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This blog is some of my musings on cultural trends + values and how brands can respond to them. 

What's the use of Cultural Analysis in marketing?

What's the use of Cultural Analysis in marketing?

No doubt this is a familiar situation for anyone who has worked in marketing - a company that is so totally immersed in their product and brand values that they forget that their soda / car / food isn't the center of everyone else's world. Their claims ring hollow (or worse) on outside ears.[1]

The result of being too immersed in one's own brand culture and message is that, in many cases, there’s a disconnect between how companies talk about their brands internally and in their advertising, and how consumers actually engage with and understand their products. Indeed, a key problem with being too immersed is that many companies create an internal logic of what the brand means and how it signifies that. Internal signifiers get confused as universally understood.

It would seem that in this quest for consistency of messaging and targeting, companies try to match a brand with a distilled consumer ‘lifestyle’ or ‘persona’. While I’m thinking here in particular of companies large multinational organizations like Nestlé which very finely segments consumers and then categorize brands to fit those consumer profiles, this applies to smaller companies as well. The end result is that a low-cal frozen dairy product and a frozen fruit bar appear to have very different targets when, in reality, there’s a good deal of overlap.

While persona or lifestyle targeting is often hailed as a success with people pointing to brands like Nike or Apple, I want to question this wisdom. I would argue that for most brands, targeting based on lifestyle is a big mistake with some pretty questionable consequences. 

Ultimately, the problem with lifestyle branding is that everyone’s lifestyle is different. Think about the different people that get lumped into the same ‘lifestyle’ by companies. Are all "time-pressed working moms" the same? Do all "millennials pursuing their passions" do so in the same way? Clearly not. The fact that everyone's lifestyle is different matters since it means that everyone will engage with a brand differently and develop their own understanding of its products or services.

How do we know this? How do we know that people in similar segments don't merely respond to a brand or message in a similar fashion? Anthropology points us towards a more nuanced understanding of how people engage with the objects and brands in their lives. Dick Hebdige, an anthropologist prominent in the 1970s, observed that consumers creatively co-opt, appropriate, transform brands and products as a means of cementing their own identities. As Hebdige writes, "Consumers [are] active, creative and critical in their appropriation and transformation of material artifacts… Through such processes of appropriation, identities are constructed".[2] While his focus is specifically on subcultures, I would argue that it can be extended to consumers in general. 

Let's expand on what Hebdige means about creative appropriation for a second. Daniel Miller, a preeminent contemporary anthropologist, has expanded upon Hebdige’s understanding of consumption. In his work ‘The Comfort of Things’, he goes into different homes on a street in London to see how people engage with the material world.[3] He finds that a transformation happened when mass produced goods were brought into the home - they took on new meanings both in relation to the other goods in the home, but also in regard to the people and the relations between them. Goods become individualized and are no longer pure commodities.

One example he gives is of an elderly gay man named Simon. Simon has a collection of 15,000+ CDs and Vinyls, each of which represents to him a specific moment and a specific mood. Simon manipulates the CDs to trigger certain feelings within himself; for example, he plays one to remind himself of the happiness he felt at a certain occasion or to relive his youth. His CDS and vinyls are made personal. In another home, a woman combats her conflicted feelings towards her elitist and classist parents through the joy she feels when she gives her children McDonald’s Happy Meals. The Happy Meal symbolizes both time spent with her children and a rejection of her own stuffy upbringing. Miller sees material goods as conduits for relationships - as vehicles for other social interactions and identity formation. 

Ultimately, this is really just a fancy way of saying that our relationship with objects and brands runs hand in hand with our relationships with persons, and these are all unique and individual.

This matters because, as we touched on before, many companies - particularly those aspiring to be ‘lifestyle’ brands - see their brand’s meaning as fitted to a particular consumer segment. They present a pasta brand, for instance, as an elevated occurrence. They target it towards a specific consumer based on her lifestyle.

The example here is from an account I worked on, so I know the background. For this pasta brand, the consumer was a woman who lived life to its fullest, which meant that she wanted to prepare fresh, elevated meals for her family as often as possible. She would therefore combine her store-bought pasta with vegetables that she’d pick up from the local farmer’s market in her bi-weekly shops. This is an incredibly niche persona - and a wrong one. My agency conducted an ethnographic survey of actual consumers for the brand and found that their relationship to the pasta and to the brand was incredibly fragmented. While the brand team tried to communicate that the pasta was an 'elevated' experience, consumers saw it as a “quick dinner”, a concession to a picky child, as “cheaper than dining out”, as a reminder of Italy. To some, it was “healthy” while others found it indulgent and comforting. These consumers fit a specific profile used to conduct the ethnography - they were time-pressed mothers who have bought fresh pasta products in the past - but their lifestyles and relationship to the brand varied.

The point is that a brand’s meaning fragments when it comes in contact with consumers. While the pasta product may signify a specific elevated occasion to the brand manager, it provokes a myriad of responses from consumers. 

We need to start questioning our basic ideas about who are consumer is and what our brand means to them, because it varies. The consumer never is as interested in or sees the brand as consistent as a brand manager. We need to suspend our assumptions about consumer lifestyles or responses. This leaves us with a big challenge: how to predict and harness the different ways in which consumers appropriate the brand?

I would argue that there is an underlying logic behind consumer understanding. It is bigger than individual psychographics or demographic profiles. A quote by Denny and Sunderland, who are anthropologists interested in transcending typical marketing strategies, illustrates this well: “Markets are not segments of people with specific and profiled needs, but rather are constituted by systems of interwoven meanings and practices that may or may not have resonance for a product, brand, or experience.”[4]

Ultimately, consumers shouldn’t be segmented/profiled by specific needs on a consumption level, but by larger systems of meaning, practices, and norms at a societal or cultural level. As we approach consumer research productively, we can focus on the underlying cultural values that inform individual choices. This is the value of conducting cultural analysis in consumer research. 

Before I continue, it might be useful to expand upon what is meant by cultural values or systems. Thinking about status and how it is established in different ways in different places gives us a few examples. While in the Trobriand Islands it is created (historically and at least in part) through the kula trade, the British class system follows a very different set of rules and norms. What it means to be high-status varies: is it to do with wealth, connections, accent, education, ritual knowledge, or something else? Perhaps (and most likely) it is a mixture. Gender, too,  takes on different meanings in different places. Machismo implies certain behaviors or expectations in Latin American cultures while conforming to the expectations of a salarymen in Japan results in a different set of norms. 

The key thing about big cultural systems is that all people within that culture - whether or not they accept its proscribed path, iconography, symbolism, etc. - must negotiate with its presence.

This knowledge - that consumers are linked through an underlying system of values - is our way in to predict and harness how different people appropriate a brand. To understand consumers, we must understand the cultural values (for example, individualism, community, etc.) and social structures (e.g. different forms of kinship or relatedness) informing their behavior. Only then can we really figure out what is relevant for our brand.

This is easier to understand with an example. Sunderland and Denny, the anthropologists quoted above, looked into how Tasmanian identity influenced responses to different car ads. They conducted ethnographic interviews and comparative cultural analysis to see what values resonated with Kiwis.

They found that certain cultural values and social relations resonated across different lifestyles. The first noteworthy discovery was that icons and images of New Zealand identity put forward by both male and female respondents were overwhelmingly masculine. The ideal relationship was presented as male - specifically male friendships between ‘mates’. Sport also emerged as a dominant cultural marker with everything being subsumed into competitions, play, and games.

Marketers can tap into these values, if there’s true resonance with the brand. Denny and Sunderland describe how in an Audi Quattro ad, the agency positioned the car as an extreme sports tool for two mates to wakeboard with. Contrast this with the classic American car ad in which a lone man drives through a rugged landscape, thereby calling to mind masculine individualism like the Marlboro Man. By tapping into deep cultural values, Audi’s ad here proved particularly resonant in New Zealand.

By probing into consumer value systems, we can uncover deep insights that real implications for your brand. The purpose of this blog is to help explore how cultural structures and values vary between markets - and why this information matters to brands. I hope to look into themes around identity, space and place, tourism, and consumption. Stay tuned. 

p.s. I've attached a presentation version of this POV below with visuals, if you'd like to see the examples discussed.

[1] I'm looking at you, Pepsi. 

[2] Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subculture: the meaning of style. London: Routledge.

[3] Miller, D. (2015). The Comfort of Things. Cambridge: Polity.

[4] Denny, P. and R. Sunderland. (2007). Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. London: Routledge.

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