The Influence of Geographic Subcultures in the United States

Del I. Hawkins, University of Oregon
Don Roupe, University of Oregon
Kenneth A. Coney, Arizona State University
ABSTRACT - Geographic subcultures can be an important variable for detecting differences in consumptive and nonconsumptive behaviors. Physical region and urban-rural-suburban categories provide the basis for specifically identifying rational subcultures, while the nature of geographical influence is defined as being physical or psychological. There appears to be reason to believe that geographic subcultures are fairly stable and that significant behavioral differences of interest to marketers do exist. An explanatory model of geographic subcultural influence is presented, as well as a format for analyzing that influence in the development of marketing strategy.
[ to cite ]:
Del I. Hawkins, Don Roupe, and Kenneth A. Coney (1981) ,"The Influence of Geographic Subcultures in the United States", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 713-717.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 713-717


Del I. Hawkins, University of Oregon

Don Roupe, University of Oregon

Kenneth A. Coney, Arizona State University


Geographic subcultures can be an important variable for detecting differences in consumptive and nonconsumptive behaviors. Physical region and urban-rural-suburban categories provide the basis for specifically identifying rational subcultures, while the nature of geographical influence is defined as being physical or psychological. There appears to be reason to believe that geographic subcultures are fairly stable and that significant behavioral differences of interest to marketers do exist. An explanatory model of geographic subcultural influence is presented, as well as a format for analyzing that influence in the development of marketing strategy.


Are there differences in consumption behaviors between individuals that can be predicted or explained by their membership in differing geographic subcultures? If so, what is the nature of the differences? Are these differences likely to increase, decrease, or remain stable during the 1980's? These important questions have largely been ignored in the marketing literature. (For an exception, see Revzan 1978). Yet, as this paper will demonstrate, geographic subcultures exert strong influences on the consumption patterns of chair embers. These influences have important implications for both marketing practice and the development of marketing theory.

The purpose of this paper is: (1) to describe the nature of geographic subcultures; (2) to point out some of the consumption and nonconsumption behaviors influenced by geographic subcultures; and (3) to present a process for developing marketing strategies based on geographic subcultures.


A subculture has been defined as a segment of a culture which shares distinguishing patterns of behavior (Robert-son 1970). It is important to remember that subculture members are also members of the dominant culture. Thus, subculture members generally have many behaviors in common with members of the broader culture. However, for a group to constitute a subculture, its members must also share certain behavior patterns that are not shared by most members of the dominant culture. When these unique behaviors affect the consumption process, they become of interest to marketers.

Based on the above definition of a general subculture, a geographic subculture can be defined as a part of the country whose residents share patterns of behavior that are distinct from those of the remainder of the country. There are two fundamental schemes for isolating and de-linens geographic subcultures: region of the country categories and urban-suburban-rural categories. These schema may be used either singularly or in combination. Secondary data sources such as the Census Bureau, Target Group Index, and others generally provide underlying data using one or both of these schemes. The factors producing and maintaining the unique behavior patterns associated with a subculture are of the same type for either classification system.


Figure 1 presents a model of the factors that compose a geographic subculture and the relationship of those factors to the consumption process. The first and most obvious factor is physically bound and influence consumer use situations, and hence predominate consumption patterns, directly. For example, individuals living in very cold climates face particular consumption use situations because of the climate. Warm clothing, antifreeze, insulation and so forth are examples of product purchases caused by physical features of a geographic subculture. A change in physical features (e.g. moving to a warm climate) will generally change the use situations consumers face and hence the predominate consumption patterns related to those situations. Physical geographical factors also can affect the predominate value/motive/preference system that is the basis of consumer lifestyle. This influence is more indirect, however.



The second type of influence proposed in the model is psychologically bound. These influences affect relatively permanent characteristics of the individual and have a more enduring nature. Should an individual leave a physical geographical region, the attitudes and behaviors formed as a result of psychological bounds are likely to be carried along. Likewise, an individual moving into a new geographic location will not generally adopt the geographically bound attitudes and behaviors at once, but will have to undergo a period of acculturation before adopting some or all of the new psychologically bound behaviors. Psychological influences directly affect a geographical area's predominate value/motive/preference system and hence the predominate consumption lifestyle of the region. This lifestyle in turn is directly related to consumption patterns since a major reason for many purchase decisions is the desire to maintain or enhance a desired lifestyle.

A brief examination of the major elements of the model will clarify further the nature of geographic influence.

Physical Landscape

The physical landscape is composed of the area's topography, climate, and resources. The topography and climate have a major direct influence on geographically bound behaviors. In combination with the area's resources, they also have a direct influence on the human landscape. That is, the physical landscape determined, in part, the type of people who settled in the region and how those individuals evolved over time. Likewise, the individuals who settled in the area affected the natural resources through either development or depletion activities. The physical environment also affects the value/motive/preference system. For example, relatively "hostile" climates are likely to produce groups that value survival-related skills and activities.

Human Landscape

The human landscape is composed of the economic, population, religious, historic, and legal structures of the area. Obviously, these are not independent variables. Furthermore, each variable may exert direct influences on the value/motive/preference system or the consumption process independent of the geographic region. For example, the Mormon religion influences its followers independently of the area of the country that they are in. However, it be-cones a factor in a geographic subculture when it influences the predominate value/motive/preference system of the area, or when it directly influences the behaviors of user members of the region even if they are not Mormons.

Predominate Value/Motive/Preference System

As an area develops a human history, it also develops a value/motive/preference system that is shared in varying degrees by most of the members of the area. New members of the area tend to acquire this value/motive/preference eye-ten over time (acculturation). A value can be defined as a widely held belief that affirms what is desirable and has some impact on activities (Nicosia and Mayer 1976). For example, the West Coast and the Northeast regions of the United States differ rather sharply on the tradition-change value. Learned motives, such as the need for achievement, also vary across geographic regions (McClelland 1961). Preference refers to acquired tastes in such areas as food and architecture which obviously vary from region to region.

Predominate Lifestyle Preferences

Lifestyle refers to how an individual or family chooses to live. It is how one uses discretionary time, the things one owns, how one uses those things, and the meanings those things have to the individuals involved. One hears of suburban lifestyles, informal lifestyles, traditional lifestyles, and so forth. Lifestyles are heavily based on the individual's value/motive/preference system. Therefore, geographic areas often have a generalized lifestyle that is desired by a majority of the members of the area.


Given the high rate of geographic mobility, the popularity of national mass media, increased urbanization, increased industrialization, increased travel, and the increased standardization of the education system, it has been suggested that geographic subcultures have or will soon cease to function (see Berger 1960; Mayo 1964; Glenn and Alston 1967; and McKinnery and Bourque 1971). This is sometimes referred to as the massification theory.

However, it appears more likely that, while geographic subcultures, like the broader culture, are changing, they do not appear to be losing their distinctive characteristics (Glenn 1967; Glenn and Signs 1967; and Peterson and Demaggio 1975). A number of reasons appear to account for this.

Geographic mobility generally involves moves within the same geographic region. Furthermore, individuals often move to a region because they admire the perceived values or lifestyle of that region. Thus, many of those moving into a region already accept many of the region's cultural values. Finally, those moving into a region generally come from a variety of other regions and thus are relatively heterogeneous. The easiest pattern of behavior is to conform to the norms of the existing group. This in time generally leads to acceptance of the regional norms.

Mass media cut through regional areas. However, viewing patterns differ between regions and numerous regional media exist. Furthermore, given the nature of most mass media content, it is more likely to reinforce widely shared cultural values than it is to challenge the unique values associated with individual regional subcultures. In addition, when Glenn and Simons (1967') examined the effect of mass communication upon different geographic regions, they concluded that it may actually increase the variation between regions because of the differing effect it had in different localities. Similar analyses can explain the limited "massification" impact of increased industrialization, travel, and standardization in the education system.


Historians, sociologists, anthropologists and geographers have all tried to conceptually and operationally define and apply the notion of geographical subcultures to their own respective areas of interest. Sociologists, however, are primarily responsible for the evolution of research on geographic subcultures. The founding father of sociology's geographic perspective, Howard W. Odum, characterized a geographical region as having: (1) Spatial limits and bounds, (2) flexibility in those bounds, (3) structural and functional aspects that denominate a region, (4) people "culturally conditioned" through time and spatial relationships (Odum 1942; Odum and Moore 1938). Hertzler (1944) took a social psychologists' perspective towards the notion of geographic regionalism. Hertzler stressed that the underlying concept of a region was its natural landscape. The topography, climate and natural resources determines the specific lifestyle or "social life" of the group. This, in turn, fashions the "cultural landscape" of the group. This landscape includes the economic structure, the composition of the population, the historical social processes of the area and the combination of cultures each successive population increment has contributed to the geographic region. From these variables the regional culture is developed and this makes representatives of that region easily identifiable. Interactions between individuals rest upon this regional base and, in turn, behavior and personality patterns result through the regional "conditioning".

Anthropologists have primarily relied upon a "community analysis" approach. That is, anthropologists have focused their attention upon specific communities and made inferences about the area's culture. When anthropologists analyze a community, they become familiar with the "cultural context" that extends beyond its historical and currant social characteristics (Park 1972). Arensberg (1954,1955) utilized this community study approach in an attempt to develop a classification scheme and typology of American culture and geographic subcultures. Arensberg felt that communities which are properly sampled do reflect their culture and to some degree, the cultural qualities of the surrounding area. He then suggested that anthropologists could develop a model that compared communities and effectively delineated regions. This model would examine five variables (individual, space, time, function, and structure and process) and the relationships they had with one another inside a community setting. Gillin (1955) built upon Arensberg's theory and actually formulated a regional descriptive structure. Community cultural data was utilized by Gillin to develop a "list of values" dominant in the American national culture as well as various regional cultures.

As can be seen from the above discussion, a number of research traditions exist with respect to geographic subcultures. While these traditions can provide both data and methodological guides to the marketing researcher, it is likely that a product category specific approach will be required by marketers. This means that marketing researchers should avoid the mistake of "blind" borrowing from other research traditions (an error that has hampered several areas of consumer research, such as personality).


A popular method used to analyze the significance of geographic subcultures is to analyze regional diversities in respect to a "common social indicator." Homicide and violence (Wolfgang and Ferracuti 1967), educational performance (Ferriss 1969; Sheldon and Moore 1968), infant mortality, fertility (Ram 1976), prejudice (Middleton 1976), authoritarianism (Williams 1966), poverty (Miller 1971), and urbanization (Grasmick 1974; Fisher 1975) are some of the primary social indicators used to understand geographical diversity.

Williams (1966) asserts that there seems to be an association between an individual's level of authoritarianism and prejudice and the geographic setting he/she originates from or lives in. In respect to urbanization, Fisher's article (1975) supports the belief that the increased concentration of population will: (1) produce increased subcultural diversity, (2) strengthen existing diversity patterns, and (3) excite the level of diffusion of subcultural diversity.

Geographic subcultures can also influence any of the steps in the consumption process. It is rather easy to find examples of variations in behavior between regions in the consumption process. For example, more antifreeze is sold in Maine than in Florida. This is due primarily to a variation in problem recognition caused by geographically bound influences (climate). The proportion of beverages sold in returnable bottles is substantially higher in Oregon than in California. This variation in disposition behavior is caused by psychologically bound influences reflected in Oregon state law.

Table 1 illustrates variations in the consumption and preparation of coffee across four broad regions of the United States. As can be seen, there are dramatic differences. Similar differences can be found for other product categories, other types of geographic areas, and other aspects of the consumption process. For example, ratings of television show types showed "adventure" shows to have the lowest ratings of six show types in the Northeast and the West Central regions and the highest rating in the South (A. C. Nielsen).



Even based on the limited evidence presented in Table l, it is clear that marketing practitioners should consider geographic subcultures as a potentially useful variable when developing marketing strategies. The next section of this paper presents a simplified framework for systematically analyzing the potential influence of a geographic subculture.


Figure 2 presents a useful format for analyzing potential geographic influences and determining whether or not those differences will vary, both in nature of and intensity of, between and within geographic regions. The intent of the format presented is not to provide marketing managers with a "formula" that will identify geographic influences automatically. Rather, the format provides a systematic procedure for looking at the decision making process of a specific target market for a specific product across differing geographic regions and boundaries. This systematic consideration of possible geographical influence is an attempt to provide marketing managers with a way to become aware of geographical influence and the ability to pinpoint where in the decision making process the influence occurs. This should then make the development of appropriate marketing strategy more complete and effective.

The geographic influences and differences in the influences by region can best be translated into marketing strategy if looked at from a consumer decision process focus. In other words, the consumer should be looked at from a problem solving/information processing point of view and strategies developed that relate to one or more relevant parts of the decision making process. The decision process utilized in Figure 2 is broken down into problem recognition, information search, evaluation and selection, outlet selection and implementation, product use, product disposition, and satisfaction evaluation.

It may be helpful in understanding the format to use a hypothetical example of the geographic influences on the purchase and use decision of hone freezers. Rural subcultures experience a larger degree of problem recognition related to home freezers than do urban and suburban residences. Furthermore, this problem recognition is of a different nature. Perhaps the primary problem recognition factor in urban and suburban areas is for the convenience offered by a freezer while rural residents recognize the economic benefits of freezing home grown foods. Information search is shown to be less in rural areas due to the limited number of retail outlets (geographically bound) as well as being different due to differing media habits (psychologically bound). Outlet selection is different for rural residents because of a greater reliance on hone shopping (mail-order). The disposition of a used freezer is more difficult in an urban areas because of a generally lesser amount of storage space. It also would seem natural to expect that there would be a great deal of variation between regions, even when looking et the rural category, e.g. the Northwest versus the deep South.

Given an analysis such as the one presented, a marketing manager would be alerted to the fact that a standardized distribution or advertising campaign for home freezers across the United States may not be as effective as a geographically based one. Additionally, when one examines the lifestyle characteristics of specific geographical areas, segmentation strategies nay become apparent.




In this paper, we tried to illustrate the usefulness if not the necessity of considering the potential influence of geographic subcultures in the development of marketing strategies. In addition, we presented a structured framework to aid in analyzing the influence of geographic subcultures. It is our position that using a single marketing mix throughout the United States without considering potential geographic variations makes no more sense than applying the marketing mix in a variety of countries without first examining the cultural variations among those countries.

While less obvious, geographic subcultures may also influence the development of consumer behavior theory. For example, the responsiveness to various persuasive techniques (authority figures, fear appeals, and so forth) may vary across geographic regions because of differing values. Studies conducted in only one geographic region may produce results that are specific to that region. Likewise, national studies that are aggregated for analysis may hide the fact that the variable being examined has differing impacts across geographic regions.

It is hoped that this paper will alert both marketing practitioners and academicians to the potential advantages of recognizing the strong geographic influences within this culture.


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