banister & Hogg (2004) for example showcased how clothing played an important role in the creation of the respondents’ identities. Subsequently, most academic research has used the fashion industry to explore the process of symbolic consumption and the self-concept (Banister and Hogg, 2004). However, in relation to this, it is important to stress that symbolic consumption is not limited to purchase and wearing of fashion items, but includes all social practices. In fact, most of the things we buy are saturated with meanings and values and combined they contribute to consumers’ sense of who they are (and who they are not) and what they represent (or do not represent) (Ibid). This study has purposefully chosen to concentrate on the fitness industry because fitness it is practiced in public, which makes the process of symbolic consumption particularly relevant and which theoretically should reinforce the relevance of user imagery and (dissociative) reference groups, explained next (Banister and Hogg, 2004),

Brand User imagery

Brands have personal images that are perceived by individuals to have various symbolic meanings (Dolich, 1969 p.22). Just as people can be described in terms of their personality as perceived by other people, brands can similarly be described in terms of their image as perceived by the consumers (Ibid). In relation to this, brand image can be defined as: “how a brand is perceived by consumers” (Aaker 1991, p.71), and is an important concept because it affects consumers’ buying behaviour (Dolich, 1969).


17 Specifically, the brand image often reflects the stereotype of the typical users associated with a product or brand (Sirgy, 1982). This is because when consumers use a brand, they can become associated with the brand images, thus a user of a product or a retail brand can be personally associated with the brand’s particular image through usage (Ibid). Subsequently, “the brands we buy and the brands we associate with, often make powerful statements about us to ourselves as well as to others” (Sutherland, 2008 p.82). Brands can thus serve a social purpose by reflecting social ties such as community and cultural group (Belk, 1988). Subsequently, many self-concept investigators argue that brand image can be defined as the stereotypic image of the generalized product user also referred to as ‘brand user imagery’ (Sirgy et al. 1997).

According to Hofman (1981), at least three conditions must be met in order for a product or brand to function as personal images (Sirgy, 1982). Firstly, the brand has to be purchased and/or consumed conspicuously or visibly in order for it to have associations. Moreover, variability is also important because without it, no differences between individuals can be inferred on the basis of the brand use. Lastly, personalizability of the brand is important, which refers to “the extent to which the use of the product can be attributed to a stereotypic image of the generalized user” (Sirgy, 1982 p. 288).

Since fitness is practiced in public it can be characterized as ‘visible’. Moreover, since we do in fact have different fitness providers within the industry, it also fulfils the requirement of ‘variability’.

Lastly, since it can be assumed that the Danish fitness providers can in fact be attributed a stereotypic image of the generalized users, the fitness brands fulfils all three criteria in terms of functioning as personal images, thus the concept of user imagery can be regarded as relevant.

All in all, precisely because the symbolic meanings of products and brands are often linked to the stereotypes associated with the personal images, it seems plausible that the user imagery of the two Danish fitness providers will have some effect on the fitness users' selection of fitness provider.

Reference Groups

Tajfel and Fraiser (1978) define social identity as “that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from membership of a social group (or groups), together with the value and emotional significance attached to this” (p. 63). As this definition highlights, social identity is an important component of an individual’s identity, which is based on their group membership and the meaning that the group represents to the individual. As a result, people will try to maintain a positive view of


18 themselves by evaluating their in-groups (i.e. those groups the individual belong to) more positively, which is often referred to as ‘in-group favouritism’ (Brewer, 1979). However, consumers will also try to maintain a positive social identity by associating with groups that are perceived as being positive, while dissociating with groups that are evaluated as negative (White and Dahl, 2007; Englis and Solomon, 1995).

The term ‘reference group’ was first coined by Hyman (1942), and is defined as: “a person or a group of people that significantly influence an individual’s behaviour” (Bearden and Etzel, 1982 p.

184). The reference group literature typically distinguishes between three types of reference groups:

membership groups, aspirational groups and dissociative groups (White and Dahl, 2006).

‘Membership reference groups’ are groups that an individual belongs to i.e. an “in-group”. This is a positive type of reference group that the individual identifies with, is attracted to and feels psychologically involved with (Ibid). Examples of membership reference groups are the family or a peer group. ‘Aspirational reference groups’ are groups that the individual identifies with and is attracted to (e.g. celebrities) and subsequently aspires to become a member of, hence they are also perceived as a positive reference group. Lastly, ‘dissociative reference groups’ are those groups that an individual wishes to avoid being associated with and ultimately disidentifies with, thus they are referred to as negative reference group. Both aspirational and dissociative reference groups are ‘out- groups’ i.e. groups that the consumer does not belong to. Past academic research has mostly been concerned with how positive reference groups affect consumer behaviour, but dissociative reference groups have also been showcased to influence consumer behaviour (White & Dahl, 2006).

White and Dahl (2007) found that the desire to avoid association with a dissociative reference group is particularly motivational as opposed to avoiding out-groups more generally. They exemplify this by using the student who views himself/herself as belonging to a particular in-group in the form of the “Jocks”. Even though the “skaters” represent an out-group from the student’s point of view, he or she is not motivated to avoid being associated with the out-group. Instead, the out-group represented by the “Nerds” could be considered a dissociative reference group that the student indeed would avoid being associated with. In that respect, White & Dahl (2007) used social identity theory as a means to explain dissociation, which is the act of avoiding or disparaging products or brands that represents undesired groups or identities (White and Dahl, 2007).


19 Overall, reference groups are interesting to focus on because they by definition influence an individual’s behaviour. This is because reference groups have a significant role in communicating the symbolic values of products and brands (Banister & Hogg, 2007). According to Escalas and Bettman (2003), associations about reference groups become associated with brands those groups are perceived to use and vice versa. In that sense, reference groups can be regarded as a strong source of brand associations, which can be linked to one’s mental representation of the self to meet self-verification or self-enhancement (Escalas and Bettman, 2003). Moreover, according to McCracken (1989), the symbolic properties of reference groups become associated with the brands those groups are perceived to use. Subsequently, individuals can use the symbolic properties of a product or brands to reflect their affiliation or connection to a particular social group (Elliott and Wattanasuwan, 1998). This is because when a group starts to use a brand or a product, the brand will become a representation of the group and the traits the group possess (McCracken, 1989).

Specifically, consumers will choose to associate with groups and purchase brands that allow them to be seen in a positive light, while simultaneously avoiding or disparaging those groups that are seen negatively (White & Dahl, 2006; Berger & Heath, 2007).

According to Bourne (1957), the influence of reference group on product and brand decisions can be regarded as a function of two forms of “conspicuousness”. Firstly, the item must be “exclusive”

in some way. In relation to this, a distinction is made between luxuries and necessities. Whereas luxuries have a degree of exclusivity, necessities are possessed by virtually everyone (Bourne, 1957). Secondly, in order for reference groups to affect brand decisions, the item must be “seen or identified by others”. In connection to this, a distinction is made between privately and publicly consumed products (Ibid). Whereas others see publicly consumed products, privately consumed products are not visible to the surroundings. Figure 2.1 combines the concepts of public-private consumption and luxury-necessity items and reference group influence on product and brand choice decisions.


20 Since fitness is practiced in public and since a fitness-membership cannot be regarded as a necessity, one can argue that the influence of reference groups on brand choices are strong in relation to the fitness industry.

In summary, the theory of social identity and more specifically reference groups are relevant to this study because the selection of a fitness provider explicitly involves affiliation with a membership group, thus the decision fulfils two opposing functions: social identification and distinction. In other words, whether people choose to become a member of either Fitness DK or Fitness World says something about the individual consumer’s social identity. Moreover, because fitness users

“consume” the fitness brands in public, individuals will often make assumptions about each other purely on the basis of which fitness provider he or she is associated with. Subsequently, this study assumes that fitness consumers, similarly to fashion brands, use their fitness brand as a constant negotiation of who they are and who they are not (Kaiser et al, 1991).


Self-presentation refers to how people attempt to present themselves to either control or shape how others view them, and it involves behaving in ways that create a desired impression, thus it is often referred to as ‘impression management’ (Schlenker, 1980). One way we manage our self-concept is through self-presentation. Exactly because our self-concept is a function of how we think other people see us, good construction and maintenance of the self requires constant attention to managing our appearance to others (Ibid). However, since self-presentation is a relatively broad term, public self-consciousness will be used as a means to explore individual differences in self- presentation concerns between the Fitness DK and Fitness World-respondents (White and Dahl, 2006).


21 According to Scheier and Carver (1985) public self-conscious can be defined as “the tendency to think about those self-aspects that are matters of public display” (p. 687). People who are publicly self-conscious have been characterized as being especially concerned about their social identities and oriented toward gaining approval and avoiding disapproval (Doherty and Schlenker, 1991). As a result, they are more aware of the self as a social object, and are concerned about the ways they represent themselves, and worry about how others evaluate them (Ibid). Research has for example shown that individuals, who rate high in public self-consciousness are more fashion-conscious and likely to report using clothing and makeup to affect their public image (Miller and Cox, 1982).

Moreover, they are more inclined to comply with social norms, and are concerned with interpersonal rejection (Ibid).

According to Doherty and Schlenker (1991), highly public self-conscious people seem to actively be aware of how others perceive them, especially when it comes to a favourable public image or appearance, or loss of face. Subsequently, research has found that people who are concerned with self-presentation are particularly focused on avoiding negative outcomes (White and Dahl, 2006;

Wooten and Reed, 2004). In relation to this, public self-consciousness can impact individuals’

consumption behaviour (White and Dahl, 2006).

Exactly because brands are often used on the basis of their symbolic properties, tendencies to use brands to represent the self to others are related to self-presentation concerns (White and Dahl, 2006). Subsequently, it seems likely that brands associated with particular reference groups will have implications for consumer evaluations and choice, particularly when self-presentation concerns are salient. Moreover, because avoidance of negative outcomes is an important feature of self-presentation and more specifically public self-consciousness, it seems plausible that self- presentation will be an important concept related to consumers’ tendency to avoid brands associated with dissociative groups (White and Dahl, 2006).


22 Sub-questions:

Based on the literature review provided above, the following sub-questions have been formulated, whose purpose is to help answering the overall problem statement:

1. To what extent are the fitness users concerned about self-presentation?

2. What is the user imagery of Fitness DK and Fitness World according to the fitness users?

3. To what extent do the Fitness DK-members perceive Fitness World to represent a dissociative reference group - and vice versa?

4. Do the fitness users select their fitness provider on the basis of approach or avoidance behaviour?

4. Method

The following section will clarify the methodological foundation of the thesis. An explanation will be given of how information and data have been perceived, handled and analyzed to address and answer the research question. Specifically, the research perspective, approach, design, strategy, data collection and analysis will be outlined.

Theoretical Perspective

A theoretical perspective is the philosophical stance that guides the researcher’s approach to inquiry and his or her choice of methodology (Saunders et al. 2012). Specifically, this study adopts an interpretive theoretical perspective. According to Saunders et al. (2012), the fit of the theoretical perspective ultimately depends on the nature of the research question, which is the most important consideration. Since the main objective of this study is to obtain a rich understanding of whether individuals perceive dissociative reference groups to affect their selection of fitness provider, interpretivim is deemed most appropriate. This is because the main goal of interpretivism is to obtain a new and richer understanding of individuals’ interpretations of social worlds and contexts rather than seeking an objective and generalisable truth (Sanders et al. 2012). Subsequently, the main assumption of interpretivism is that there are multiple realities, which are socially constructed.

In order to understand the meaning of a phenomenon, the researcher needs to partake in the process of interpretation (Sanders et al. 2012). In relation to this, interpretivism has received some criticism of being too subjective in nature, which potentially can lead to researcher bias, which may limit the results and thereby limit reliability and generalizability (Daymon and Holloway, 2011).


23 Methods within interpretivism are often qualitative in nature, including in-depth or semi-structured interviews. According to Crotty (1998), interpretivism is formed of several strands such as:

hermeneutics, phenomenology and symbolic interactionism. Although the focus varies between each strand, they all share the common goal of understanding the meaning of social phenomena (Ibid). Specifically, this thesis adopts a combination of symbolic interactionism and hermeneutic approach.

Symbolic interactionism focuses on understanding meaning as it develops through an individual’s interpretation of, and interaction with other people in society (Saunders et al. 2012). In order to understand a phenomenon, the researcher aims to interpret the individual’s construction of meaning through their interaction with symbols within society. Symbolic interactionism is relevant in relation to this study because the way individuals behave towards objects, people and in my case fitness brands is based on the meaning that the entity has for them. Put simply, the meaning individuals associate with a particular brand will ultimately affect the way they approaches it.

However, consumers cannot understand the meaning of a product or a brand if they are not derived through social interaction (Lee, 2017). A brand can for example only be perceived as being

‘overpriced’ if the consumer is able to compare the brand with other brands or compare with what other people pay for it. In relation to this, brands themselves do not convey any meaning (Ibid).

Instead, the meanings consumers derive from a brand are a result of the company communicating what they would like the brand to mean to the consumer, which is achieved through advertising.

Moreover, the meaning can also be constructed on the basis of the experience the consumer has had with the brand. Subsequently, people may for example interpret the brand of Louis Vuitton in terms of “exclusivity” and “quality” since these are the attributes the company often communicates to its consumers. However, other people might interpret the brand in terms of it being “overpriced”

because it is more expensive when compared to other brands in the environment (Lee, 2017).

Lastly, if a person has had a bad experience with the product, he or she might perceive Louis Vuitton to be associated with for example “bad quality”. In summary, symbolic interactionsm is concerned with the interpretation of actions based on the meanings that have been given to objects within a social environment (Saunders et al. 2012), which is essential to this study.

Hermeneutics focus on the process of understanding and interpretation, and is traditionally related to interpretations of texts (Sanders et al. 2012). However since texts also include interview


24 transcripts, hermeneutics is also closely related to symbolic interactionism and subsequently relevant to this study (Crotty, 1998). Hermeneutics posits that the researcher will enter the interpretive process with certain biases and prejudice, which is referred to as ‘pre-understanding’

(Arnold and Fischer, 1994). Since there is always a certain degree of pre-understanding in an investigation process, this thesis has found it necessary to include a hermeneutical approach. Rather than this being a disadvantage, hermeneutical researchers argue that accumulation of life experiences and knowledge not only makes the interpretive process possible, but also more meaningful (Ibid). Subsequently, as long as the researcher is willing to change his or her existing beliefs, prejudice is not a problem. Specifically, this pre-understanding allows the researcher to compare their own experiences with what the participants are saying about their experience (Crotty, 1998). Throughout this thesis, I have been aware of my own pre-understanding and how this may have influenced the data collection, analysis and ultimately the findings.

Research Approach

When conducting research, two basic methodological research approaches exist: deduction and induction (Saunders e al., 2012). According to Daymon and Holloway (2011) researchers within the positivist tradition often, although not always, tend to use a deductive approach. Conversely, researchers working within the interpretive paradigm generally start with an inductive reasoning.

Whereas a deductive research approach is usually associated with quantitative research, to which the primary objective is to test theory via data, an inductive approach is usually associated with qualitative research, where the focus is on using data to develop theory. Subsequently, the deductive approach usually tests existing theory whereas the inductive approach tries to build theory. For this reason, induction is more explorative by nature, where the researcher will have less of an idea regarding where he or she will end up (Saunders et al., 2012).

There are advantages and disadvantages associated with either approach, but in reality most social research involves both inductive and deductive processes at some particular point in the project, which is also highlighted by Saunders et al. (2012): “Not only is it perfectly possible to combine deduction and induction within the same piece of research, but also in our experience it is often advantageous to do so” (Saunders et al., 2012 p.127). As emphasized by the quote, it is in fact possible to combine the two approaches and it can even be considered an advantage to do so.

Abduction is the term used, when the researcher uses a mixture of deduction and induction.

Specifically, abduction can be defined as “a reasoning process that occurs when someone seeks to explain something in the light of some background context of existing knowledge” (Folger & Stein,


25 2016). As highlighted by this quote, the adductive approach allows the researcher to use an inductive approach within the boundaries of a specific context, which was the case in regards to this thesis.

Research Design

The research design refers to how the researcher will go about answering the overall research question (Saunders et al., 2012). The research design should be in alignment with the research perspective and approach previously outlined. Depending on the question the researcher wish to answer, the nature of the research will either tend to be descriptive, explanatory or exploratory, or a combination of the three (Saunders et al., 2012). The thesis is primarily exploratory since the purpose is to explore to what extent dissociative reference groups affect the fitness users’ choice of fitness provider. Saunders et al. (2012) emphasize that exploratory research is particularly useful when the researcher seeks to understand a problem, whose exact nature is unsure. Moreover, exploratory research has the advantage of being flexible and adaptable to changes (Saunders et al.


Research Method:

The first methodological choice the researcher should consider in regards to the research design is whether to follow a single qualitative or quantitative (mono-method), or multiple methods research design (Saunders et al. 2012). In this particular study, a qualitative mono-method approach was selected, which implies a method without the use of quantitative data.

A strictly qualitative research design was chosen because qualitative research allows the researcher to delve into meaning, and understand how social reality is constructed from the point of view of the people being studied (Daymon and Holloway, 2011). Although combing both qualitative and quantitative research methods can sometimes be considered more effective in that it enables the researcher to view a phenomenon from a broader perspective due to the differentiation of data, the qualitative meno-method approach was deemed sufficient in this case. In relation to this, Daymon and Holloway (2011) posit that it is not always appropriate to combine mixed methods research, and the challenge therefore is to know when to adopt a multiple approach or just stick to a single one. Since this study is interested in investigating how Danish fitness consumers choose their fitness provider in relation to dissociative reference groups, this calls for an in-depth understanding of the respondents’ meanings in regards to Fitness DK and Fitness World as opposed to quantitative measures.


26 Research Strategy:

The research strategy chosen for this thesis is a mixture of a case study and grounded theory.

According to Daymon and Holloway (2011), some qualitative researchers integrate two or three strategies such as the case study approach combined with ethnography or grounded theory.

Firstly, a single case study was implemented in this study because it provides the researcher with an opportunity to observe and analyse a phenomenon that few have considered before (Saunders et al.

2012). Since no previous academic research has investigated the selection of fitness provider in the context symbolic consumption and social identity theory, the case study strategy was deemed highly relevant in this case. Case studies are particularly valuable whenever the researcher wants to capture the complexity of a phenomenon, which is why case studies usually are associated with qualitative data. Moreover, the case study strategy is most often used in relation to exploratory research for its ability to generate answers to questions such as “why”, “what” and “how”

(Saunders et al. 2012). In relation to this, it is important to have in mind that data generated in relation to case studies cannot be generalised to a wider population, which has also been highlighted previously as a delimitation to this particular study (Daymon and Holloway, 2011).

Secondly, the research strategy of ‘Grounded Theory’ has also been applied in the study within the context of the fitness industry. This strategy entails analysing, interpreting and explaining the meanings that social actors construct in order to make sense of their everyday experiences in specific situations (Saunders et al. 2012). As a result, this strategy is primarily used in qualitative research. Grounded Theory usually implies that the researcher adopts an inductive approach, although sometimes it can be more appropriate to think of it as moving between induction and deduction (Ibid). The researcher collects and analyzes data simultaneously, and subsequently develops analytical codes as these emerge from the data and organizes them into categories or themes (Ibid).

According to Saunders et al. (2012) “when using Grounded Theory the researcher will need to decide how to select cases for your research. As you analyse data, the categories being developed will indicate the type of new cases (e.g. new participants) to select for further data collection. The purpose of sampling is therefore to pursue theoretical lines of enquiry rather than to achieve representation” (p.186). In relation to this quote, it is important to point out that the original purpose of this study was only to explore whether Fitness World represented a dissociative reference group from the Fitness DK-respondents’ point of view, which subsequently had an affect


27 on their choice of fitness provider, and not the other way around. The rationale behind this decision was that it seemed more plausible that Fitness DK-members would be relatively more concerned about the symbolic properties of their respective fitness brand since they pay a higher price for their fitness membership in contrast to Fitness World-members, which in theory would make the influence of dissociative more likely. However, as the findings were analysed it was deemed relevant to investigate whether Fitness DK represented a dissociative reference group from the Fitness World-members’ point of view. In other words, this research has followed the characteristics of Grounded Theory as indicated by the quote above.

Data Collection

The method of data collection is arguably a cornerstone of good research practice (Daymon and Holloway, 2011). Specifically, data can be categorized as either primary or secondary. According to Saunders et al. (2012) primary data is data collected directly by the researcher, thus the data is collected for the purpose of answering the research question. Examples of primary data include observations, interviews, and surveys (Ibid). Secondary data is on the other hand, already existing information that has been collected for other purposes (Ibid). In terms of this study, secondary data was collected in the form of academic journals, books and articles, providing the theoretical anchoring. In regards to secondary data, it is vital that the researcher verify the validity of the secondary sources before referencing them in the study, because false information will discredit the validity of the findings (Saunders et al., 2012). This thesis used both primary and secondary data, but only the primary data in the form of ‘preliminary research’ and the ‘semi-structured interviews’

will be elaborated below.

Preliminary Research:

Since no academic research has explored the influence of dissociative reference groups in relation to Danish consumers’ choice of fitness provider, a preliminary investigation of how the general population perceived the user imagery of Fitness DK and Fitness World respectively, was deemed important. Firstly, various online chat groups, which discussed whether to become a member of Fitness DK or Fitness World, were investigated (see appendix 5). Secondly, a Voxpop was conducted in relation to the study in order to further investigate the user imagery of the two fitness providers. Specifically, eleven women and nine men in the age group of 18-27 were briefly


28 questioned outside CBS. The participants were asked three questions in relation to the user imagery of Fitness DK and Fitness World (see appendix 3). Overall, the findings of the Voxpop revealed a relatively consistent user imagery of Fitness DK and Fitness World, which made it relevant to proceed with the topic (see appendix 4).

Semi-structured Interviews:

This study chose to use semi-structured interviews as the primary source of data, as this would enable the researcher to gain insights into how the fitness users select their fitness provider in relation to dissociative reference groups. A semi-structured format was used to ensure that the main topics were covered while the discussion remained as free-flowing as possible, particularly appropriate for explorative research (Patton, 1990). Semi-structured interviews can be categorized as ‘unstructured’ and are better suited for qualitative research because it provides the interviewer with a sense of flexibility to address unforeseen aspects that may come up during the interview (Ibid). Specifically, the researcher will usually have a list of themes and perhaps even some key questions that need to be covered, but the order of the questions will vary from interview to interview depending on the flow of the conversation (Saunders et al. 2012).


Qualitative research typically focuses in-depth on a relatively small sample, which ultimately facilitates the generation of more relevant knowledge than a larger sample would be able to produce at an early exploratory stage (Patton, 1990). Specifically, the sampling used in this study is a mixture of purposive and convenience sampling. In relation to this, Bertaux and Bertraux-Wiame (1998) advise that sampling continues until saturation point. In practice, this entails that the researcher continues until he or she feels confident that they have a clear idea of the phenomenon investigated and are subsequently able to produce and appropriate explanation for it (Banister and Hogg, 2004). A total of eleven fitness consumers were interviewed on the basis of their suitability in terms of fitness-membership and age (see overview of the participants below). The eleven participants were all within the 18-30 age group, but only two were women. All the participants were Danish, and the majority lives in the central part of Copenhagen.



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