6.4 Sociological factors
A number of factors concerning the way society is structured will also be of relevance to many organisations.
An important component of social structure is social class. Social class refers to the hierarchical distinction between individuals or groups in society. The factors that determine class vary from one society to another. The most obvious meaning of this term used to be in relation to the stratum of society into which one was born (aristocratic, middle class, working class) and class still means this to many people. In contemporary capitalist societies, it is common to define class in terms of income, status, education or profession, or a combination of these.
An important implication of the existence of such a class structure is that social class can create different customer groups. It is therefore a tool for market segmentation. The social classes are widely used to profile and predict different customer behaviour. Identifying a segment, in which customers share certain characteristics, such as level of income, is useful when developing products for those customers.
Culture refers to a set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterise a society or a social group within it. Cultural factors also have a significant impact on customer behaviour as culture is the most fundamental influence on a person’s wants and behaviour. As with social class, culture can create customer groups and is therefore important for marketing. For example, there has been a cultural shift towards greater concern about health and fitness, which has created opportunities for serving customers who wish to buy:
- low calorie foods
- health club memberships
- exercise equipment
- activity- or health-related holidays.
Similarly, the increased desire for leisure time has resulted in increased demand for convenience products and services such as microwave ovens, ready meals and direct marketing service businesses such as telephone banking and insurance.
Each culture contains sub-cultures – particular groups of people with shared values. Sub-cultures can include nationalities, religions, and racial groups of people sharing the same geographical location. Sometimes a sub-culture will create a substantial and distinctive market segment of its own. For example, the ‘youth culture’ or ‘club culture’ has quite distinct values and buying characteristics from the much older ‘grey generation’.
Cultural shifts also impact on other functions within an organisation. For example, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women participating in the workforce and this raises a number of potential (and actual) discrimination issues, for instance, in terms of promotion and seniority and sexual harassment. HR policies must attempt to guard against these. Many organisations are responding by, for example:
- introducing flexible working hours to help women cope with the demands of career and family responsibilities
- providing education and training for managers and the workforce to encourage equal opportunities and discourage discrimination.
Another important cultural shift is the increasing concern for the physical environment among organisations’ various stakeholders (employees, customers, investors, local community and so on). Organisations are responding in a number of ways:
- by introducing ‘green products’ to exploit the opportunity, for example, environmentally friendly deodorants, washing powder and cleaning agents
- by exercising greater care in disposing of industrial waste
- by reducing their carbon footprint by, for example, sourcing raw materials locally, not using air freight, using video conferencing instead of executive travel, using energy efficient appliances, etc.
- by social and environmental reporting. Increasingly, large companies are providing information (which is not currently required by law or accounting regulations) on environmental policies in their annual financial reports.
Many companies now present a corporate social responsibility report, although the content varies greatly between companies. This report is usually posted on the company’s website.
In addition to such voluntary responses based on enlightened self-interest, organisations are increasingly needing to familiarise themselves with environmental legislation and direct government action, for example:
- the congestion charge in inner London
- fines for breaching pollution guidelines
- the landfill tax on hazardous waste.