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Thai food, living ‘hygge’… What drives us to consume products from other cultures?

Written by Catherine Demangeot, Professeure associee de marketing, IÉSEG School of Management


When was the last time you went out for a Thai meal, got items from the ethnic isle of a supermarket, wore a pashmina, or watched a foreign film? Many of us consume culturally-cued offerings, either recurrently or for special occasions. Irrespective of their prominence in our lives, products, services or experiences assigned with different cultural meanings can enable us to engage with, learn about and become more open toward other cultures. Therefore, we can say that consumption experiences facilitate many of our intercultural interactions.

Many of our contemporary societies have become multicultural, and culturally cued offerings are widely available. This makes it interesting to consider what drives people to interact with different cultures through consumption, and to ponder how product/service providers can facilitate intercultural interactions that are helpful for society.

We conducted a research study recently published in the Journal of Business Research, consisting of 31 interviews with locally-born and migrant residents of a multicultural city in the United Kingdom. Our study reveals that three rather different types of motivations drive people to consume culturally-cued offerings. We title them integrative, instrumental and mundane motivations, as follows.

Integrative motivations: identifying with an ideal social group or a worldview

We found that some people choose culturally cued products as a mark of a cosmopolitan lifestyle or to show their appreciation and respect for a given community. An example would be someone choosing to eat in a Mexican restaurant to demonstrate their liking of, and association with, Mexican culture and with the broad community of humans across borders.

People driven by integrative motivations usually want to bring a contribution to the well-being of mankind, or to culturally different groups. They use consumption as a way to materialise and display these values. For example, one of our participants told us that through purchasing ingredients from a Japanese store, he is “also supporting that culture and that trade” and he engages in “a long chain of humanity”. Integrative motivations therefore have an altruistic and aspirational nature.

Instrumental motivations: self-development and knowledge accumulation

We found that people can also use culturally cued consumption because of an interest for self-development and knowledge accumulation. For example, some of the people we interviewed, who recently moved to the UK, reported that they often select the social events and activities that they participate in based on the opportunities to engage with the locals. One participant told us that they attend social activities organised by their Chinese friends, including trips and parties, in order to improve their language skills in advance of a planned move to China.

Participants who plan to move to a specific country in the future, whether locally-born or migrant, reported that they prepare for their move by learning about that culture beforehand through consuming some culturally-cued offerings. Others discussed “being aware” of other cultures’ customs as a required adaptation to living in culturally diverse societies. One of our participants talks about how her attitude moved from being curious and interested in exploring diversity as a way of expressing her values to being “less, I don’t want to say less sensitive, but I just get on with it, because it’s how the way life is really.”

By using consumption as a learning opportunity, participants in our study demonstrate an active effort for developing culturally sensitive behaviours and adapting to diverse cultural environments. These motivations have a utilitarian and self-centred nature. They evidence that people are likely to engage with cultural diversity when they perceive that it will yield individual benefits (e.g., learning new skills, extending social networks).

Mundane motivations: convenience and entertainment

Not all people who choose culturally cued offerings proactively seek some form of intercultural interaction. Some participants in our study expressed indifference to the cultural meanings of some consumption alternatives and simply preferred them due to their convenience. For example, they may eat dishes that are typical of other cultures, like pizzas, because they are widely available. Others appreciate culturally cued experiences simply as entertainment. For example, one may attend a Chinese New Year celebration purely as an opportunity for enjoyment, not as a means to interact with different cultures. One of our study participants described this kind of motivation thus: “You would go out for an experience, so you’d cross culture for dinner […]. I think it’s more of an experience that is entertaining experience than a lived experience”.

Mundane motivations demonstrate that people may choose to consume culturally cued products, services and experiences as a result of the pervasiveness of cultural diversity rather than out of any interest for it or by deliberate effort. These motivations reveal indifference toward other cultures and they demonstrate that observable consumption of culturally cued products is not always a mark of cultural openness.

How do managers activate different motivations?

Practitioners, such as ethnic entrepreneurs (e.g., Korean restaurant owners, African textile creators) or managers in organizations operating in multicultural markets (e.g., L’Oreal, Lustucru, La Boulangerie Paul) can activate different motivations through their marketing strategies. Public spaces can also be designed to activate different motivations. Public service leaders can purposefully encourage such strategies. For instance, Frederik Law Olmsted designed many American parks such as New York’s iconic Central Park with the intent of prompting encounters and interactions among people of different cultural origins so that they could learn from one another at a time of fast immigration and social changes, resulting in better overall relations within cities. An informed approach among public and business leaders can facilitate intercultural interactions and contribute to efforts in building cultural openness in society.

To activate integrative motivations, marketing campaigns may emphasize the “pro-social” nature of this behaviour over the gains that it may bring; for example, people may be reminded through advertising campaigns that they can support cultural groups or partake in that culture by purchasing their products. For instance, the Ikea website provides information on the “hygge” lifestyle originating in Denmark, in the process enabling us to “live hygge” by purchasing the relevant items for our homes. As another example, Air France’s “France is in the air” commercial, which was conceived for international markets, gives people access to a contemporary vision of the perceived way of life in France

To activate instrumental motivations, marketing campaigns and employees interfacing with customers of different cultural backgrounds could stress self-benefits (such as learning); for example, product packaging may include information about a culture and their customs. Herb and spice brand Ducros provides detailed information, on their website, on the origin of spices and their different uses across cultures.

Victoria’s Secret mistake and how marketers can be a positive force for intercultural engagement

The activation of mundane motivations is more problematic in terms of promoting positive intercultural interactions, as it is important for culturally cued offerings not to be positioned purely on convenience. This would risk disconnecting offerings from their original culture, or offending, when that culture is misrepresented for the benefit of the marketer – a phenomenon which has come to be termed cultural appropriation. For example, at a fashion show, one of the models of lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret wore a Native American headdress. This event elicited strong reactions that pointed to the problematic disconnection from the original meaning of an important object among Native American cultures, and the disrespect toward these cultures.

Our study demonstrates that we cannot assume that consumption of culturally cued offerings is always a mark of cultural openness. Indeed, people have various motivations for choosing them. However, marketing practitioners may activate these motivations to enable intercultural engagement.

The findings of our study are particularly relevant in the context of the current pandemic, when social interaction and travel are severely restricted and private or public products/services and media may be the most accessible means people have, to continue engaging with intercultural experiences. Such interactions, and their authenticity, may become even more important if we are to ensure that the growing appeal of “localism” does not inadvertently cut us off from the benefits of intercultural learning and engagement.

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