THE BLOG
11/25/2014 04:57 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

Are We Viewing Consumer as Human?

Now here's a novel concept for marketers - let's look at consumers as human beings! Unfortunately, far too many professionals in the field today have forgotten this very basic premise. It has become all about demographics and analytics; the consumer is nothing more than a series of numbers and trends. But these are actual people whose every buying action is being studied and dissected.

Underneath all the shopping, online searching, and purchasing is a human being who takes a particular action for very personal reasons. Those reasons maybe based on a response to advertising or a referral from a trusted influencer, but it is just as likely that there is something that is engrained in their consciousness as a member of a particular cultural group. Marketing success comes from uncovering cultural differences and comprehending how those differences impact a brand or product.

Many companies have started moving away from the numbers and statistics by utilising anthropological and ethnographic research for their marketing and management teams. These professionals provide a new method of gaining insights of consumers' culture, allowing them to look at consumers wholistically rather than just numerically (as human beings, instead of just numbers).

The Influence of Culture

Noted anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined culture as "an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life". Based on symbols such as words, images and objects, culture becomes patterned and integrated. It forms a relatively coherent system for members, which is realized in habits and laws, both spoken and unspoken.

Passed on from generation to generation, or member to member, culture is learned, either consciously or unconsciously. Although a culture may exist for centuries, it can still be adaptive, constantly changing to meet the needs of the modern world in which it exists. Culture is omnipresent; it is something that is shared by everyone, but at the same time experienced differently. Individuals can even be part of more than one culture.

When corporations attempt to improve the consumer experience, they need to investigate why consumers act in a certain way, based on their cultural affiliations. To change a product from something that is considered "other" or "foreign" to something that is "familiar" requires understanding the target group's cultural foundations. "Prescott (1998) suggested that familiarity provides the context for new foods and signals their palatability and safety". For example, when youths in Beijing tried cheese, a pretty new food in China, "(Zhang et al. 2011), they preferred cottage and cream cheese to Havarti and Cheddar, accepting milk-like or yogurt-like attributes abundant in fresh cheeses, while rejecting free fatty acid and umami attributes that are typical of aged cheese" (Case Study with Korean Traditional Cookie - Yackwa). And that is what marketers need to start doing, finding the familiar milk-like or yogurt-like aspects of their product and market towards that.

Understanding the Underlying Culture

A prime example of how understanding the underlying culture helps improve consumer experience is looking at globalization. According to Fung, "Unlike scholars, transnational corporations take a more pragmatic view of globalization: to them, globalization and localization are strategies to maximize profits". In an effort to increase profit levels, companies can, and often do, reinvent themselves to better fit the culture they wish to serve. This can be seen in the upscale cafes that Starbucks offers in international cities like Paris, or in the way McDonald's customizes its menus in different markets to suit local tastes. Coca-Cola will change the lettering on its labels to appeal to a host country.

Even the all-American corporation Disney, which initially wanted to give tourists worldwide an "authentic" Disney experience, had to make some local accommodations when opening Hong Kong Disneyland. "Faced with unsatisfactory attendance, the park management agreed to incorporate more Chinese cultural elements: Mickey Mouse wears a Chinese long robe; visitors are greeted by a character representing the traditional Chinese God of Wealth; and there is dragon dancing during the Chinese New Year". In 2008, Disney went as far as adapting the "Year of the Rat" to the "Year of the Mouse" for their Chinese New Year celebration.

In the article "An Anthropologist Walk Into A Bar...," Christian Madsbjerg cites the example of Coloplast, a company which makes ostomy bags. The company's sales were falling, so they changed their point of view to understand what it felt like to be an ostomy patient. Through anthropological research, Coloplast realized it had not achieved its company's main goal, stopping leakage, thereby reducing customers' quality of life. Based on this insight, they designed a new product that would fit more body types, BodyFit. This new product was extremely successful.

Subcultures Within a Culture

Across the United States, there are huge differences in culture. People in Florida are different from those in Ohio, who are different from Washington residents, who are different from those in New Jersey. This can be seen in the use of dialects, slang, and even references to common words, such as "pop" vs "soda," or the dozens of ways to describe a long piece of bread with meat and cheese (submarine, hero, bomber, or hoagie). National marketing campaigns that try to refer to a product one way will appeal to just one subculture and only serve to confuse and alienate other subcultures.

Even in one geographic location, the culture is not homogeneous; there can be many underlying subcultures. Take, for example, a target audience of teens in the Bay Area of California. Trying to advertise to this group would be difficult to generalize because there is a huge non-native Bay Area population, especially from Asian countries, but also from other areas within the U.S.; a large disparity in socio-economic standings; and a racially diverse population. No one marketing strategy can effectively appeal to all these groups.

Companies which take the time to study cultures and subcultures, look for patterns and themes, and truly look at their consumers as human beings instead of just marketing statistics will increase the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns and improve their overall consumer experience.