What is Culture, Anyway?

(This is a long post.)

On this blog we often write about behavior, psychology, technology, marketing, business, promotions, design, and of course retail. But what is culture? And why does it matter for shopping?

Rather than a definition, let’s start with illustrations. Culture is why a rural Tuvan man would feel lost at the Super Bowl—not just understanding what this spectacle means, but basics like assigned seating, being an audience, and credit cards. Culture is why a yellow ribbon, a Yankees logo, a cross,and a Starbucks logo can elicit powerful feelings—feelings which could be quite different for different people.

Culture, in other words, is the vast and mostly unwritten rule system that tells us how to interpret events, behaviors, objects and symbols in our lives. It’s shared meaning. To an extent, culture is also the objects and symbols themselves: Super Bowl tickets, foam #1 hands, the Lombardi Trophy. But crucially, culture is the mental code book of meaning that a group shares to encode and decode those symbols. And different groups have different code books, even for the same events (dinner) behaviors (kissing), objects (high heels) and symbols (the stars andamp; stripes).

In shopping, culture is what distinguishes the vibe at Whole Foods from the vibe at Rite Aid. Culture is the knowing glance you share with another shopper about the old woman in front of you who still pays by check. Culture is the message Walmart’s reusable blue bag sends about you.

Culture is any one of these things, and more:

– Rules for social interactions (who’s next in line; what to say to sales staff)
– Roles (greeters, cashiers, samplers, stockers, shoppers)
– Beliefs about concepts like gender and time (men hate to shop; time is currency not to be wasted)
– Taboos (don’t scream in a store; don’t take things from someone else’s cart)
– Systems of trust (Amazon vendor ratings; product guarantees)
– Rituals (roaming the mall after school, holiday displays)
– Shared goals (make shopping fun; reduce time at checkout)
– Symbols of group membership (a football jersey; Bloomingdale’s Brown Bag)
– A special language or lexicon (freebates; Tweets; one-click)

But do we need to understand shopper culture? Can’t we just do with behavioral studies, purchase data, and the cool new neuroscience stuff? Not quite. Because without culture, we can’t even interpret everyday symbols correctly, much less comprehend how those meanings are changing or how we can influence them.

A small example: the loyalty card. To shoppers it’s a link to a brand, a system for discounts, a symbol of Big Brother. To retailers it’s their brand equity, better customer behavioral data, competitive advantage. To store staff, it’s a hassle, a way to ‘get some extra’ (use one with cardless customers andamp; get their points).

All those meanings packed into a little piece of colored plastic. And they’re changing. But how? And how can these meanings be managed? This is why culture matters in shopper marketing. And not just how the broader culture impacts shopping (like the green movement), but the culture of shopping itself.

This is why our blog is about shopper culture. Because marketing is about both symbol and meaning, signifier and signified. Studying shopping with no reference to culture is like, well, studying Tuvan throat singing with no knowledge of Tuva.