Consumer-brand relationships are one of the most important area of concern for businesses as consumers have gained a much more powerful and influential position in the current business environment. The various organizations are striving hard to strengthen and enhance the consumer-brand relationships by connecting emotionally with consumers and increasing sales through consumer loyalty. The present paper aims to analyze the role of culture in forming consumer –brand relationships.
Adam Smith, the Father of Economics also known as the first free-market capitalist, wrote at the closing of the 18th century that consumption is the singular end and function of all production and thus, the it should be the sole concern of the producer to attend to this end only, in so far as it may be essential to promote the interest of the consumer. With its beginnings in almost around 300 years ago consumer behavior as seen by the predecessors of today’s economic discipline like Bernoulli, John von Neumann etc., began to explore the very foundation of consumer decision making. However it was in 1960’s that the evolution of the subject of consumer behavior became notable because it was then that a two years study was commissioned in American Business School on the condition of knowledge and information of marketing, by the Ford foundation. From here on knowledge and various theories on consumer behavior were gathered and formulated respectively, each of which inspected consumer behaviour from diverse angles thus shifting the focus from purely economic factors to other social-cultural ones affecting it. Using these theoretical platforms, the marketers studied consumer behavior and framed different marketing programmes and strategies depending upon the consumer perception, interest and attitudes.
- What is Consumption and Consumer Behavior?
Consumption is defined in two ways, the traditional sense which focuses on the actual purchase of goods and services by consumers, and the contemporary sense which focuses on the “use sense” i.e. the actual destruction of the goods and services through the consumption by the consumers.
Consumer behavior is a wider phenomenon and includes consumption within its fold of activities. It is the process through which individuals attain, utilize and finally dispose of the offerings of various companies and enterprises. Over the years the way to view and conceptualize consumer behavior has evolved manifold and therefore today there are multiple theories associated with the concept.
Previously the consumer behavior was looked upon as an economic phenomenon solely motivated by the allure of maximizing the personal utility in the market. The idea began with the concept of the economic man (term used by Joseph Persky ) based on J.S Mill’s conception of man as a being–who “desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end”.
- Consumer Behavior Concept
At its very beginning, consumer behavior was conceptualized only in terms of the economic satisfaction/utility consumers derived from the products or services consumed (marginal utility theory) . However the problem with such a simple and absolutely economically motivated conception of consumer behavior was that it completely overlooked a host of other motivations (social and psychological) that work in tandem to influence consumer behavior as a whole and at the heart of the driving force of consumer behavior lay culture. Culture is all pervasive and affects every facet of our lives, in fact the meaning and values we attach to brands and products are derived from our very cultures. Culture is what binds us in the form of a coherent group, and in the absence of the symbols of recognition it provides us, a society will face much difficulty to survive.
- Role of culture in consumer behavior and Consumer- Brand relationship
According to , culture is defined as the collective programming of the human mind that helps in distinguishing one group of people from the other.
Culture is considered to underlie every behavioral dimension and because of the growth in the perception of its role, marketing literature has in the recent past started focusing on the different influence culture has, its role and degree of importance in relation to consumer behavior consequently determining Consumer-Brand relation, both at the national and international level.
The very first and substantial attempt to theorize consumer behavior and its related effects, in terms of culture was made Thorstein Veblen in 1899- known as Veblenian model. He highlighted man’s role as principally a social animal and that all his desires and actions are greatly influenced by the group of which he is a member. This is because people always want to fit in – their social group and a society at large, often overriding their individual likes and dislikes. Thus making Culture, sub culture, social and its units the different factor groups influencing buyer behavior. The theory rightly drew focus to those factors which were being ignored by the classical economists in their attempt to glorify on only rationality and economic motives. From here the marketers get the hint that they should reorient their focus to include such major factors as cultural specificity, but they still have to find out exactly which aspects of the culture to focus on and to what degree.
What Veblen had started, resulted in the concept of consumer brand relationship. This concept was further shaped by - 1993 Max Blackston’s “Beyond Brand Personality: Building Brand Relationships”, followed by Fajer and Schouten’s "Breakdown and Dissolution of Person-Brand Relationships", (1995) and, Fournier’s “Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research, Journal of Consumer Research (1998); with the latter’s contributions being one of the most notable in the field, currently. These three notable works, along with various others in the field have established a strong platform for the argument that today, consumers share a relationship with brands which goes far beyond the products physical functional characteristics. In fact, the symbolic value which are offered by brands are used by consumers to establish allegiance or express aspirations to join certain social groups, as well as differentiation from other consumers who subscribe to a different cultural influence .
The current theory of consumer-brand relationship has brought into focus the term relationship, and the relationships that consumers foster and share with people, products or services are a result of a collection of influences, again most of which are a direct result of the social and cultural specificity of the consumers. Thus, the highly embedded nature of culture in the lives and thought processes of consumers warrants the maximum attention to it when studying consumer and brand relation.
Figure 1 Impact of Culture on Consumer Behavior
Consumer decision-making and behavior is impacted to a large extent in the way his culture has shaped him and the desires and aspirations he has about himself with respect to his cultural specificity. Culture is prescriptive and sets ideal standards of behaviors as well as expectations from us. Several cultural factors impact consumer behavior in a myriad of ways for e.g. people coming from different faiths avoid certain food products due to the influence of the religious culture they have been brought up with. Another example which illustrates the cultural influence on consumer behavior is the cases of iPhones- most of the target consumers of such products are usually young. Their friends dabble in those products and expect them to do the same, thus in order to ‘fit in’ they too acquire such products, where those of an older age demographic, who are not too well-versed with the changing pace of technology, are wary and cautious of spending a substantial amount of money in acquiring such products. This mentality and behavior is shared within their cultural-social group, thereby impacting their consumer behavior.
- Standardization and Adaptation Theories
Culture is perpetuated by the society through their transmission in the form of customs followed and passed on, generation by generation, through socialization. These customs usually dictate us What we hold as important, how we dress, eat and on what we spend our money. Owing to this significance of culture in the daily lives of consumers it becomes of obvious importance to
marketers. And this factor becomes all the more important when an individual or a corporation or a brand enters a new environment with diverse culture for the very first time. Cross-cultural communication creates stress on all parties involved, and it is understandable as cultures don’t usually fit in with each other perfectly. In the face of such stress, the involved parties take either of the two courses i.e. either they choose to stick with their own characteristics (standardization), or they choose to fit in with the new environment with their own characteristics and features (adaptation). In the last couple of decades this very issue of Standardization and Adaptation has received wide spread attention in the theoretical field of culture and consumer –brand relationship.
The debate has seen those like Levitt, stress on the continuously converging nature of the cultures and consequently of people’s demands and needs, thereby stressing o the need of Standardization whereas on the other hand have emerged proponents of Adaptation like Calantone and Hofstede. The supporters of the concept of adaptation like Hofstede claimed that, attitude such as “cultural choices of their own country are necessarily superior to those of other countries” is “a luxury that the management of a multinational corporation can no longer afford.” Thus establishing that the very basic need for penetrating foreign markets is modification in the characteristic features or products to satisfy and suit local customer needs. Supporters of the adaptation strategy therefore stress that there are no two countries which are exactly the same, and consequently, adaptation to a certain degree is required to appeal to buyers and maximize profits.
- The Role of Marketers
Culture may be the most basic reason for a particular type of behavior of an individual . Owing to this very significant role of culture in the life and decision making process of the consumer, the marketer has to be additionally cautious when devising new marketing strategies to increase consumption, especially when the marketers target a consumer base which belongs to a foreign culture. This is no way a mean feat as given the fast pace of modern society and the effects of globalization, both our domestic and international culture’s are constantly changing and evolving, with parallel effects on the composite units of cultures i.e. sub-culture and contra cultures etc. Hence, marketers have to devise flexible strategies to keep up with changing consumer behaviors.
Culture however, does not interact with consumers only, it has also begun to directly influence brands themselves, because of this certain brands become cultural icons – working as signs representing certain culturally desirable qualities like i.e. providing cultural capital and social currency to their consumer e.g. Harley Davidson bikes or Rolex watches. These products have become intrinsically woven with cultural perception of status, and this image is more or less associated with these brands universally. So a marketer, in order to increase the consumption of his products must exploit all resources at his disposal to make his product not only seem culturally acceptable and relevant to its target consumers, but help it tie itself to culturally desirable goals and qualities which will translate to its acquiring social influence and immediate acceptance.
MTV has positioned itself as a global brand that is seen by teenagers all over the world and therefore leads to the emergence of a global culture that influences teenagers to wear denim jackets, jeans and running shoes . The emergence of global culture of consumption has been largely attributed to the globalization and internationalization of brands.
- Culture, Consumer –Brand Relation and the Contemporary Issue of Adaptation
McDonald’s fast food restaurant chain is the largest of its kind today and has penetrated almost all global major markets, but food habits and customs vary from country to country, culture to culture, so how has the company tackled the influence of culture in its new markets?
It is of utmost importance to respond to cultural changes when crossing borders, because that helps brands respond to the demands of the new destinations and generate different as well as desirable responses. The company in question has done exactly so by adapting, taking into account the sensitive cultural factors, there influences and coming up with products to suit those influences.
The biggest challenge posed to the company has been its ability to fit in the Asian markets, especially in countries like India, where the culture and customs associated with food are widely incompatible with those seen in McDonald’s home base, the U.S. nonetheless, the company has molded itself to suit the needs of the local cultural dictates and has come up with a variety of options suited to the local palate. This is especially witnessed in the inclusion of a large number of vegetarian options in the food chain’s Indian menu which include Mc Aloo Tikki Burger, Mc Spicy Paneer Burger, which are especially dependent on the use of cottage cheese and fresh veggies, and make absolutely no use of beef in their products, as the largest part of the Indian population are Hindus i.e. 80% who mostly don’t consume meat, and for whom consumption or even coming in contact with beef is a sacrilege. Thus, the company has made a definite effort in adapting to the local taste in so much so that it has broken out of its strict rule regarding menu offerings. Everywhere in the world, Mc Donald’s upholds a strict 70% original 30% local menu. In India however, McDonald’s reversed those numbers thus offering a 30% original 70% local menu. Removed from the menu are the Big Mac and Quarter Pounder, the hamburgers that made McDonald’s the star it is today. Catering to the Muslim population of the same the McRib has also been removed as they do not eat pork. Thus heavily incorporating in their places potato, lamb, and chicken, and cottage cheese based menu.
Culture plays an important role in the formation of the consumer brand relationships. The culture of the consumers determine their preferences and tastes. The brands that adapt and customize their products so as to meet customer demands and aspirations and blend with their cultural environment are more likely to succeed and form stronger relationships with their consumers. The case of Mc Donald’s explained in the paper clearly demonstrates the advantages of product customization and cultural adaptation of the brand Mc Donald’s that is evident from the success of the fast food chain in different parts of the world.
On the basis of the current study following are recommended for brands in order to improve their relationships with the customers:
Cultural Sensitivity: The brands should be culturally sensitive and should ensure that any activity of the brand should not hurt the sentiments of the local customers. For example restaurant chains should not offer beef products in locations such as India where cow is considered as a sacred animal and killing of cows for beef shall hurt the emotional sentiment of the local people and thus create a negative brand association.
Product Customization: Brands need to adapt their products and offerings in order to meet the demands of the local customers. For example, the product customization by Mc Donald’s in India to launch Mc Aloo Tikki Burger and Mc Arabia in UAE are an efficient means to attract customers towards the brand and also connect emotionally with the brand.
Customer Insights: Brands need to study the culture of the target market in order to develop a deeper understanding of the culture of the people and also interpret their likely behavior in the form of customer insights that will help brands to develop strategies for new markets.
Employee Training and Development: It is important for global brands to ensure employee training and development so as to deal with diverse cultures and adapt themselves with the culture of the target market.
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