Ethnicity and Consumer Product Evaluation: a Cross-Cultural Comparison of Korean Immigrants and Americans

Wei-Na Lee, University of Texas at Austin
Koog-Hyang Ro Um, Florida State University
ABSTRACT - The United States is currently becoming ethnically more and more diverse. To date, the majority of the acculturation studies have focused on African and Hispanic Americans. Very little has been done to understand the "Asian American" population. In recent years, Asian Americans have emerged as a major minority group in the U.S. They have been described by the media as the "superminority," "the fastest growing minority," and "the next hot market." This study compared Korean immigrants and Americans in their consumer product evaluation. A survey using personal interviews was conducted among Korean immigrants and Americans (N = 400). Results indicate that there are indeed ethnic differences in consumers' evaluation of product attributes across four product categories (automobile, stereo system, laundry detergent, and coffee). An important discriminating variable consistently appeared was that of individualism versus collectivism. Both traditional as well as alternative acculturation patterns were observed.
[ to cite ]:
Wei-Na Lee and Koog-Hyang Ro Um (1992) ,"Ethnicity and Consumer Product Evaluation: a Cross-Cultural Comparison of Korean Immigrants and Americans", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 429-436.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 429-436

ETHNICITY AND CONSUMER PRODUCT EVALUATION: A CROSS-CULTURAL COMPARISON OF KOREAN IMMIGRANTS AND AMERICANS

Wei-Na Lee, University of Texas at Austin

Koog-Hyang Ro Um, Florida State University

ABSTRACT -

The United States is currently becoming ethnically more and more diverse. To date, the majority of the acculturation studies have focused on African and Hispanic Americans. Very little has been done to understand the "Asian American" population. In recent years, Asian Americans have emerged as a major minority group in the U.S. They have been described by the media as the "superminority," "the fastest growing minority," and "the next hot market." This study compared Korean immigrants and Americans in their consumer product evaluation. A survey using personal interviews was conducted among Korean immigrants and Americans (N = 400). Results indicate that there are indeed ethnic differences in consumers' evaluation of product attributes across four product categories (automobile, stereo system, laundry detergent, and coffee). An important discriminating variable consistently appeared was that of individualism versus collectivism. Both traditional as well as alternative acculturation patterns were observed.

INTRODUCTION

Culture is a way of life shared by a group of people (Swidler 1986). As such, it is manifested in actions, behavioral styles and ways of expressions (Berry 1980; Padilla 1980). Culture may therefore also affect consumers' evaluation of product attributes. Past studies have indicated that oftentimes the perceived importance of product attributes is related more to cultural expectations than to their functional utilities (e.g., Bauer, Cunningham, and Wotzel 1965; Faber, O'Guinn and McCarty 1987). Cultural influences have also been observed in areas such as family decision making (Davis and Rigaux 1974; Douglas 1976) and the adoption of new products or ideas (Dayrymple, Robertson and Yoshino 1971). This notion of cultural influence on the evaluation of product attributes is important for the understanding of not only consumers in different countries but also ethnic minority consumers in the U.S.

Acculturation describes the changes in attitudes, values, and/or behaviors of members of one cultural group toward the standard of the other cultural group (O'Guinn, Lee and Faber 1986; Padilla 1980; etc.). It is essentially a process of cultural exchange. As the U.S. is experiencing more and more ethnic diversity, the study of acculturation and its relationship to consumer behavior has begun to receive more attention. Researchers have studied the extent to which and the manner in which process of acculturation is articulated in consumer behavior (Alba and Chamlin 1983; Deshpande, Hoyer and Donthu 1986; Garcia 1982; Hirschman 1981; Lee 1989; Massey and Mullan 1984; O'Guinn and Faber 1985; etc.). To date, the majority of acculturation research have studied African and Hispanic Americans. There is little doubt that these two groups are the fastest growing minority groups in the U.S. However, since each ethnic group is inherently different, it is doubtful that the theory developed based on one or two ethnic groups will hold true for all minorities. Furthermore, since the process and the pace of acculturation depend largely on the cultural distance between the dominant host culture and the ethnic culture, it is very important that we start to look into different ethnic groups. By doing so, we will no longer limit ourselves to the often fragmented view of ethnic minority acculturation.

As individuals become acculturated into the American culture, their attitudes and values will change. Traditional acculturation theory has postulated that as individuals acculturate they are likely to become more and more like the Americans (e.g., Gordon 1964; Kim 1979). Here, acculturation is considered as a uni-directional process. However, some recent studies have raised serious doubts about this traditional assumption (Stayman and Deshpande 1989; Triandis, Kashima, Shimada and Villareal 1986; Wallendorf and Reilly 1983; etc.). The validity of such a "one-way" process, in view of the current trend toward cultural diversity, becomes questionable. In order to draw out a complete picture of ethnic minority acculturation, more ethnic groups need to be studied and different perspectives and research methodologies need to be incorporated.

The present study aims to understand the impact of acculturation on consumer behavior of immigrants in the U.S. by focusing on Korean immigrants. Specifically, the study examines the evaluation of product attributes as a function of acculturation. Two key research questions are addressed in the study: (1) Are there any ethnic differences between Korean immigrants and Americans in their evaluation of consumer products? and (2) Will those ethnic differences become blurry as immigrants become acculturated?

CONSUMER PRODUCT EVALUATION

The process of choosing a particular consumer product can be a fairly complicated event, especially for immigrants. Various theories have been proposed to explain why and how consumers choose a particular product or brand (Mitchell and Olson 1981; etc.). Among the many attempts, consumer behavior researchers have studied extensively on how a consumer develops attitude toward a brand (Sheppard, Hartwick and Warshaw 1988). Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) suggest that there are two major components influencing an individual's attitude toward an object -- belief structure and evaluative criteria. An individual's belief that a brand possesses given characteristics may be formed through direct personal experience with the brand and indirect means such as interpersonal and mass media sources. The impact of cultural norms and values on the belief structure may come from any one of the above sources depending on the acculturating individuals' chosen route to acculturation.

The second component, evaluative criteria, is where culture exerts the greatest impact. A consumer judges a product by certain attributes he or she feels are pertinent to the purchase decision of that product. They constitute the primary evaluative criteria for consumers' attitude toward a brand. These criteria can be either objective (e.g., price or warranty) or subjective (emotional benefits). Culture affects consumers on two fronts. First, culture provides a consensual validation on what attributes are considered pertinent and important to the decision of purchasing a product. Secondly, culture tends to highlight the subjective criteria through an implicit symbolic meaning system for consumer products in a society.

Previous cross-cultural studies have found that while attributes used for evaluating products are basically standard, certain attributes are considered more important to one group of consumers than to the other groups (e.g., Faber, O'Guinn and MacAdams 1984; Lester 1983). In fact, Faber, O'Guinn and MacAdams (1984) argue that "one of the most significant cultural manifestation in consumer behavior is the way in which a product is evaluated as a function of various attributes." An example may help illustrate the point that cultural norms and expectations influence the relative importance of certain product attributes. For instance, Koreans consider stickiness the most important attribute in rice. Also, they favor short grain rice. The stickier and the shorter the rice, the better it is for the Koreans. The opposite is true for Americans who prefer fluffy and long grain rice. Stickiness, in particular, is the least desired attribute for the Americans. Therefore, both groups may use the same attributes for different reasons. Faber, O'Guinn and MacAdams (1984) also state that stressing irrelevant attributes or ignoring a product attribute central to a given cultural group can lead to an increase in counterarguing against the message, lower recall and less attitude change within the ethnic segment.

Few scattered studies have focused on cultural variations manifested in the perceived importance of product attributes between ethnic minorities and Anglo Americans. African Americans have been found to prefer brand name and the status and image associated with a product (e.g., Aker 1968; King and Demanche 1970), and they are more concerned about price (Bauer et. al 1965; Feldman and Star 1968). Hispanic American consumers, however, tend to be brand loyal and price conscious (e.g., Bellenger and Valencia 1982; Gillet and Scott 1975; Hoyer and Deshpande 1982; Sagert, Hoover and Hilger 1985), and they prefer prestigious brands (Guernica and Kasperuk 1982; Segal and Sosa 1983; Watanabe 1981; Yankelovick, Skelly and White 1984). Some evidence even suggests that Korean Americans are brand-conscious, family oriented, and rely on word-of-mouth (Venture 1987; D & B Report September/October 1986). Japanese Americans are likely to be rational consumers (Dalrymple et. al 1971). Although it is generally believed that there is a difference between immigrants and Americans in their evaluation of consumer product attributes, exactly how they are different may depend on many other factors.

The cultural influence on the perceived importance of product attributes becomes a complicated issue if acculturation is taken into account. Immigrants' attitude toward a brand may be influenced by either their culture of origin or the new host culture. The traditional progressive learning model suggests that the acculturating individuals tend to be in a position somewhere between "total acculturation" and "total ethnicity" (Kim 1979; Padilla 1980). If they have achieved a very high level of acculturation, their evaluation of product attributes are more likely to be influenced by the norms and expectation of the host culture. In some cases, however, immigrants remain isolated from the host culture voluntarily or involuntarily, thus their evaluation of product attributes are likely to be affected by their culture of origin. Recently, this traditional view has been challenged. Wallendorf and Reilly (1983) suggest that acculturation may not be uni-diemnsional. Triandis et. al (1986) argue that there could be the so-called "ping-pong" effects of acculturation depending on whether subjective or objective culture is being examined. Stayman and Deshpande (1989) empirically illustrate that ethnicity may even be situation dependent. Consequently, a general null hypothesis can be stated as:

Hypothesis 1: The highly acculturated individuals will fall between the Anglo Americans and the immigrants whose acculturation level is low.

THE STUDY

The present study is designed to compare immigrants in the U.S. and Americans in order to answer two key questions: (1) Are there differences between immigrants and Americans in their evaluation of consumer products? (2) Do theses differences (if any) become blurry as immigrants become acculturated?

A survey was conducted among Korean immigrants and Americans during the summer of 1989. Self-administered questionnaires were distributed to Korean immigrants through friends' referral as opposed to some random selection procedure. This is due to Koreans' general negative attitude toward survey. Several previous studies on Korean immigrants (Hurh 1979; Hurh and Kim 1984) have pointed out that Koreans' are unwilling to give out personal opinions to a stranger. In order to overcome the difficulty of obtaining responses, this study relied on friends' referral in selecting Korean immigrant respondents. Korean immigrants were selected from four metropolitan areas -- Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, and New York -- since over 60% of the total Korean immigrants live in these areas (1980 U.S. Census). American respondents were approached in places such as shopping malls and supermarkets from similar cities. A total of 400 questionniares were returned (Korean immigrants = 180; Americans = 220).

Research Instrument

Two sets of questionnaires were used in this study (one for Americans and one for Korean immigrants). Both contained sections on various purchase considerations for the four product categories (automobile, stereo system, coffee, laundry detergent) and demographic information. An additional section with acculturation measures was included in the questionnaire for Korean immigrants. The English version of the questionnaire was translated into Korean so that Korean immigrants may feel more comfortable with and favorable toward participating in the study. Translation and backtranslation techniques were used in order to ensure the equivalence of the two instruments (Brlislin, Lonner and Thorndike 1973).

Measurement of Major Theoretical Variables

There are two sets of major theoretical variables in the study, namely, acculturation and the evaluation of product attributes.

Past studies have employed a variety of measures for identifying levels of acculturation (e.g., Lee 1989). The variables included in this study are derived from the several sets of commonly used acculturation measures (Table 1). Acculturation may occur from both direct and indirect contact with the American culture. Direct acculturation is therefore defined as the direct physical contact with American social environment and operationalized as an acculturating individual's: length of stay in the U.S.; use of language at home, school/workplace, and among friends; favorite food; neighborhood ethnic composition; best friends' ethnicity; plan for future settlement; and number of visit back to Korea. Indirect acculturation generally occurs through media exposure to the American environment. It is operationalized as an acculturating individual's amount of exposure to American mass media (broadcast and print).

The evaluation of product attributes is operationalized in the present study as the importance an individual assigns to the product attributes for four different categories (automobile, stereo system, laundry detergent, coffee) when it comes to purchase decision-making. The four product categories were selected to represent a diverse spectrum in terms of product involvement levels. Product involvement is usually defined by three major factors: price, purchase interval, and perceived risk. At one end of the spectrum, automobile is considered as high involvement product since the purchase interval is long and price and perceived risk are usually high. Laundry detergent and coffee are usually at the low end of the involvement level given that they are low risk items and do not command high price tag. Comparatively, a stereo system should be somewhere between automobile and laundry detergent and coffee in its involvement level. All four products have seven common evaluation attributes: brand name/make of the model, price, product performance (comfort for automobile, sound quality for stereo system, cleaning ability for laundry detergent, taste for coffee), advertising, friend's recommendation, brand that friends use/have, and family's preference. Each product then has either one, two, or three additional attributes (warranty for automobile; whether it's on sale for stereo system; whether it's on sale and coupon for laundry detergent; sale, coupon, type for coffee). For each attribute, respondents were asked to respond to "When you buy a (product), how important is (attribute)?" on a 7-point scale with 1 being "not important at all" and 7 being "very important."

RESULTS

An acculturation index was constructed based on the 15 variables that were used to measure the levels of acculturation of Korean immigrants. These 15 variables include: the amount of time respondents spend on American network television, radio, newspapers and magazines; language used at home, at work and among friends; length of stay in the U.S.; number of visit to Korea; place of future settlement; restaurant of choice; ethnic composition of their neighborhoods; and the ethnicity of their two closest friends. This acculturation scale was first tested for internal validity. The results of a reliability test indicated that the scale had a reasonable internal consistency with Cronbach's alpha of .77. Since those variables had different units of measurement, the score for each variable was standardized. Those standardized scores were then given equal weighting and summed together to get an acculturation score for each individual. The acculturation scores for Korean respondents ranged from -12.29 to 13.94. The mean was 0.147 with a median of -0.973. The median acculturation score was used as a cut-off point to divide Korean immigrants into two groups. Those falling below the median were classified as "low" in terms of acculturation level, while those with scores the same or above the median were classified as "high." Therefore, three groups were used for subsequent analyses: Korean immigrants low in acculturation, Korean immigrants high in acculturation and Americans.

Multiple discriminant analysis was first used to investigate the relationship between ethnicity and product evaluation. Each of the four products was analyzed separately, with their respective attributes serving as independent measures. Wilk's lambda was the selection criterion since it allows us to maximize heterogeneity as well as group homogeneity (Klecka 1975). The respective attributes for each product were entered into the analysis simultaneously. Once the functions were derived, they were interpreted according to the relative size and direction of the standardized canonical discriminant function coefficients. In selecting product attributes which discriminate the three groups, only those coefficients that were at least half as large as the greatest were considered to produce nontrivial variance and were used as the discriminant function (Tatsuoka 1970). An analysis of the direction and magnitude of the group centroids followed. The group centroids allow us to assess which group considered the product attributes more important. The results of the discriminant analysis was then cross-checked through ANCOVA to make sure that the group differences in the evaluation of the product attributes were not caused by the influence of other variables.

TABLE 1

MEASURES OF ACCULTURATION

Automobile

Multiple discriminant analysis with automobile attributes yielded two significant discriminant functions (Table 2). The first function, which accounted for 30.7% of the total variance, was characterized by family's want. Analysis of group centroid indicated that low acculturating Koreans rated the highest on this discriminant function, followed by high acculturating Koreans and the Americans. It indicates that the less acculturated Koreans were most concerned with their "family's want" whereas highly acculturated Koreans were not as concerned but much more so than the Americans. The rank ordering of these group centroids was consistent with the traditional progressive learning model of acculturation. ANCOVA showed that after controlling the effects of income there was a significant difference in rating the importance of family's want across the three groups. The less acculturated Koreans rated the attributed the most important (mean = 5.45) followed by the highly acculturated Koreans (mean = 5.11) and the Americans (mean = 3.58). It appears that the highly acculturated Koreans fall between the Korean culture which emphasizes family-centered decisions (collectivism) and the American culture which focuses on the self-centered decision (individualism).

TABLE 2

ACCULTURATION AND PRODUCT ATTRIBUTE EVALUATION

The second function accounted for a meager 5.7% of the total variation. This function was mainly characterized by price (0.47), what their friends have (0.62), and advertising (0.30). Analysis of group centroids showed that high acculturation group ranked highest (0.43), followed by the Americans (-0.05) and the low acculturation group (-0.29). This indicates that highly acculturated Koreans considered a combination of what their friends have, advertising and price to be more important attributes in their purchase decisions than Americans and the less acculturated Koreans. The rank ordering of the group centroid, therefore, did not support the linear progressive pattern of acculturation. ANCOVA results revealed that the three groups are statistically different on the evaluation of the three automobile attributes. However, the rank order of group means show different patterns. First, Americans (mean = 6.38) were most concerned with price followed by highly acculturated Koreans (mean = 6.29) and the less acculturated Koreans (mean = 5.73), supporting the progressive learning model. Second, the highly acculturated Koreans gave the highest rating on their friends' brand (3.13) and advertising (4.10). The highly acculturated Koreans in fact overshot in terms of their position. An alternative pattern of acculturtion is observed here.

Stereo System

Discriminant analysis on stereo system produced two significant discriminant functions (Table 2). The first function, which accounted for 44.6% of the total variation, was mainly characterized by family's want. As was in the case of automobile, the less acculturated Koreans ranked the highest (group centroid = 1.13) on this function, followed by the highly acculturated Koreans (0.40) and the Americans (-0.51). This implies that the highly acculturated Koreans tend to depart from the traditional Korean value of family priority. ANCOVA reports the rank order of the group means to be consistent with that of the group centroids. The mean difference among the three groups is significant at the confidence level of 95%.

The second discriminant function accounted for 5.9% of the total variance. It was a combination of "the make and model," "sound quality," "advertising," "friends' recommendation" and "sale." Analysis of group centroids showed that the highly acculturated Koreans ranked highest on this function (0.46), followed by Americans (-0.07) and the less acculturated Koreans (-0.26). This pattern failed to support the linear progression pattern of acculturation. ANCOVA results for the four attributes (make and model, sound quality, advertising and sale) yielded significant differences across the three groups. The highly acculturated Koreans considered sound quality (6.54), make and model (6.13), advertising (4.51) and sale (5.46) to be important attributes more so than the other two groups.

Laundry Detergent

One significant discriminant function emerged for laundry detergent (Table 3). The function accounted for 39.7% of the total variance, and was mainly characterized by a combination of price, sale and family's want. The rank order of group centroids revealed the less acculturated Koreans falling highest on this function (0.77), followed by highly acculturated Koreans (0.74) and Americans (-0.52). The order of group centroids confirmed the progressive learning pattern of acculturation. ANCOVA showed that the three groups are significantly different in rating the importance of friends' recommendation and family's want. The less acculturated Koreans valued family's want the most (4.90), followed by highly acculturated Koreans (4.60) and Americans (2.70). The less acculturated Koreans' reliance on friends' recommendation (4.03) was almost as high as the highly acculturated Koreans (4.07) whereas Americans had the lowest reliance on friends' recommendation (2.69) in making laundry detergent purchase decision.

Coffee

One significant discriminant function was produced for coffee attributes (Table 3). The function was mainly characterized by a combination of type (-0.64) and family's want (0.63) and it accounted for 41.1% of the total variation. Analysis of group centroids showed a traditional linear learning pattern with highly acculturated Koreans (0.52) falling between Americans (-0.59) and the less acculturated Koreans (0.82). In other words, the highly acculturated Koreans departed from the traditional value of family priority and learned the importance of coffee type for purchase decision-making. ANCOVA reported that both the type of coffee and family's want have significantly different means across the three groups after controlling for the effect of income. Americans have the highest scores on coffee type (5.88), followed by highly acculturated Koreans (5.36) and less acculturated Koreans (5.24). On the other hand, less acculturated Koreans scored the highest on family's want (5.44) followed by highly acculturated Koreans (4.54) and Americans (3.03).

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION

Results from this study indicate mixed patterns of acculturation. The linear/uni-directional pattern was found in terms of family priority which accounted almost 30% to 45% of the total variance. The nonlinear/alternative pattern was found in a combination of advertising, friends' recommendation and friends' brand which accounted for less than 5% of the total variation. It appears that family's want is the most important variable that discriminates the three groups across all four product types. Less acculturated Koreans tend to keep the traditional Korean value of family priority even in their evaluation of product attributes. This family priority is still manifested in product attribute evaluation among highly acculturated Koreans. However, compared with less acculturated Koreans, they seem to have made the move toward an individualistic orientation -- a distinctive American value.

Other discriminating variables differ from product to product. For the two high involvement products (automobile and stereo system), the second discriminant function revealed a nonlinear pattern of acculturation. In other words, highly acculturated Koreans tend to "overacculturate" into the American culture. This nonlinear pattern again raises doubts about the traditional progressive learning model. There has been some empirical evidence suggesting that the acculturating minorities may astray from the linear progression pattern of acculturation. Wallendorf and Reilly (1983) assert that the acculturating Mexican-Americans' cultural pattern is not a nice median between American culture and Mexican culture. Rather, they seem to have a unique cultural style of their own. This may come from the over-adoption of the stereotypical American culture without a deep understanding of the reasons and inner

TABLE 3

ACCULTURATION AND PRODUCT ATTRIBUTE EVALUATION

logic behind the cultural style. The same reason may also apply here. The highly acculturated Koreans tend to want to become more like the Americans and thus actively adopt the American cultural styles. They observe what their friends buy, listen to what advertising says and adopt their friends' recommendations. Of course, their peer group at this stage could include more American friends. This might be the main reason why highly acculturated Koreans outscored Americans and the less acculturated Koreans on advertising, friends' recommendation and what their friends own.

A series of multidiscriminant analyses show that there are indeed ethnic differences in the evaluation of product attributes between Americans and Korean immigrants. The major difference is the different weights that each culture puts on the importance of family. Koreans tend to be more family-oriented in their product evaluation than Americans. The highly acculturated Koreans still has this value even though they have made a substantial progress toward the individualistic American value. Other than this significant attribute, others tend to vary widely from product to product. Therefore, it is difficult to have a definitive conclusion. Since the traditional theory can no longer accommodate the dynamic process of acculturation observed in this study, as well as several other, new and alternative conceptualization needs to be explored. Results from this study, if anything, confirms such urgent need.

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