Consumption and Status ACRoss Cultural Boundaries: Nonreactive Evidence

Michael D. Reilly, Montana State University
William L. Rathje, University of Arizona
ABSTRACT - Social status and income have been recognized as important determinants of consumer behavior in a number of studies of American society. Given the increased emphasis on the rest of the world as a market it would be useful to examine the degree to which relationships between status and consumption found in the United States are replicated elsewhere. This paper uses garbology as a methodological approach to investigating how social strata differ across two cultures, namely the United States and Mexico. Three slices of American society representing low, middle and upper income groups are compared to low, middle and upper income groups in Mexico. The results suggest that, for some products, the same relationship between social status and consumption levels are observed in both cultures. But for others there is a nonsymmetrical relationship. Thus care is needed in interpreting the relationship between status and consumption across cultural boundaries.
[ to cite ]:
Michael D. Reilly and William L. Rathje (1985) ,"Consumption and Status ACRoss Cultural Boundaries: Nonreactive Evidence", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 129-132.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 129-132

CONSUMPTION AND STATUS ACROSS CULTURAL BOUNDARIES: NONREACTIVE EVIDENCE

Michael D. Reilly, Montana State University

William L. Rathje, University of Arizona

ABSTRACT -

Social status and income have been recognized as important determinants of consumer behavior in a number of studies of American society. Given the increased emphasis on the rest of the world as a market it would be useful to examine the degree to which relationships between status and consumption found in the United States are replicated elsewhere. This paper uses garbology as a methodological approach to investigating how social strata differ across two cultures, namely the United States and Mexico. Three slices of American society representing low, middle and upper income groups are compared to low, middle and upper income groups in Mexico. The results suggest that, for some products, the same relationship between social status and consumption levels are observed in both cultures. But for others there is a nonsymmetrical relationship. Thus care is needed in interpreting the relationship between status and consumption across cultural boundaries.

INTRODUCTION

Social Status and Consumer Behavior

There is a long tradition of using differing levels of social status to describe differences in consumption. Consumer behaviorists practically since the beginning, have used social class as a key explanatory variable (Coleman, 1960,1983; Foxall, 1975; Hisrich and Peters, 1974; Levy, 1966; Matthews & Slocum, 1969; Myers and Mount, 1973; Myers, Stanton, & Haug, 1971; Schaninger, 1981; Shimp and Yokum, 1981; Slocum & Matthews, 1970).

The major reason social classes have been so useful for scholars, theorists and consumer behaviorists is that they provide insight into lifestyle differences. In a typical analysis, the life style and consumption patterns of occupants of one level of the social hierarchy are compared and contrasted to the life style and consumption patterns of those from other status levels. In much of the literature cited above, a key debate has concerned the relative usefulness of social class and income as the best variable for segmenting markets. Very few clear conclusions have been reached except for the following:

1. Social class works better for some products while income works better for others.

2. To get the most complete understanding its probably worthwhile to consider income and social class simultaneously (c.f. Coleman, 1960; Peters, 1970).

Nevertheless, one dominant theme of the literature in consumer behavior concerns the importance of understanding income and status hierarchies of the American culture as a critical descriptor of individual consumption patterns. The lifestyle, and consumption decisions of individual consumers are strongly influenced by their position in the social hierarchy. As a reflection of this, many products are segmented on economic and prestige dimensions and the marketers of these good describe their target consumer in terms that prominently highlight their income and social standing.

Social Status in the World Market

Despite the usefulness of social class for understanding the American market the concept has not been as frequently used in studies of international markets. One dimension on which societies differ is culture and key elements of culture are the social and economic status of individuals within society. It is well known that all existing societies have reasonably well defined social hierarchies. Societies may vary in social mobility ranging from open societies in which any individual can move to any levels as a result of his or her own achievements, to more closed societies in which one's status is entirely ascribed at birth. It is also well known that societies differ in the degree of differentiation between the levels of the status hierarchy. Some societies are more egalitarian in the sense that there is less absolute distance between the lower members of that society and the more elite. Other societies have a much more differentiated structure, with the elite being very different from lower levels of the social structure. Thus, marketers interested in understanding any international market should be aware of, and sensitively attuned to, the existence and nature of status hierarchies in the societies where they propose to market. Different status levels may: consume different products, consume different amount of the same products, consume different brands of the same products, consume similar products in different situations, consume different products in similar situations. Further, the relationship can vary from product to product and culture to culture. These consumption differences may occur for several reasons.

Different status levels may have differential access to some products. In the basic functionalist argument (Davis and Moore, 1945) it is suggested that access to limited resources is one mechanism that a society can use to motivate the most able individuals to occupy the most critical positions in the society. By providing superior economic resources for critical positions, society get the best individuals to occupy those positions. To use an automobile example, it obviously takes a certain economic status to be able to afford a Rolls Royce. In communist Russia, party functionaries are able to shop at "hard currency" stores, where they can buy products that are not available to the general populace.

Some products may not be differentially available; but may still be differentially consumed. Typically, these products are used as status markers. Definitionally a status marker is a product where consumption, use or ownership indicates occupancy of a certain position in the social hierarchy. For example, in our society, owning a Rolls Royce gives a different indication about a person's social status than that would accrue from ownership of a Pinto station-wagon.

To the extent that a multinational marketing firm can standardize marketing strategy it is necessary that different levels of the status hierarchy in the various societies in which the firm markets responds similarly to the product. It could be useful if we could determine what types of products are consumed differently by different status levels across several variety of cultures and what types of products are not. Restated, to what degree do different cultures exhibit similar consumption patterns for various types of goods across status levels. Several patterns are possible:

1. For a given product all levels of the status hierarchies in a variety of cultures might consume about the same amount, type and brands.

2. The product may be differentially available or function as a status marker, if this is the case we would expect to observe different levels of consumption across the different levels of the status hierarchy. across cultures.

3. The product may function as a status marker in both cultures but in opposite directions, that is, consumption may be high for high level statuses in one culture and high for lower statuses in another culture.

4. Consumption of the product may be status related in one culture but not in another.

METHOD

To investigate the cultural divergence across products for two cultures, a garbage analysis was conducted on several samples of refuse data. Garbage has been used in several instances as an indicator of consumption (Cote, Reilly and McCullough, 1984; Reilly, 1984; Reilly and Wallendorf, 1983;; Wallendorf and Reilly, 1983). It has several advantages, particularly for cross cultural analysis. Since the subjects are anonymous and are not aware that their garbage is being collected, there are no reactivity problems. Further, since the coding procedures are objective, there is lessened potential for observational bias. Cross cultural garbology is not without its own problems, however. Probably the most serious involves cultural differences in packaging. The majority of discard is packaging materials. To the extent cultures use different packaging, interpretation of garbage becomes problematic.

In the current analysis samples of garbage from two cultures was analyzed. The first sample, representing the Mexican culture, was collected in Mexico City between June and November 1980. The second garbage sample comes from the United States. Garbage was systematically collected from Tucson, Arizona; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Marin County, California according to the time scheme described in Figure 1.

FIGURE 1

SAMPLE COLLECTION TIME PERIODS

The Mexico City data set consists of 1,085 household refuse samples. The samples were stratified into 16 neighborhoods selected to represent the wide diversity of housing and income characteristics of Mexico City residents. Mexico City samples were placed into three broad income ranges based on the relationship between the average salary for that particular neighborhood and the minimum Federally established salary. (It should be recognized that the Mexican minimum salary is in no way related to the American minimum wage.) The low income group contains 670 refuse samples and showed a yearly household income less than four times the minimum salary which would be about $11,000 American. The middle income refuse (355 samples) came from households with yearly income means between 4 and 11 times the minimum salary, which would be about 11,000-37,000 U. S. dollars. The sixty upper income refuse samples came from households with mean income more than 11 times the minimum salary, that would be over about $38,000 U.S.

The U. S. samples were stratified into three income groups using 1980 Census data and independent interview survey data from census tracts where refuse was collected. Four hundred and thirty refuse samples fell in the low income group with a mean household income group below $15,000 a year. The middle income group (373 refuse samples) came from households with mean income between $16,000 to $30,000 a year. In the upper income group, entirely from Marin County, had a mean household income above $32,000 a year. Household sizes differ substantially between the two cultures. Table 1 presents the mean household size for the three income levels in both the Mexican and U.S. samples. In general the Mexican's households were roughly twice as large as comparable U. S. samples.

TABLE 1

MEAN HOUSEHOLD SIZES AND NUMBERS IN EACH CELL

The data collection procedures were the same in both cases. Every item found in the refuse discard was coded with a garbage project item code, marked with the number of items of that type, the original net weight in ounces or volume in fluid ounces (grams and milliliters in Mexico), the cost if the item was marked, the amount of waste, the brand and type of the product. All American refuse was then converted to metric units (either grams or milliliters) so that the amounts were comparable across the two samples. The basic dependent variable is the number of grams or milliliters, as the case may be, of packaged input discarded per person, per day. For example, a 12 ounce beer can would have been recorded as 335 milliliters, type: beer, item: Budweiser, even though the can was empty and did not actually contain 12 ounces at the time of discard. This figure would then be weighted by the average number of adults (since beer is consumed by adults) in households from the same region or census tract. Thus the basic comparison between the three income groups across the two cultures is in terms of the evidence of packaged purchases of food in a variety of rather broad categories.

RESULTS

Results of the analyses are presented in Tables 2 and 3. Table 2 describes the mean number of grams or milliliters per person per day of products which exhibited similar monotonic relationships to social status across the two cultures. Included in this are dairy items excluding milk, cheese and ice cream; dark bread; baking additives; spirits; regular soda; beans; regular cereal; and syrup and honey. For each of these products there is a monotonic relationship between the status level of the household and the amount of these products consumed per person, per day. Further, that monotonic relationship is the same in both cultures. For these products it would be reasonably safe to assume that similar market segments are using the products, at least across these two cultures. A marketer could probably use a similar marketing strategy in both the Mexican and American markets. With the exception of regular (non-dietetic) soday, which is negatively related to social status, all of the foodstuffs are consumed more heavily, the higher up the social scale one goes; both in the U.S. and Mexico.

TABLE 2

PRODUCTS SHOWING A SIMILAR MONOTONIC TREND IN BOTH MEXICAN AND AMERICAN CULTURES (FIGURES ARE GRAMS/PERSON/DAT, STANDARD DEVIATIONS IN PARENTHESES).

Table 3 describes products which are more troublesome to the multinational marketer. For these products the relationship between social status and consumption differed across the two cultures. There are basically two ways that this occurs. The first is when trend are opposite. For these products, we see a positive relationship in one culture and a negative relationship in the other between social status and amount consumed. The second group of products differed across cultures by showing an egalitarian pattern in one culture (usually the U.S.) and a status related pattern in the other

Canned vegetables, rice, fruit drinks, potatoes and baby products all showed negative relationships with status in the American sample and exhibited positive relationships with status in the Mexican sample. Longitudinal analysis is needed to determine whether these goods are basically following the same trajectory in both cultures, but with a time lag; or whether the two cultures are evolving toward different end points. In either case, a marketer of these products would be well advised to carefully consider using different tactics in the Mexican and American markets.

Cigarettes, baby supplies, chocolate sauce, toilet paper and laundry product also exhibited culturally different associations with status. For these goods, the U.S. consumption levels were relatively flat across the three economic segments studied. In Mexico, as a contrast, the level of consumption was positively related to the social status of the consumer. Most probably, these are luxury goods to Mexican consumers, where as they are readily affordable at all levels of the American economy. If this is true, as the Mexican economy develops, we might expect to see more egalitarian consumption patterns for these products. Again 9 a marketer would be well advised to pursue different strategies in the Mexican and American markets,

TABLE 3

PRODUCTS WHICH EXHIBIT DIFFERENT RELATIONSHIPS WITH STATUS IN THE U.S. AND MEXICAN SAMPLES (FIGURES ARE GRAMS/PERSON/DAY UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED. STANDARD DEVIATIONS ARE IN PARENTHESES).

SUMMARY

Of the 98 food categories into which garbage data is coded, data on 19 are presented here. These 19 are different from the remainder in that a reasonably clear monotonic relationship between status and consumption levels was observed in either the Mexican or American culture. This should not be interpreted to mean that remainder were flat across status levels in both cultures. Rather 9 of the remainder, many showed curvilinear relationships to social status. In many of these cases, the shape of the curve was different across the two cultures; just as with the monotonic relationships.

The overwhelming conclusion of this study is that it is necessary to consider relationships between social status, income and consumption patterns on a culture by culture basis. It is highly likely, were a third culture to be included, that many of the products which showed similar status patterns in Mexican and American samples would be at variance in the third sample.

However, it may well be that there are types of products which are relatively stable in their crosscultural distribution across status hierarchies. Study of further data sets would be useful to determine what product characteristics lead to status differentials in consumption.

REFERENCES

Coleman, Richard P. (1960), "The Significance of Social Stratification in Selling," in Marketing: A Maturing Discipline, Proceedings of the American Marketing Association 43rd National Conference, ed. Martin L. Bell, Chicago: American Marketing Association, 171-184.

Coleman, Richard P. (1983), "The Continuing Significance of Social Class to Marketing,: Journal of Consumer Research, 10 (December) 265-280.

Cote, Joseph, Michael D. Reilly and Jim McCullough. (1984), "How Important is Reality: Effects of Self Reported Measures," 1984 Proceeding of American Marketing Association Annual Meetings.

Davis, K. and W. E. Moore (1945), "Some Principals of Stratification." 10 (April 1945), 242-249.

Foxall, Gordon R. (1975), "Social Factors in Consumer Choice: Replication and Extension," Journal of Consumer Behavior, 2 ( June ), 60-74.

Hisrich, Robert D. and Michael P. Peters (1974), "Selecting the Superior Segmentation Correlate," Journal of Marketing, 38 (July), 60-63.

Matthews, Herbert Lee and John W. Slocum, Jr. (1969), "Social Class and Commercial Bank Credit Card Usage," Journal of Marketing, 33 (January), 71-78.

Myers, James H. and John F. Mount (1973), "More on Social Class vs. Income as Correlates of Buying Behavior," Journal of Marketing, 37 (April), 71-73.

Myers, James H., Roger R. Stanton, and Arne F. Haug (1971), "Correlates of Buying Behavior: Social Class vs. Income," Journal of Marketing, 35 (October), 8-15.

Peters, William H. (1970), "Relative Occupational Class Income: A Significant Variable in the Marketing of Automobiles," Journal of Marketing, 34 (April), 74-77.

Reilly, Michael D. (1984), "Household Refuse Analysis and Marketing Research," American Behavioral Scientist, 28 (September/October), 115-128.

Reilly, Michael D. and Melanie Wallendorf (1984), "A Longitudinal Study of Mexican American Assimilation," Advances in Consumer Research, 11 (1984), 735-740.

Schaninger, Charles M. (1981), "Social Class Versus Income Revisited: An Empirical Investigation," Journal of Marketing Research 18 (May), 192-208.

Shimp, Terence A. and J. Thomas Yokum (1981), "Extensions of the Basic Social Class Model Employed in Consumer Research,: in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 3, ed. Kent Monroe, Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Consumer Research.

Slocum, John W. and H. Lee Matthews (1970), "Social Class and Income as Indicators of Consumer Credit Behavior," Journal of Marketing, 34 (April), 69-74.

Wallendorf, Melanie and Michael D. Reilly (1983), "Ethnic Migration Assimilation and Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 10 (December), 292-301.

Wallendorf, Melanie and Michael D. Reilly (1983), "Distinguishing Culture of Residence from Culture of Origin," Advances in Consumer Research, 10 (1983), 699-701.

----------------------------------------