Consumer Segmentation: The Influence of Cultural Factors On Purchasing Behaviour

Maria Antonietta Marino Date: 2019-08-30

Authors Thomas Petit and Alan Zakon once observed that "Advertising must be compatible with the values of the consumer if it is to influence behaviour. Advertising is an educating and not a forcing process. It interprets the want-satisfying qualities of the product for the consumer. To do this, it must relate product characteristics and consumer benefits to values the customer has already learned. The surest way to lose a sale and a customer is to go against the tide of what people think is right and wrong." [1]

What do we mean by values then, and how can we identify them when they don’t match our own?

Cultural awareness may help in this respect. In 1976, anthropologist E.T. Hall developed the iceberg analogy of culture [2]: according to this theory, if culture was an iceberg some of its aspects – such as language, food, art, etc – would be visible to everyone, while most of them – such as values, social norms, unspoken and unconscious rules, etc – would be unconscious and only accessible to "non-members" after a certain time spent observing and learning about the new social environment. Based on such premises, it can be easily understood why culture is one of the most relevant factors on customers’ behaviour: not only one’s cultural background influences personal values, but it’s also correlated with the perception of environmental cues.

Let’s consider for example Hofstede’s cultural dimensions – a framework he developed based on the value scores of employees who worked for IBM in different countries – known as collectivism/individualism [3]:

  • collectivist cultures  – that include (to varying extents) most Latin American, Southern European, Middle Eastern, Asian, African countries and tribal communities around the world – tend to be group oriented  (the group – intended as family, tribe, organization, etc – takes care of individuals, individuals are unquestionably loyal to the group they belong to), to place high emphasis on collective interest over individual pursuits, to value selflessness, harmony and conformity
  • individualistic cultures – that include (to varying extents) most Western societies – emphasize personal priorities, self-realization, individual freedom, and achievements, value independence and self-reliance

The former are most likely to practice holistic thinking, the latter are most likely to practice analytical thinking: according to some studies [4] [5] [6] [7], members of these groups process scenes differently. While North American and European participants tend to focus on specific elements in a scene and pay little attention to the background, Eastern individuals are more concerned with the visual context of the scene and with the relational structure among its different elements. In relation to this last point, another research conducted among Americans, Germans (nationalities characterised by individualistic/analytic thinking), Malays and Russians (nationalities characterised by collectivist/holistic thinking), proved that in the "embedded figures" test – aimed at measuring the participants’ abilities to separate an item from the background – Americans and Germans performed better than their collectivist counterparts [8]: the reason behind such outcome is the difference between the styles of reasoning, with analytical thinking grouping items together according to a rule (eg, a shower gel and a soap bar) and holistic thinking grouping them together according to the relationship between them (eg, a shower gel and a bath towel).

Advertising targeting individualistic consumers will therefore place a strong emphasis on "uniqueness" (how something stands out from the surrounding environment), while campaigns targeting collectivist consumer will emphasize harmony.

Can homogeneity, however, be assumed among members of the same cultural group? Are all members of a collectivist society likely to practice holistic thinking and vice-versa? The answer is no: both "idiocentricism" and "allocentricism"  – the traits respectively representing individualism and collectivism at a personal level [9] – do co-exist within the same group.

According to research findings [10], idiocentric and allocentric tendencies are based on different perceptions of self: the interdependent self is associated to allocentricism, the independent self to idiocentricism. Individuals belonging to both groups perceive the environment in the same way the perceive themselves: as elements existing independently from a certain context, or as elements that are all correlated in the big picture.

What can marketing professionals do to target both the allocentric and the idiocentric consumer at the same time, with full awareness that the former will value assimilation while the latter will value contrast?

In allocentric environments they can inserts elements that will appeal to idiocentric customers and vice-versa: for example – as a study conducted in 2015 by the Texas Christian University suggests [11] -, in a store that by design favours idiocentric consumers, it might be a good strategy to "play in-store music about self-confidence and independence and use a single person instead of a group of people in in-store graphics" in order to temporarily influence the purchase behaviour of allocentric consumers and lead them to switch to an idiocentric mindset during their shopping experience.



[1] Petit, T. A., Zakon, A. (1962). "Advertising and social values". Journal of Marketing, 26(4), 15- 17

[2] Hall, E. T. (1976). "Beyond Culture". New York, Doubleday

[3] Hofstede, G. (1991). "Cultures and organizations: software of the mind". London, McGraw-Hill

[4] Miyamoto Y, Nisbett RE, Masuda T. (2006). "Culture and physical environment. Holistic versus analytic perceptual affordances". Psychological Science, 17(2):113–119

[5] Richler JJ, Palmeri TJ, Gauthier I. (2012) "Meanings, mechanisms, and measures of holistic processing". Frontiers in Psychology, 3:1–6

[6] Kitayama S, Duffy S, Kawamura T, Larsen JT. (2003). "Perceiving an object and its context in different cultures: A cultural look at New Look". Psychological Science, 14(3):201–206

[7] Markus HR, Kitayama S. (1991). "Culture and the self – Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation". Psychological Review, 98(2):224–253

[8] Kühnen, U., Hannover, B., Schubert, B. (2001). "The semantic-procedural interface model of the self: The role of self-knowledge for context-dependent versus context-independent modes of thinking". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 397-409

[9] Triandis, H. (1989). "The self and social behavior in differing cultural contexts". Psychological Review, 96, 506-520

[10] Markus, Hazel, Kitayama, Shinobu (1991). "Culture and self: Implications for cognition, emotion and motivation". Psychological Review, 98, 224-253, 77, 785-800

[11] Ryu, Jay & Bringhurst, Audra. (2015). "The Effects of Store Environment on Shopping Behavior: The Role of Consumer Idiocentrism and Allocentrism". The East Asian Journal of Business Management. 5. 5-11. 10.13106/eajbm.2015.vol 5. no 4.5