Culture is the most all-encompassing aspect of our social environment. It has been defined as “a complex of values, ideas, attitudes, and other meaningful symbols created by f human beings] to shape human behavior and the artifacts of that behavior as they are transmitted from one generation to the next.”9 As such, culture is the basic determinant of much of our decision-making and buying behavior. It has a lot to do with why some people prefer Lay’s Potato Chips and others prefer Ruffles.
Each of us belongs to several cultural groups . We are also members of smaller groups, subcultures within the larger society. These often reflect geographic, religious, or ethnic differences. For example, there are regional differences in taste for beer: New Yorkers seem to prefer a somewhat bitter beer, Californians like a lighter beer, and Texans prefer their beer chilled to 32 degrees.
Frito-Lay spends a great deal of time tailoring products and their distribution to the preferences of different regional subcultures. Vinegar-flavored chips sell in the Northeast, mesquite-flavored chips sell in the Southwest, and s our cream-flavored chips sell in the Midwest. This marketing approach might be viewed as simple opportunism—if a discrete regional market can be developed through regional product development and marketing, Frito-Lay can make more money and protect its market position better. But it also can be put into the context of the movement toward more customer-oriented marketing and management, a move that is beginning to change everything from manufacturing quality to customer service—and is bringing the customer into the loop earlier in the product development and planning process so that more focused offerings are now practical, even for behemoths such as Frito-Lay and its parent, PepsiCo.
Taken one step further, marketers can focus on subcultures as small as the neighborhood around a single grocery store. Firms such as Frito-Lay are now experimenting with customized product selections and in-store displays and promotions based on careful analysis of a store’s neighborhood. The detailed data from scanners at checkout give companies the ability to see whether their experiments work. Kraft also studies the purchases of individual households in search of interesting patterns. The data reveal “clusters of brands that are bought by segments of households,” according to Lorraine Scarpa, senior vice president of marketing services at Kraft General Foods.1’ It also reveals other patterns—some likely the result of micro-cultures that can be reflected in decisions about which Kraft products to stock in which neighborhoods. Scarpa explains,
In a group of 90 Kroger stores in Columbus, we looked at SKU [stock-keeping-unit] movement over a one-month period. The average stores stocked about 23,000 SKUs. 6,700 of those SKUs sold on a given day. 13,600 sold in a week. 17,500 sold in a month and 5,500 did not sell even once in 30 days! Are they the same 5,500 across the 90 stores? No! But a lot are, and when you manage your stores locally, you don’t care that much—you just want them off your shelf.
We’ve all noted the variations in what different grocery stores stock—sometimes it’s a source of frustration that you can’t find something that your local store stocks when you visit a store in a different town. Such variations might seem accidental to the consumer, but in fact they reflect the careful analysis of store-specific data.
The research firm Market Metrics in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, gathers data that include economic, social, and ethnic profiles; traffic patterns; per capita food expenditures; and information on store sales for each of 3,000 supermarkets.’3 Now marketers can take the kind of personality profiles that Tracy-Locke developed for Frito-Lay and match them with individual stores. For example, Coors Light Beer is targeted toward 21- to 34-year-old, male, middle to upper income, suburban or urban heads of households who belong to a health club, buy rock music, travel hy plane, give parties and cookouts, rent videos, and are heavy television sports viewers.’4 This description is so specific that you could probably pick them out just by their clothing, as Howard Davis can with his potato chip profiles. The combination of this profile and store-specific information allows Coors to identify, for example, the three top stores for Coors Light: the Food Emporiums at 1498 York Avenue and First & 72nd Street, and the Gristedes Supermarket at 350 East 86th, all in New York City. This is a subculture of importance to Coors, but one that sociologists might find a bit odd because it is identified primarily by its preference for a specific brand of beer. From a marketing perspective, however, it is just as legitimate as any regional or ethnic subculture—and probably much more useful.
Culture develops because we live together with other people in a society. Living with others creates the need to determine what behaviors are acceptable to all members of the group. To meet this need, groups develop rules of conduct, or norms. Norms are situation specific—they inform the members of a particular cultural group what behavior is correct in certain situations. For the Ruffles customer Howard Davis pegged in the article’s opening quote, for example, wearing boat shoes with blue socks, khaki pants, and a red tie is no doubt accepted within his reference group or subculture, although it might be considered odd by other groups.
Underlying cultural norms are values, the deeply held beliefs and attitudes of the members of a particular society. Values give direction to the development of norms.
The process by which an individual learns cultural values and norms is called socialization or enculturation. We absorb cultural values, ideas, and attitudes primarily from our families, but also through the educational process and religious training. In later years, our behavior is refined by the influence of friends, peers, and the culture at large—everything from fine art to television—and even by marketers as they present ideas through their promotional campaigns. The constellation of attitudes and preferences that go into one of Frito-Lay’s brand-user profiles reflects a common history of family, educational, and social influences. This constellation has a certain stability-they are a real reflection of our culture as experienced by a certain group of people.
Cultural norms are a shifting landscape. Today, the Ruffles consumer may wear blue socks with his boat shoes; tomorrow, boat shoes may be out and loafers in. However, the underlying values are more constant. The Ruffles eater’s attitudes toward the importance of work, for example, are unlikely to change dramatically when he changes his shoes.
Although these values are more constant, they are not unchanging. When cultural values do shift, the impact on society, and on businesses in particular, is dramatic. And values do shift, only it happens so gradually that many marketers fail to take notice. One way to tune into the slower pace of value shifts is to track values by decade, rather than by year. What values were dominant in the 1960s? How do they compare with those of the 1950s—or with today’s values? When looked at that way, values certainly do change.
Take Americans’ attitudes toward luxury living and conspicuous consumption. It seems like a love of luxury alternates with a more frugal love of the simple life from decade to decade. And this swing of the value pendulum is reflected in a host of purchase preferences.
Two snapshots of U.S. consumers serve to illustrate this point. In the first snapshot, taken at the beginning of the 1990s, we see a shift away from luxury and self-indulgence as consumers begin to embrace the “simple life.” Time magazine reported in the spring of 1991 that the United States was shifting toward simpler, home and family-oriented values; Time’s shopping list for the new simple life of the 1990s illustrates the impact of these values on marketers:
Macaroni and cheese. Timex watches. Volunteer work. Insulated underwear. Savings accounts. Roseanne. Domestic beer. Local activism. Sleds. Pajamas. Sentimental movies. Primary colors. Mixed-breed dogs. Bicycles. Cloth diapers. Shopping at Wal-Mart. Small-town ways. Iceberg lettuce. Family reunions. Board games. Hang-it-yourself wallpaper. Push-it-yourself lawn mowers. Silly Putty.
Behind these commercial symbols were a fundamental and significant change in values and lifestyles. Thousands of “dropout” managers such as Peter Lynch, who left his star position at Fidelity for family life, and Barry Blake, who left an executive position in the liquor industry to run an apple winery in Vermont, gave up the corporate chase of the 1980s for a more meaningful lifestyle.
What did this value shift mean for marketers? The researchers at ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding did not know, but they were determined to find out. To do so, they have moved undercover investigators into a small town in the Midwest (they won’t say which one) to observe the simple life firsthand. According to one report, the researchers “are eavesdropping at school-board meetings, at the local cafe, and even at funerals (they say eulogies really sum up the town’s values).”16 According to Dan Fox, the project’s director, they learned that “Everything that is important seems to be tied directly to children. And helping one’s neighbors is not just something do-gooders do. It’s all-pervasive.”
But now let’s flash-forward to another snapshot, this one taken in 1997. It reveals that the number of U.S. households with a net worth of at least $1 million rose 118 percent from 1992 to 1996.17 There are more wealthy people every day, and they are getting richer. And these people like their luxuries. An annual survey of these rich consumers called the Mendelson Affluent Survey (by Mendelson Media Research, Inc.) finds that rich consumers are living the good life. They are far more likely to participate in activities such as tennis, sailing, and skiing, and to buy the expensive equipment these sports require. Other reports indicate that the BMW Z3 roadster, a flashy $35,000 two-seater nobody would describe as practical, is chocking up record sales.
Another study (by the NDP Group, Inc. of Port Washington, New York) finds that growth in spending by people with incomes of $70,000 or more outpaces spending growth in the rest of the U.S. population. In other words, not only are the rich getting richer, but they are also spending more each year.
Perhaps this is why some marketers declared that “status was back” by the mid1990s. It seemed that the quest for the simple life was giving way again to the quest for the “finer” things of life. A Brandweek article declared that, “After years of retreat, affluent consumers are coming out of hibernation to indulge their appetites for the finer things.”
To kick off this seemingly major value shift, Fortune magazine did a story on “The Return of Luxury,” citing rising sales for products like Dior Perfume (at $200 per ounce) and a Louis Vuitton Attaché case that retails for $1,660.
Is the simple life now out again, and luxury back? Luxury products continue to sell well. But so do simple-life goods and services. One hypothesis is that the values in question are both on the upswing in the United States because of a growing economic disparity between the rich and the rest of us. If you take out the wealthy from demographic statistics, you find that household income for everybody else in the United States tends to stay steady or even fall from year to year. And if you are trying to raise a family on a falling income, you are more likely to see the appeal of a back-to-basics ethic than to pursue conspicuous consumption.
On the other hand, the pursuit of luxury may prove to be more democratic than we now think. It took more than millionaires to fuel the rapid growth of the gourmet coffee market, for example. Perhaps the free-spending ways of the wealthy are rubbing off on everybody else, and the United States will re-embrace luxury during the first decade of the new century. An alternative hypothesis is that the simple 1990s are out and a pursuit of luxury will dominate consumer spending in the next decade.
Which hypothesis is right? Such are the questions marketers must ask themselves in order to anticipate consumer tastes. We aren’t sure, but we have a suspicion that the second hypothesis is the best bet—that the pursuit of luxury will gain in popularity among consumers, regardless of their incomes. Why? Well, it’s that mysterious Midwestern town. You see, while we can’t swear to it, we suspect the researchers from Foote, Cone & Belding might have been studying the denizens of Wichita, Kansas. (If not, surely it was a town a lot like this one.) And if you haven’t visited Wichita lately, you might not realize that it was featured in a 1997 USA Today cover story headlined, “Cigar-and-martini town echoes nation’s prosperity.”
It seems that ordinary folk are packing into Mort’s Cigar Bar nightly (it wasn’t even in business back in 1991), and buying BMW roadsters from the local dealer at an amazing clip. Prosperity seems to have seized this dusty old town by the neck and tossed it into a new era. Perhaps the rest of the nation will follow.
Another, more long-term and predictable value shift of importance to U.S. businesses is the change in sexual mores. Society definitely views sex differently today than it did 40 years ago. Whereas in the past, sex was viewed primarily in terms of reproduction, this aspect of sex is given less attention today, and attitudes toward sexuality have become far less strict. Sexual values have changed in part as a result of birth control products, which, incidentally, are an excellent example of how products can and do drive even the most fundamental of cultural values. In the marketplace, these changes are reflected both in the goods and services offered, and in the promotional activities related to them. Few would argue that marketers have not kept pace with these changes in cultural values. Some marketers have used subtle sexual overtones to their advertising, such as the appeal, “All my men wear English Leather—or nothing at all.” Other marketers test the outer limits of the U.S. value system: The highly suggestive and controversial Obsession perfume ads are examples. But these ads are probably not popular in Foote, Cone & Belding’s secret Midwestern village. It will be interesting to see what impact the emerging constellation of simple-life values will have on the use of sex in advertising during the next decade.
In some cultures, the use of sex in advertising is more blatant. In Brazil, risqué advertising is the norm: In commercials for Playboy shampoo, a young couple is shown in bed, whereas another television ad shows two women talking about why people think they are homosexuals. In Japan, sexy ads are commonplace. Only three unwritten taboos exist: no frontal nudity, no depiction of sexual acts, and no advertising using sexual themes during the hours that children watch television. In Sweden, frontal nudity in ads is not only acceptable, but common. Yet the Swedish government, which distills and sells vodka nationwide, bans any form of advertising of hard liquor. In sharp contrast, in Malaysia, ads cannot show bare shoulders or armpits on female models, or touching, kissing, sexy clothing—or even blue jeans. Although the logic of cultural values sometimes escapes marketers, we must acknowledge the values nonetheless.