Understanding consumers and consumer behavior is an ongoing challenge for marketers looking to thrive in their market. Thankfully, over the past few decades there has been quite a bit of research into consumer behavior and social psychology, making an ongoing education in the study a bit easier. This post is a short introduction into some of that research, particularly consumer culture and marketing. First we’ll answer a simple question, "what is consumer culture?". Afterwards, we’ll take this seemingly complex topic and try to simplify it by demonstrating how marketing professionals can start to think about consumer cultures practically, and even begin using some of the research into this field in their decision making processes. At the end of this article, we conclude with a few fun examples on why seeing things through the consumer lens can be beneficial, and what it can can show us about life and culture in America. Lets get started!
Consumer culture is a culture where social status, values, and activities are centered around the consumption of goods and services. In a consumer culture, a large part of what defines the individual members and their perceived values revolves around their consumption of stuff. Essentially, consumer culture is very much a mentality based around the act of buying.
The theory of consumer culture stems from concepts of consumerism, which is the idea that buying stuff is more purposeful than just tending to physical needs. This where consumer behavior and culture research comes in, these fields try to look at the study of consumption, choices, and behaviors from a social and cultural point of view, as opposed to an economic or psychological one.
One of the best ways to really grasp the concept of consumer culture is by understanding it through example. So let's look at a typical American day to really understand what it means in practice. In this story we’re going to be following around Jessica Smith.
Jessica the Consumer works at a company as an executive assistant. She spends a large portion of her life - about a third of it - busy at work. She’s not particularly attached to her job, but she also doesn’t absolutely hate it either - for Jessica her work is a means to an end to give her the ability to acquire things that she wants.
Jessica is constantly exposed to the market offering her products and services to consume. She wakes up in the morning to the sound of her radio alarm clock where a significant amount of the airtime is spent advertising goods and services instead of playing music. She watches the news during breakfast, along with the commercials that play about every eight minutes or so. Her car radio also broadcasts offers for products and services to her on the way to work. She spots the sign of a coffee shop about a mile away from work, which prompts her to turn in and pick up a mocha. At work, banner ads are on the search engine that she uses to do her job, and on her lunch break she flips through a magazine where about a third of the pages consist of ads.
After work, Jessica stops off at a gas station to fill up her tank. While she waits, she watches a reel of advertisements playing on a television screen embedded into the gas station pump. On her way home, she decides she doesn't want to cook and pulls into the local pizza joint that is always advertising on the radio to pick up a pizza to eat for dinner.
At home, Jessica grabs a bottle of her favorite brand of soft drink and sits down in front of the TV with her pizza. She watches the nightly news while eating dinner, as well as the commercials that appear, again about every eight minutes or so. After the news, she watches her favorite television series while she shops online using a new phone that she recently purchased. She goes to sleep after staying up to hear the highlight reel from a recent game of her favorite sports team, provided by a large corporation that sells branded apparel.
As we follow Jessica throughout a typical day in her life, we see exactly what its like to live inside a consumer culture. By modern estimates, it isn’t unreasonable for Americans to be exposed to around 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements each day, and actively interact with around 100 or so different brands a day. In this context, we can start to see just how powerful the consumer culture lens can can be to understanding more about individuals and the brands that they associate with.
Diving into the research of consumer culture can be difficult, and it can be challenging to try and translate observations into practical insight. One of the most important things that marketing professionals can do is to remember that consumer culture is still culture. That means it follows the same principles, same rules, and same basic structure that most all other cultures do. A few important points to remember are:
|Consumer Behavior||United States Culture||Other Cultures|
|Texting/eating/drinking while driving||U.S. society seems to be more accepting of 'multi-tasking' behavior with 40 percent of teens admitting to it. The concept of staying “connected” is highly valued.||BMW, a European car manufacturer originally resisted the concept of including cup-holders into their vehicles because they believed it would decrease a drivers' ability to focus on driving.
Countries like Portugal have also enacted harsh laws on citizens even suspected of driving while using technology. Bans on the use of mobile phones while driving have been expanded to include the use of hands-free devices as well.
|Consumers under 21 consuming beer or wine with dinner||Unacceptable or even illegal in much of the U.S.||In many parts of Western Europe, enjoying an alcoholic beverage can be a regular part of a nice family meal. To many, It's not considered “drinking.”|
|An outdoor cookout with BBQ Pork Ribs||A meal for summertime "backyard barbecue" or a celebratory activity at a sports tailgating event.||Pork is an unacceptable food in many non-Christian cultures for religious reasons.|
The idea of the consumer culture isn't new, but its an important unifying theory, especially as fields like consumer behavior and social psychology continue to grow and develop. As these fields expand marketers and business development managers are revisiting the lessons learned in this theory as they look to apply its wisdom into practice. One of the most important lessons to remember when analyzing consumer cultures of any geographic location, is to remember that a consumer culture is a culture by definition. That means it can be broken down into the same component parts of all cultures, making it easier to digest and even more practical to use.
How do you use the consumer culture theory in your marketing practice? Do you think the theory can help you become a better marketer? Let us know in the comments below.