How well do you know your customer?

For the past years we have experienced an intensive rise of big data with its capacity to understand and predict consumer behavior.

Anca Agapi & Valentin Chernikov, 23.05.2014

Customer acquisition, customer activity, recency, frequency and monetary value, share of wallet, customer engagement value, as well as life-time value are just a few customer-related marketing metrics that are used nowadays by many companies to measure firm performance.

However, it is not always rewarding to measure your clients’ interests and preferences based on pure numbers let alone to understand the true reasoning behind their purchasing behavior and how they consume your product. Many companies that managed to build iconic brands have found more value in looking at what is happening behind the numbers and going the extra mile to learn how their customers think, believe and experience. Companies like Nike, Harley Davidson, and Volkswagen have built success stories by documenting people’s attitudes and emotions to gain a sense of what life feels like if one were in their shoes.

Companies build better marketing strategies when they identify with their consumers. This is achieved by recognizing consumers’ values, their ideology, the environment they live in and, most importantly, their culture. Marketing and advertising professionals are recognizing the need to leverage cultural knowledge to induce consumers to form deeper relationships with products. There seems to be a shift in brand management from the traditional features and benefits mentality to strategies based on understanding what a product or service offers and how it affects consumers’ lives.1

Consumer culture theory is fundamentally concerned with the cultural meanings, socio-historic influences, and social dynamics that shape consumer experiences and identities in all the contexts of everyday life. The researchers investigate how consumers consume across a large area of social spaces (e.g. the home, the office, diverse retail settings, the Web, leisure enclaves, tourist sites).2

Products and brands are viewed and analyzed as cultural artifacts, as resources and carriers of meanings and symbols. Consumers also invest meanings in these products by producing new values through their use in their ordinary lives.

In his research on how brands become icons, Holt is showing how brands perform myths through its associated stories and how consumers relive these stories by ritually consuming the product. As an illustrative example, Mountain Dew has been seen by its consumers as an expression of manhood by performing extreme sports and seeking out insane risks that add up to the adrenaline thrill. After being considered one of the ugliest and least reliable cars on the road in 1959, Volkswagen Beetle reinvented its brand as a bohemian one that creates a world in which the consumers are intelligent and creative people who can define for themselves what is stylish and beautiful. This allowed Beetle to quickly become the choice of hippy riders, who saw in the car the opportunity of creative reconstruction of the self.3 The cultural meaning of these products allows consumers to live their values by consuming the experiences the brands provide.

John Schouten, researcher and professor of marketing at Aalto University School of Business, has brought valuable contribution to many companies such as Harley Davidson, Nissan North America, Toyota, Chrysler-Jeep, General Motors and Yamaha by researching the market impact of consumption subcultures and brand communities. His extensive ethnographic study of Harley-Davidson motorcycle ownership has revealed important marketing implications associated with consumption-oriented subcultures. His findings indicate a complex social structure of multiple, coexisting subgroups of Harley riders. Each subgroup has its own separate hierarchy and although they are all highly committed to the Harley Davidson motorcycle and its consumption values, each subgroup has its unique interpretation of the biker spirit and each pursues its own purpose. Schouten also shows that subcultures of consumption tend to patronize marketers who cater to their specialized needs. Therefore, marketers who understand the structure and ideology of a subculture of consumption can profit from taking an active role in cultivating the commitment of its members and from serving its needs.4 These implications brought for Harley Davidson fierce customer loyalty, voluminous publicity and highly useful consumer feedback. The ability to gain such an extensive understanding of the bikers’ lifestyle and identity has been created through the transformation of the researchers from outsiders to insiders within the subculture of consumption.

Understanding consumer culture through new approaches to marketing and consumer research has helped the aforementioned marketers to carry out successful, innovative and customer-oriented marketing strategies. It has enabled them to create products and services that add value and make sense in the everyday life of their consumers and help them to build and manage strong and appealing brands.

  1. Moisander J. and Valtonen A. (2006), Qualitative Marketing Research - A Cultural Approach, London ; Thousand Oaks, CA : Sage Publications
  2. Arnould Eric J. and Thompson Craig J. (2005), Consumer Culture Theory (CCT): Twenty Years of Research, Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 31, No. 4, pages 868-882
  3. Holt Douglas B. (2004), How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press
  4. Schouten John W. and McAlexander James H. (1995), Subcultures of Consumption: An Ethnography of the New Bikers, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 22, No. 1, pages 43-61
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