The Context of Culture (Consumer Understanding #12)

Mar 21 2011

Context in mind

We have already talked about social bias, and the human tendency to follow the herd as one of the mental shortcuts we all use to guide our decisions more quickly and efficiently.  We have also seen how context is a critical trigger of memory, and how different contexts can lead to very different behaviours even when our basic needs or goals are the same.

In any situation, there are multiple contextual cues influencing us at many levels: the environment, the people we are with, the social occasion, and cultural norms and values (including those of geography, tribe, religion and politics).  These contextual cues change our perception profoundly, setting our expectations and anticipation of outcomes and priming us to behave in particular ways, just as visual context changes our perception of the same stimulus.

The dependency of thought

So how we interpret events, depends completely on the context which gives us many of the most valuable ‘clues’ as to what we should expect next.  When you are asked a question, how often do you want to say, “it depends”?  Although it can be infuriating to get such an evasive answer, the reality is that it’s a sensible one.  When we ask someone a question, the answer they give depends on their perception of the context, and if we don’t provide one, then it’s up to the other person to provide it (and are we sure that it’s the right one?).

More mundanely, in many research studies (for example in conjoint and trade off studies), we ask about brand choices, which are dependent on other contextual variables.  For example, key drivers of airline brand are very different if travelling on business or leisure, choice of hotel brands depend completely on the company we travel with, and the beverage brand we drink will change with the weather, time of day and company.

Frames of reference

The relevant consideration set and our preferences change every time the context changes.  The most important of these contextual cues, and the most deeply embedded, are cultural norms, which operate as shared ‘understandings’ of how to behave and react, but at heart remain mental shortcuts shared across large groups of humans (based on some geographic, ethnic, belief system or other common connection).

These shared ideas shape the way we think at the deepest levels.  Richard Nisbett reveals some of these influences in The Geography of Thought, focusing on how East Asian cultures differ from Western cultures in the US and Western Europe.  For example (and I have tested this myself in workshops), in the picture below, Western cultures are likely to group the cow figure with figure A, based on their shared attributes (category-based), whereas Asian cultures are more likely to group the cow with figure B, based on their relationship (relationship-based).  Similarly, Japanese babies tend to learn more verbs than nouns in the early stages of language acquisition, whereas American babies tend to learn more nouns than verbs.

The culture of research

Cultural research is a only a small part of the industry, but is fundamental to the understanding of human behaviour.  It tends to be explored either at a more superficial and short-term level with trends research (try and others) or at a very academic level with semiotic analysis (see references below).  A few brave souls have tried to apply semiotic tools in more understandable ways to address practical marketing issues, including Virginia Valentine and Grant McCracken, but there is a huge need to bridge the gap between the academic discipline and the practical needs of research.

For marketers to successfully build and maintain great brands, they need to constantly understand the pulse of culture, both in terms of short-term trends, and more importantly in terms of longer term shifts in popular tastes, influences and mindsets.  For researchers to fully understand human behaviour, we must pay more attention to the context of that behaviour.  This surely means more observational research, and also means making questions more relevant and specific, framing them with more focused competitive sets and better defined occasions.

Most importantly, we must always seek to understand the cultural influences which will drive human choices.  Culture is research’s shortcut to the broadest frame of reference for all behaviours.

Tomorrow I will summarise these 12 insights on human behaviour and provide the ABC of market research.  If you would like to learn more, please join one of our training workshops here.


The Geography of Thought: Why Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why by Richard Nisbett (2004)

Semiotics: The Basics by Daniel Chandler (Free online edition, 2002)

Mythologies by Roland Barthes (1957)

Chief Cultural Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation by Grant McCracken (2009)

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