Relationship Marketing, Gender, and Culture: Implications For Consumer Behavior

Kara A. Arnold, Queen=s University
Constanza Bianchi, Queen=s University
ABSTRACT - This paper presents a conceptual framework that proposes gender identity and culture as variables that impact on the success of a relationship marketing strategy when dealing with business-to-consumer relations. A number of authors have suggested that firms should adopt both transactional and relational strategies for different customers (Berry 1995; Anderson and Narus 1991). This approach would indicate segmentation based on a relational/transactional continuum. How would a firm determine which customers are more relational (and hence presumably more positively inclined towards engaging in relationships) than others? The framework presented suggests that two variables that have an important influence and have not been examined in the literature are gender and culture. Propositions for future research are suggested.
[ to cite ]:
Kara A. Arnold and Constanza Bianchi (2001) ,"Relationship Marketing, Gender, and Culture: Implications For Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 100-105.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 100-105

RELATIONSHIP MARKETING, GENDER, AND CULTURE: IMPLICATIONS FOR CONSUMER BEHAVIOR

Kara A. Arnold, Queen=s University

Constanza Bianchi, Queen=s University

ABSTRACT -

This paper presents a conceptual framework that proposes gender identity and culture as variables that impact on the success of a relationship marketing strategy when dealing with business-to-consumer relations. A number of authors have suggested that firms should adopt both transactional and relational strategies for different customers (Berry 1995; Anderson and Narus 1991). This approach would indicate segmentation based on a relational/transactional continuum. How would a firm determine which customers are more relational (and hence presumably more positively inclined towards engaging in relationships) than others? The framework presented suggests that two variables that have an important influence and have not been examined in the literature are gender and culture. Propositions for future research are suggested.

INTRODUCTION

Ongoing relationships between firms and their customers are receiving renewed interest in marketing (Sheth and Parvatiyar 1995). These relationships are discussed under the paradigm of relationship marketing which refers to "all the marketing activities directed toward establishing, developing and maintaining successful relational exchanges" (Morgan and Hunt 1994 p.22). Specifically relationship marketing in the consumer market is defined as attracting, maintaining, and enhancing consumer relationships in order to meet the objectives of boh parties involved (Berry 1995).

Marketing research has shown that building strong customer relationships is a means for gaining a competitive advantage for firms (McKenna 1991; Reichheld 1993), and has benefits for consumers as well (Gwinner, Gremler and Bitner 1998). But in what circumstances is this most likely to be a viable form of advantage? What consumers would be more likely to want to engage in a relationship with a marketer? What are the boundaries beyond which relationship marketing and the increased investment necessary are not likely to be profitable? Under what circumstances is a transactional strategy more appropriate?

Certain consumers are likely to be more relational and hence more interested in engaging in relationships with the firm, the service provider, and the product/program or brand. For example, Anderson and Narus (1991) present the argument that in business-to-business situations firms should analyze their customers on a continuum from transactional to relational and adopt strategies for each respective segment. While this idea is accepted (Berry 1995), there have been few attempts to delineate, either conceptually or empirically, the factors that would differentiate these two types of consumers in the business-to-consumer relationship marketing literature.

Fournier, Dobscha, and Mick (1998 p.44) suggest that "relationship marketing is powerful in theory but troubled in practice", due to the fact that firms are attempting relational initiatives with all customers, without regard to the customers’ relational orientations. They argue that consumers who prefer discrete transactions feel stressed and manipulated by firms that attempt to engage them in relationships. This is because companies may not be targeting the right consumer (Reichheld 1993), or not evaluating the consumer’s relational orientation (Fournier et al., 1998).

Garbarino and Johnson (1999) empirically segmented the customers of a theater company (high and low relational) and test whether they differ in their evaluations of future intentions to attend subscribe and donate. Their focus was on what different role satisfaction, trust, and commitment played for high relational and low relational customers. Antecedent variables determining which consumers were high versus low relational were not addressed.

Sheth and Parvatiyar (1995) present a conceptual framework discussing the antecedents of the relational consumer. These authors suggest a variety of cognitive, sociological and institutional factors that may be influential on consumer partnering with firms. This paper builds on Sheth and Partivayar’s (1995) framework by proposing that the relational behavior of consumers is also affected by gender and culture.

Gender and culture are introduced as key considerations when segmenting consumers along the transactional/relational continuum. Theories and ideasthat have been developed in using primarily western male subjects cannot necessarily be applied to all persons or all cultures (for an example see Gilligan 1982a). We argue that research focusing on business-to-business relationships is likely to be male dominated and deal with male-male relationships. As such it may not apply equally to other types of relationships (female-male or female-female). Similarly, most research in consumer relationship marketing is based on theoretical frameworks developed in western cultures, primarily the U.S. It is quite possible that the benefits received, or their importance, in firm-consumer relationships may be very different when considered in other cultural contexts. This paper fills a gap in the current thinking about how to identify consumers who are more likely to engage in relational behavior by considering these missing links.

The first contribution of this paper is that it builds on the existing consumer relationship marketing literature by providing insight into the characteristics of relational consumers, an issue requiring further research suggested by Berry (1995). Second, a conceptual framework with several propositions for future testing is proposed. Finally, by linking gender and cultural variables to relational marketing, this paper adds to the existing theory on relationship marketing.

RELATIONSHIP MARKETING

Relationship marketing is a term that has been defined in various ways by various authors. Morgan and Hunt (1994 p.22), dealing with interfirm and intrafirm relationships propose that it "refers to all marketing activities directed toward establishing, developing, and maintaining successful relational exchanges". This definition appears to be overly broad (Peterson 1995). Sheth and Parvatiyar (1995 p. 256) look at consumer goods markets and state that "relationship marketing connotes an ongoing cooperative market behavior between the marketer and consumer". Peterson (1995 p. 279) suggests that thought "should be given to a definition of relationship marketing that stresses the development, maintenance, and even dissolution of relationships between marketing entities, such as firms and consumers". In discussing two definitions of relationship marketing, Peterson (1995 p.278) pulls out common threads of the idea of "individual customer-seller relationship, that both parties in the relationship benefit, that the relationship is longitudinal in nature [and that] the focus is on retaining customers".

While definitions differ with respect to scope and specifics, some common ideas persist. To state the obvious relationship marketing involves relationships. The parties involved may be firms and consumers (business-to-consumer), or firms and other firms (business-to-business), firms and suppliers, firms and distributors, or different departments within a firm or various potential others (Frenzen and Davis 1990). For a relationship to be successful, the customer must be prone to engage in a relationship, which means that he/she must have a relational orientation.

Relationship marketing can be thought of as a strategy used to gain a competitive advantage and stands in contrast to a transactional strategy. Discrete transactions have a "distinct beginning, short duration, and sharp ending by performance", while relational exchanges are "longer in duration, reflecting an ongoing process" (Dwyer, Schurr, and Oh 1987 p.13). The use of the term relationship implies more than a discrete transaction. It implies a long-term focus. The implication is that both arties benefit in some way from the association over a period of time. On this basis we make the following propositions:

P1: Relationship marketing will be a more effective strategy when consumers have a relational orientation.

P2: The more relational a consumer is, the more interested he/she will be in participating in a relationship with the firm, product/program or brand.

LEVELS OF RELATIONSHIP MARKETING

Important distinctions need to be made between the relationships a consumer has with the firm or corporate entity, the person who provides the service (in case of services), the product or program (for example frequent flier miles), and the brand (for a discussion of relationship with a brand see Fournier 1998). Different types of relationships and their relative importance and influence may differ depending on the situation. For example, in the banking industry the relationship that a consumer has with the actual person who provides the service may be most important. The relationships the consumer has with either the corporate entity (for example Citibank), or the product (for example their checking account), are probably secondary concerns in this example. Depending on the type of product or service and also on the type of individual, different relationship partners may potentially become more salient.

Berry (1995) delineates three levels of relationship marketing. They are financial, social, and structural. With the financial level, the reliance is on pricing to secure customer loyalty (e.g., American Airlines Advantage program). The second level of relationship marketing is the social level. Customers are offered social bonds as a means to secure loyalty (e.g., Harley-Davidson’s Harley Owners’ Group). The third level is structural, which is most similar to the firm/corporate level. At this level structural solutions to customer problems are used to create loyalty instead of - or in addition to B an individual service provider (e.g., Federal Express’ Powership Program). Thus, there are numerous #levels’ or types of relationship in consumer markets and there are also different parties that consumers can form relationships with. Both of these dimensions need to be considered when conducting research.

On the basis of the preceding discussion we propose the following:

P3: In consumer product markets, the consumer will develop the strongest and most significant relationship with the product/program or brand.

P4: In service industries the consumer will develop the strongest and most significant relationship with the actual service provider, unless the firm undertakes measures to implement a relationship marketing program that reates dependence on the brand/firm, in which case the relationship with the firm will be most salient.

SEX, GENDER IDENTITY, AND RELATIONAL ORIENTATION

Given the literature on sex differences in relationships, both academic (for example Chodorow 1978; Gilligan 1982a), and in the popular press (for example Gray 1997), sex and/or gender identity are potential individual difference variables that may impact on the extent to which a relationship marketing effort will be successful. In fact "consumer behavior is one area in which the differences in behavior between men and women, and often the hierarchical implications of those differences, are evident" (Costa 1994 p.2).

Bristor and Fischer (1993 p.525) suggest that "feminism based on women’s voice/experience can suggest additional consumer problematics that, because they arise from women’s experiences, have been largely ignored". One such suggestion they discuss is the implications for consumer behavior of the idea that women are more focused on relationships than are men. In the consumer behavior literature only a small amount of research has directly explored the implications of this "importance (to women) of relationship building and maintenance" (Bristor and Fischer 1993 p. 526).

Chodorow (1978) argued that women are more "relationship focused" than men. She discussed how this tendency develops from a psychoanalytic viewpoint. Because women have been primary caregivers the childhood of girls differs fundamentally from that of boys. Girls identify personally with their mothers who are around a lot. Boys are encouraged to identify with their fathers who are not available as much and hence tend to identify with the #position’ of father versus personally. This difference between "positional identification" of boys and "personal identification" of girls is the key to what makes women more open to relationship formation (Bristor and Fischer 1993).

Gilligan (1982a; 1982b) studied the difference between men and women on conceptions of self and morality in the context of conflict and choice. Her work suggests that theories of human development (based on research using male subjects) are sex-biased. A theme in her research is that women are more concerned with relationships and the responsibility of caring for others. For women, "identity is defined in a context of relationship and judged by a standard of responsibility and care" whereas the male #I’ is defined in separation (Gilligan 1982a p.160-161). The male self is "defined through separation" and the female self is one "delineated through connection" (Gilligan 1982a p.35).

Fournier (1998) used female informants exclusively in her study of brand relationships. She based this decision on previous research that suggested women "exhibit more and stronger interpersonal relationships and brand involvement" (Fournier 1998 p.347).

This research separates men and women based on biological sex and proceeds to create generalizations on that basis. The discussion until now has focused on previous work showing that women are more relational than men, concentrating on biological sex as the differentiating variable. Gender identity is anothe important distinction.

Other streams of research suggest differences between femininity and masculinity B the idea of gender versus biological sex B are more important. In developing her sex-role inventory, Bem (1974 p.156) states that in general "masculinity has been associated with an instrumental orientation, a cognitive focus on #getting the job done’; and femininity has been associated with an expressive orientation, an affective concern for the welfare of others". A "feminine gender identity is guided by a communal (other) orientation, whereas a masculine gender identity is guided by an agentic (self) orientation" (Gainer 1993 p.269).

Overall, the research looking at biological sex has shown that, in general, women more often than men define themselves in terms of their relationships with others and are more #relationship focused’. It is important to note that this is a general statement. Gilligan (1982a) suggests that there will be some within group variation. The interpretations given should not necessarily be taken to "represent a generalization about either sex" (Gilligan 1982a p.2). There will be individual differences among each sex and there will also be overlap between the two distributions (Settle and Alreck 1987). In terms of the research on masculinity and femininity, "feminine gender identity is often associated with biological sex" and in fact women tend to have higher feminine gender identities (Gainer 1993 p.270). Yet it also has been shown to be valuable as an independent predictor of consumer behavior in certain cases (Fischer and Arnold 1994).

The foregoing literature review suggests:

P5: Women are more relational than men and will therefore be more likely to engage in relational market behavior with firms, products or brands.

If an association is shown to exist between the effectiveness of a relationship marketing effort and biological sex (women) then attention should turn to understanding why this association exists. It is in this understanding that practical and theoretical implications become salient. To say that a firm will be more successful using a relationship marketing strategy with women may be helpful but does not give the firm any grounding in how to approach increasing their effectiveness. The question that is important to answer is why is there this association?

BIOLOGICAL SEX OR GENDER IDENTITY?

The distinction between sex, gender identity, and gender role attitudes is an important one to make that has implications for consumer behavior. Fischer and Arnold (1990; 1994) identify the differences between these three concepts. Often consumer behavior research assumes there aredifferences between men and women with respect to things like the products they buy or responses to advertising. This research, however, has been unclear in its distinctions between these three concepts. This distinction is important because the concepts may have different impacts on consumer behavior. In a given circumstance one or the other may have greater explanatory and predictive power.

According to Fischer and Arnold (1994), sex refers to biologically based categories of male and female. Gender is used to describe the psychological features associated with sex. Gender identity refers to the personality traits of masculinity and femininity and gender role attitude refers to attitudinal differences about the roles, rights and responsibilities of women and men.

Which variable will have more predictive power in the case of wanting to engage in relationship with a marketer? There are no clear answers to this question. A contingent approach is probably called for. Stern (1988) reviewed literature on sex-role self-concept measures and consumer behavior and found that biological sex was as good a predictor as psychological sex traits with respect to various aspects of consumer behavior. Fischer and Arnold (1990) in their literature review discuss the fact that research in consumer behavior has shown that gender identity has only a small impact. However, they found that people who were more feminine in terms of gender identity were more involved in Christmas shopping. A person’s biological sex does not mean that their behavior is predetermined. However, biological sex does have a large impact on socialization and hence on the "consumer activities that an individual will be involved in and learn" (Fischer and Arnold 1990 p.335). There is also some evidence that each variable has differential explanatory power (For example Gainer 1993). The proposed framework will use both biological sex and gender identity as explanatory individual antecedents to the propensity to engage in marketing relationships. Empirical testing will be necessary to determine the stronger influence. Hence the sixth proposition is:

P6: Persons with a feminine gender identity will be more likely to engage in relational market behavior with firms, products or brands.

Gainer (1993) argues that certain products are #gendered". While some products are linked to biological sex (for example feminine hygiene products), others have a feminine or masculine image that is not necessarily connected to biological sex (for example hand lotion has a feminine image). Gainer’s (1993) work suggests that for products perceived as feminine, persons with higher feminine identities will be more involved. We argue that not only are women and persons with a feminine gender identity more likely to be relational, they will also be more involved with products that are linked to biological sex and feminine gender respectively. The more involved a person is with a product the more likely they are to be open to engaging in a relationship with the firm that sells the product, or the product itself, or a particular brand of that product. Hence our final propositions dealing with gender are:

P7: Females will be more involved and more relational with respect to firms or products linked to biological sex.

P8: Persons with feminine or masculine gender identities will be more involved and more relational with respect to firms or products of the corresponding gender.

CULTURE AND RELATIONAL ORIENTATION

One of the most important social influences which has a profound impact on the way consumers perceive and behave is culture (Clark 1990). Culture is defined as a pattern of assumptions, values, and beliefs whose shared meaning is acquired by members of a group (Hofstede 1991). Attitudes, beliefs, intentions, norms, roles, and values are aspects of the self. The self affects the way people process and assess information and promotes differential processing and evaluation of information from the environment (Triandis 1989). The self is shaped through interactions with groups, and leads to differences in social behavior (Triandis 1989). Some aspects of the self may be universal and have the same meaning across time and geography and other elements may be extremely culture specific (Hofstede 1991).

It is generally accepted that Asian and Latin nations are very different from the U.S. and Canada. Most research in consumer relationship marketing is based on theoretical frameworks developed in western cultures, primarily in the U.S. It is quite possible that the benefits received, or their importance, in business-to-consumer relationships may be very different when considered in other cultural contexts. The knowledge that all people are culturally conditioned (e.g. Hofstede 1991) and that culture affects how consumers respond to marketing efforts suggests that knowledge of the cultural similarities and dissimilarities across cultures provides an awareness of where marketing practices can be effectively transferred.

Cross-cultural research has found that cultural differences can affect consumer information processing (Aaker & Williams 1998), decision-making (Tse et. al. 1988), and quality expectations (Donthu & Yoo 1998). In addition, some studies have shown that variables important to the understanding of marketing relationships can be affected by cultural differences. For example, Japanese firms were found to use more referrals and engage in more network activity than U.S. firms (Money, Gilly and Graham 1998), and Bianchi, et. al. (2000) suggest that cultural differences affect the development of trust and commitment in exchange relationships. However, little research has looked at the specific effect of culture on business-to-consumer relationship marketing.

Hofstede (1991) offers perhaps the seminal work in operationalizing national culture. By examining between-country differences in values and perceptions through factor analysis and other statistical methods, Hofstede (1991) identified four independent dimensions of national culture. These dimensions are: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism/collectivism, and masculinity/femininity.

Indices of Hofstede’s four cultural dimensions show meaningful relationships with demographic, geographic, economic, and political characteristics, and have been frequently used in international management research (Sondergaard 1994). We propose that these differences in cultural dimensions will lead to differences in relational orientation. For example, according to Hofstede (1991), Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., have high scores in individualism and masculinity, and low scores in power distance and uncertainty avoidance, therefore these countries may be less likely to engage in relational behavior. On the other hand, many Latin American countries such as Brazil, Chile, Venezuela and Mexico show low scores of individualism and masculinity and high scores of power distance, and will be more likely to engage in relationships with firms, products and brands. We will discuss the predicted effect of each dimension and the resulting implications for relationship marketing.

INDIVIDUALISM / COLLECTIVISM

Individualism pertains to societies in which the ties between individuals are loose and everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family (Hofstede 1991). In individualistic societies, people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive groups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty (Hofstede 1991). Meanwhile, in societies that are collectivist, identity tends to be much more connected to the social network. This orientation leads to valuing membership and identification with the group to which one belongs.

Members of individualistic nations such as Canada, the U.S., Australia, and Great Britain, will tend to hold an independent view of the self that emphasizes separateness, internal attributes, and the uniqueness of individuals. In contrast, collectivist South American countries will tend to hold an interdependent view of the self that emphasizes connectedness, social context, and relationships (Singelis 1994, Triandis 1989). This implies that members of individualistic cultures will probably hold more favorable attitudes towards differentiation and uniqueness, while members of collectivist cultures will hold more favorable attitudes towards building relationships and maintaining connections. Thus, behavior of members of individualistic cultures will be motivated by personal preferences, while behavior of members of collectivist cultures will be more influenced by preferences and needs of close others. Hence we propose:

P9: Consumers belonging to collectivist societies are more likely to engage in relational market behavior with firms, products, or brands, than consumers from individualisticsocieties.

POWER DISTANCE

Power distance refers to the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally (Hofstede 1991). In societies with high power distance, individuals tend to be more submissive toward their superiors and prefer a more autocratic/paternalistic superior (Hofstede 1991). In low power distance countries, individuals value equality and democracy, and view superiors as being accessible and similar to them (Hofstede 1991). Power distance will therefore affect the role of each partner in an exchange relationship. In terms of style, sellers will probably have to be respectful and subservient to their buyers in high-power distance societies.

Another manifestation of power distance is the willingness to trust other people (Hofstede 1991). High power distance countries (e.g., Mexico and Venezuela) will view others as a threat and, therefore, show less inclination to trust others. Conversely, people in low power distance countries (e.g., Austria, Denmark, and Norway) will feel less threatened by others and tend to trust them more. Thus, the following is proposed:

P10: Consumers belonging to low power distance societies are more likely to engage in relational market behavior with firms, products, or brands, than consumers from high power distance societies.

UNCERTAINTY AVOIDANCE

Uncertainty avoidance refers to the extent to which members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations and the degree of ambiguity and change that can be tolerated (Hofstede 1991). Societies with greater uncertainty avoidance tend to feel threatened by ambiguity and uncertainty, and try to reduce it through stability and by establishing formal rules (Hofstede 1991). Consequently, such societies emphasize the strong need to control environment, events, and situations. Thus, consumers from high uncertainty avoidance societies such as Japan would show relatively greater preference for established brand name, superior warranty, money-back guarantee, security, and resistance to change, and may prefer a more traditional style of interaction.

In societies with low uncertainty avoidance, ambiguity is more tolerated and individuals accept and handle uncertainty without much discomfort. Members of these societies tend to prefer fewer controls, thereby providing them with greater flexibility in determining how to accomplish goals. They tend to accept each day as it comes, take risks rather easily, and show a relatively greater tolerance for opinions and behaviors different from their own.

P11: Consumers belonging to high uncertainty avoidance societies are more likely to engage in relational market behavior with firms, products, or brands.

MASCULINITY/FEMININITY

This dimension represents the "dominant gender role pattern related to behaviors and values" (Hofstede 1991, and 1998). It expresses the extent to which the dominant values in a society are masculine or feminine. Masculinity pertains to societies in which social gender roles are clearly distinct (i.e. men are supposed to be assertive, tough, and focused on material success, whereas women are supposed to be more modest, tender, and concerned with the quality of life). Societies with high masculinity tend to admire qualities such as ambitiousness, achievement, and assertiveness, with an understanding that performance is the means to gain wealth and admiration (Hofstede 1991). In these societies, one might expect individuals to strive aggressively to advance their careers, both by performing well and by gaining recognition from their superiors.

Female societies value nurturance, quality of life, service, and interdependence (Hofstede 1998). These societies are associated with patience. Motivation comes from a desire to serve and work is viewed as a necessity for living rather than the focus of life (Hofstede 1991). In feminine countries like Chile, Portugal, and Thailand, since decision-making is participative and compromises the watchword for maintaining friendly working conditions, it is suggested that they are more prone to relationship formation. Thus, we propose:

P12: Consumers belonging to feminine societies are more likely than consumers belonging to masculine societies to engage in reltional market behavior with firms, products, or brands.

PROPOSED FRAMEWORK FOR ENGAGING IN RELATIONAL MARKET BEHAVIOR

The statement that relationship marketing is effective in all situations and applies equally well to all products and all businesses is too simplistic. Research needs to concentrate on delineating the boundary conditions under which this strategy will be most effective. Firms need to know what variables to segment on if they want to pursue different strategies for relational versus transactional consumers. In fact, the distinction between relational and transactional consumers may vary depending on the product or service.

The propositions suggested can augment Sheth and Parvatiyar’s (1995) framework. In their framework they offer personal, social, and institutional influences, drawn from consumer behavior research, as reasons that consumers engage in relational market behavior. The personal influences that they offer as reasons are drawn mainly from the information processing and cognitive psychology domains. The proposed framework adds two important variables to the framework: gender and culture. If consumers are more interested in a relationship with a marketer, the tactics of the firm along these lines will be more effective.

IMPLICATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS

This paper has proposed to direct relationship marketing tactics to customers on the basis of how likely they are to be relational. How relational they are will depend on their biological sex and/or their gender and also on their cultural orientation. The proposed relationships discuss the theory behind the possible associations that seem reasonable given previous research. Areas for future research include empirical testing of our propositions as well as a delineation of when each of these influences will be operative. For example will gender be the overriding factor determining relational orientation or will culture? Will there be an interaction between these factors? Which cultural dimensions will have a greater impact on relational behavior? If a person with a feminine gender identity is from a masculine culture which will dominate?

There are numerous practical implications to these additional factors. If these associations were shown to hold, a firm would have some guidelines to use to assess what customers and nations they should target for relationship marketing efforts and what products/programs would be most suitable for this type of strategy.

The arguments presented suggest some avenues for future research into relationship marketing effectiveness and he personal and social influences that impact on consumers’ propensity to engage in relational market behavior. The proposed framework adds two important antecedent variables to those previously suggested. The variables of sex/gender and culture are proposed to influence propensity to engage in relational market behavior. The variables of sex/gender and culture have some potentially large impacts on the effectiveness of relationship marketing strategy and international marketing and as such are worthy of future attention.

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