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Understanding your customers
Understanding your customers

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2.4 Consumer culture theory

Behavioural economics and neuromarketing are both broadly based on objective observations from which consumers’ responses may be predicted. Our final example of an emerging contemporary understanding, consumer culture theory, is more interpretative.

‘Consumer culture theory’ (Arnould and Thompson, 2005) is so called because it encourages an understanding of customer behaviour as part of a complex, intricate web of interrelated practices – a ‘culture’ of practices. ‘Practices’ in this sense means regular, routinised activities for which people develop skills and particular ways of doing things. Therefore, instead of seeing a shopping trip to the supermarket as an isolated episode, consumer culture theory (CCT) researchers argue that it should be understood as embedded in a network of supporting practices that precede and follow it in the lives of the people involved.

Any culture can be described and understood as a network of such practices. For example, ‘club culture’ consists of a network of practices such as getting ready, going out, socialising, fashion, music, recreational drugs (legal and otherwise), venues, celebrities and recovering, all of which fit together to create a complex whole. In the following activity you will examine CCT as a way of understanding customer behaviour.

Activity 8 Practices in a food shopping culture

Timing: Allow 20 minutes for this activity

What practices might a food shopping culture contain? List up to five practices in the text box.

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Szmigin and Piacentini (2015, p. 53) suggest a food shopping culture might include menu planning, list-making, domestic storage arrangements, domestic routines and cooking arrangements. There are plenty more practices that could be added to the list: vegetarianism or veganism, cultural traditions of food preparation, slimming, hosting guests, being guests, celebrating, recycling and food composting practices, and so on. The point to take from this, whatever the detail of your own list, is that the list of behaviours that are of potential relevance to researchers of food shopping is as rich and complex in food shopping as in any other form of sophisticated cultural activity.

You will now examine four strands of academic research in CCT and how they contribute to our understanding of customers (Arnould and Thompson, 2005). The field is continually developing, but a brief description of each theme will provide an insight into the topics which preoccupy researchers in this area, and the practical implications of their work.

  • Consumer identity projects: This theme examines how consumers create the stories of their lives through what they buy and use. Jewellery to mark special occasions in a relationship is a case in point, with marketing and advertising for objects like engagement rings closely aligned to the cultural rituals of pairing off and settling down. Cruises are marketed to those in retirement as a way of marking a new stage in their life course. At the other end of the age continuum, children mark their initiation into the world of brands with products like ‘My First Sony’.
  • Marketplace cultures: This strand of research underlines how consumers ‘co-produce’ the markets in which they are active. Club culture provides a good example of this, with trends in fashion, music, venue branding, motivated not only by the entrepreneurs who run clubs but also by the clubbers who frequent them. Other good examples of marketplace cultures include sports events and live classical music (O’Sullivan, 2009).
  • Socio-historical patterning of consumption: This covers, for example, how consumers and consumption have been, and continue to be, represented in news reporting, films, fiction and other media. The history of department stores as a new ‘public/private’ space for women in the late nineteenth century is a good example, as is contemporary ‘chicklit’ such as Sophie Kinsella’s 2000 novel Confessions of a Shopaholic, subsequently successfully adapted for cinema and television. These representations affect how we view and approach the practice of shopping ourselves.
  • Consumers’ interpretative strategies: This stream looks at how customers interpret, internalise and occasionally subvert brands and marketing messages. This can be motivated by genuine enthusiasm for brands – for example consumer-generated videos on YouTube showing products being ‘unboxed’ – or consumers can adopt a more critical stance in the way they remix advertising, producing mock ads as a way of hitting back at big business.

Each of these streams of research has the potential to yield useful marketing insights. For example, seeing the purchase of a washing detergent within a culture of practices aimed at nurturing one’s family appears to have inspired Unilever to promote Persil detergent as a part of family life. Compare this approach to the tactics employed by its rival Procter and Gamble in support of its Ariel detergent brand. Ariel is, generally speaking, promoted on the rational grounds of how effective it is. Persil advertising tends to have a more emotional message.

Paying attention to consumers’ interpretive strategies can also give marketers clues about attitudes to and usage of their brands. It could be argued that the kind of customers who take the trouble to post ‘fan ads’ on YouTube are not typical of the market. But social media and online reviews now give customers the opportunity to interpret their experience of marketing on a massively public scale.

User generated content (UGC) is not always so supportive of advertiser intentions, however. The North American activist group Adbusters uses the internet as a medium for subverting mainstream advertising. Try an online search using ‘Adbusters’ as your search term to sample their work.