The Impact of the Intensity of Ethnic Identification Upon Consumer Behavior

ABSTRACT - Marketers should be aware distinct responses by different ethnic groups to marketing programs contributes to heterogeneity of national markets. Based upon a survey of multinational students from different ethnic backgrounds studying in Australia, Hong Kong, Kenya, Malaysia, and Singapore, we investigated behavior of ethnic groups as a form of social organization. We found that, compared to weak ethnic identifiers, strong ethnic identifiers exhibit different preferences for retail outlets, acts of generosity, modes of transportation, and recreational and leisure activities. Through the tailoring of marketing programs, marketers could more effectively attract preferences of particular ethnic groups.



Citation:

Nexhmi Rexha and Russel P. J. Kingshott (2001) ,"The Impact of the Intensity of Ethnic Identification Upon Consumer Behavior", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Andrea Groeppel-Klien and Frank-Rudolf Esch, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 327-333.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2001      Pages 327-333

THE IMPACT OF THE INTENSITY OF ETHNIC IDENTIFICATION UPON CONSUMER BEHAVIOR

Nexhmi Rexha, Curtin University of Technology, Australia

Russel P. J. Kingshott, Curtin University of Technology, Australia

ABSTRACT -

Marketers should be aware distinct responses by different ethnic groups to marketing programs contributes to heterogeneity of national markets. Based upon a survey of multinational students from different ethnic backgrounds studying in Australia, Hong Kong, Kenya, Malaysia, and Singapore, we investigated behavior of ethnic groups as a form of social organization. We found that, compared to weak ethnic identifiers, strong ethnic identifiers exhibit different preferences for retail outlets, acts of generosity, modes of transportation, and recreational and leisure activities. Through the tailoring of marketing programs, marketers could more effectively attract preferences of particular ethnic groups.

INTRODUCTION

The globalization of the marketplace as well as changing ethnic structures of society, both within and across national boundaries, have caused marketers to consider the development and implementation of marketing strategies specifically targeted towards diverse ethnic groups (Hui. et. al., 1993). There has been a proliferation of marketing literature reflecting the various approaches that practitioners have taken towards 'cross-cultural marketing’ within both domestic and international markets (cf. Steenkamp, Hofstede and Wedel 1999). However studies focusing upon ethnicity on a cross-national basis are rare. Growing diversity of ethnic and cultural groups, and changing patterns of the ethnic balance of many nations has challenged conventional marketing wisdom. Research needs to be done in this area to provide managers with diagnostics of specific market response characteristics for each particular ethnic group in these important market segments.

The current research aims to provide further empirical evidence that ethnic background impacts upon customer attitudes and preferences across a range of products and services. Our paper draws upon current academic thinking devoted to operationalise the concept of 'ethnicity’, and how it can be used to help explain consumption variance.

PERSPECTIVES OF ETHNIC IDENTITY IN CONSUMER RESEARCH

Ethnicity involves the social construction of origin as the basis for determining the community or collective and may be based upon a combination of history, territory, culture or physiognomical grounds (Anthias 1992). Furthermore, Anthias (1992) argues that the 'boundaries’ of ethnic collectivities are most frequently determined by birth or marriage within the group but, 'conversion or assimilation’ can often create the appropriate credentials for belongingness. He argues that boundaries often change in response to economic, political, and ideological conditions and this has clearly manifested within a marketing context through, amongst others, deregulation and globalization. Drawing upon a number of 'cross-cultural’ consumer studies in the marketing literature (cf. Keillor, Hult and Babakus 1996; Laroche et al., 1997; Shimp and Sharma 1987), the studies devoted specifically to ethnic identification (cf. Deshpande, Hoyer and Donthu 1986; Donthu and Cherian 1994; Hirschman 1981) have shown a nexus between perceived ethnic affiliation and consumption patterns across certain consumer products. The underlying logic behind many ethnicity studies appears to have been to dichotomize individuals into either weak to strong ethnic identifiers based upon language spoken, religion, residential zone, and even the biological dimension - race. Whilst it is acknowledged that such studies have incorporated these and other dimensions in varying degrees, they all attempt to make comparisons between the resultant 'ethnic clusters’ in terms of their responses to a variety of consumer behavior attitudes B ultimately translatable into marketing practices.

The 'ethnic affiliation’ studies in the marketing literature have by and large provided clear empirical evidence that the ethnicity construct can be used as a reliable and valid indicator to help explain variance in consumer behavior patterns. Notable studies focusing specifically upon 'ethnic identification’ have included marketing contexts, such as brand loyalty (Donuthu and Cherian 1994), product innovativeness and information transfer (Hirschman 1981), attitudes and purchase intentions (Green 1999), sales promotion and coupon usage (Donthu and Cherian 1994), media usage and reference group influence (Jikyeong and Kim 1998), response to marketing communications (Tan and Farley 1987), and gender roles and relative influence in the purchase decision (Webster 1994, 1997). Although not exhaustive, evidence presented from these studies tend to indicate that individuals with stronger ethnic affiliations respond more favorably toward marketing strategies specifically tailored towards their particular ethnic group. Furthermore their studies also suggest that attitudes towards consumption, and therefore responses to marketing strategy are differential across ethnic groups. Clearly this, and other related concepts, needs to be investigated further if empirical generalizations are to be drawn about the ethnicity construct in terms of its potential to moderate consumption.

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK AND PROPOSITIONS

Whilst the aforementioned studies provide many perspectives they mainly focus upon 'intra-ethnic’ consumption patterns, however Hirschman (1981) found that 'Jewish’ and 'non-Jewish’ subjects differed significantly in terms of, amongst others, product innovativeness, product information transfers and cognitive characteristics relevant to consumer information processing. She postulates that this tends to occur because Jews, in general, exhibit higher than average levels of cognitively stimulating experiences as children, and 'transfer’ these experiences to consumption situations. Her speculation provides a significant and distinct point of departure from the 'strength of ethnic identification’ perspectives taken within the marketing literature, insofar as her work clearly indicates that ethnic affiliation should be viewed as a source of social interaction across a number of dimensions B whereby offering a useful guide to marketers in formulating marketing strategy. This implies that differing social processes between, and indeed within various ethnic groups, also manifest in a divergence of consumer behavior and purchasing tendencies. In many respects the marketing literature devoted to ethnic identification appears to encapsulate, at least in principle, the notion that ethnicity is largely socio-cultural and/or psychological (Barth 1969). Along with explanation of ethnic affiliation, these studies have paved the way for developing measures to investigate how the fabric of ethnicity impacts upon consumer behavior. In line with this direction we have put forward four propositions that have guided our study.

Proposition 1: Strong ethnic identifiers are more likely to shop in smaller community retail outlets, in particular their own ethnic stores, than are weaker ethnic identifiers. Recently, Hui, et al. (1997) acknowledged that ethnic groups should be - ’better conceived as forms of social organization’ (p15). Their approach appears to help explore some of the problems the existing marketing literature is facing and this provides the major impetus behind our study. To illustrate how these social organizations impact upon consumption, Donuthu and Cherian (1994) found that strong Hispanic identifiers were more inclined to be brand loyal and purchase products that were also used by their family members and friends. They argue further that stronger Hispanic identifiers are more likely to seek out Hispanic vendors for services as this involves higher levels of interaction with whom, presumably they are more comfortable with. Whilst these findings are specifically related to Hispanics, it is proposed that the desire of stronger ethnic identifiers to gravitate towards their own ethnic stores, will also translate into an inclination to shop at smaller community outlets rather than the larger, and often 'faceless’ retail vendors.

Proposition 2: Strong ethnic identifiers are more likely to participate in consumption activities involving the social context than weak ethnic identifiers. Whilst much empirical evidence appears to highlight how consumers reinforce their ethnic identities, as well as express commitments to their ethnic kin through the products they consume (cf. Green 1999; Jikeong and Kim 1998), it has also been speculated that the very nature of ethnic group dynamics influences how consumers behave (Hirschman 1981). Drawing upon consumer socialization theory (cf. Moschis 1987; Moschis and Churchill 1978), Shim and Gehrt (1996) provide further empirical evidence of this, insofar as different ethnic groups display distinct shopping orientations (Sproles and Kendall 1986) as a consequence of varying consumer socialization processes within each of these groups. Although a paucity of studies exists, this evidence clearly supports the suggestion that social processes are transferred directly into the consumption context (cf. Donuthu and Cherian 1994; Hirschman 1981). As stronger ethnic identifiers are most likely to be more involved in their communities and hence have a collective mind-set B it is anticipated that this will reflect through their consumption context.

Proposition 3: Strong ethnic identifiers are more likely to expend excess disposable incomes in activities that strengthen the community than weak ethnic identifiers. Whilst it is acknowledged that the associated dynamics and processes within the ethnic collective impact upon consumer attitudes (Hirschman 1981), stronger ethnic identifiers are anticipated to act in manners which are contrived to influence and furnish the advancement of their respective ethnic and social institutions. We expect that as stronger ethnic identifiers are inclined to be more committed to the well being of their respective groups, than weak ethnic identifiers, this would manifest through consumer dynamics and related attitudes. Whilst the empirical evidence to date suggests that activities related to purchases, per se, are indeed a function of ethnicity, surprisingly, to our best knowledge, it appears as though no marketing studies have attempted to empirically demonstrate the possible nexus between ethnic affiliation and acts of 'generosity and goodwill’ to the community at large. Conceptually this can be regarded as strong identifiers encompassing; not only purchasing but also participating other consumer related activities to help reinforce the ethnic collective. Translating this into consumer action connotes that stronger identifiers will be more charitable in their actions towards both their ethnic kin and associated social institutions.

Proposition 4: Strong ethnic identifiers are more likely to purchase practical and functional motor vehicles, as well as frequent public modes of transport than are weak ethnic identifiers. Clearly the assumptions underpinning this, and the above mentioned propositions represent a significant and distinct conceptual definition that differs from conventional thinking B they indicate that individuals engage in consumption patterns, and related activities designed to influence the dynamics within their own ethnic communities, and hence the collective at large. It should be noted that this research does not attempt to make the distinction as to whether reinforcement of the ethnic collective, and/or institutions, is engaged at the conscious and/or subconscious levels. However taking this on face value, and melding our core assumptions and aforementioned propositions into current empirical studies in marketing, clearly suggests that strong ethnic identifiers will (1) reinforce their own ethnic identity through the products they buy, and (2) partake in consumer activities designed to stimulate social activity, whereby externalizing the notion of the ethnic collective, as would be characterized through ethnic group membership. Building on this, our rationale suggests that strong ethnic identifiers will thus (3) employ consumer behavior to help fortify their respective ethnic communities within the context of broader societyBas reflected through Proposition 3.

Conceptually this tends to indicate that thee is recursive relationship between ethnicity and consumption patterns. Whilst ethnicity and associated group dynamics have been empirically shown to act as a major source of influencing consumption B it is feasible, if not highly probable, that consumption patterns can be/are used to impact upon structure, processes, and dynamics of ethnic institutions. The very nature of what products are bought, where they are purchased, and the motive for purchase has the potential to create the perception, and indeed reality in many cases that one is contributing something, both on a tangible and intangible level, towards their ethnic communities. The notion that strong ethnic identifiers may seek to avoid 'erosion’ of their own ethnic identity, both in terms of reinforcing their own ethnic values and contributing to interrelated social institutions, could, be 'transferred’ into the consumption of a number of other product categories. Whilst there appears to be no supporting empirical evidence to substantiate this within the marketing literature, we argue that due to the dynamics associated with the collective, that is a common or shared fate (Anthias 1992), individuals with stronger ethnic affiliation may be more pragmatic in their consumption behavior. Consequently they may gravitate towards more practical and functional products and services than weaker ethnic identifiers. Whilst this may be an obscure and oversimplified generalization it is proposed that this manifests through modes of the transportation preferred, and the desire for generic and/or practical and functional products and services.

RESEARCH

The Questionnaire

In line with the focus of this study our research instrument was cultivated with the purpose of capturing data related to the ethnicity construct, as well as product and service related variables that impact upon customer behavior. As the development of an ethnicity scale is not the major focus of this paper, we encompass the six dimensions proposed by Hui, et al. (1997) to capture the essence of the multi-faceted construct of ethnicity (see appendix 1). Respondents were asked to indicate their level of agreement towards a number of statements that 'tapped’ ethnicity on a 7-point Likert scale - with 'strongly agree’ and strongly disagree’ as anchors. Whilst our approach imposes [Ideally >emic= approaches to ethnographic classification should be used as imposed measures clearly fail to capture how people cognize their worlds (Ember 1977) and they therefore tend to be tainted by the cognitive ethnocentrism of the research (Bergier 1986). Cohen (1978) also points out that this type of subjective self-assessment is the only valid measure of the construct since it represents an individuals internal beliefs - hence the prominence, and reality of ethnic identity and affiliation.] parameters of the ethnicity construct upon the respondents, this method is consistent with the marketing literature (cf. Deshpande, Hoyer and Donthu 1986; Hirschman 1981) insofar as it still enabled individuals to self-identify their perceived level of affiliation towards their respective ethnic groupsBwhereby enabling us to 'dichotomize’ the construct for analysis purposes.

TABLE 1

INCLINATION FOR SHOPPING AND BRAND FACTORS

In attempts to explain consumption variance, Webster (1991/92) found that significant differences existed between Anglo-Americans, English and Spanish speaking Hispanics across the many facets of tactics in marketing, such as product quality, pricing, advertising, retailing and attraction towards particular vendors. In a similar fashion we draw upon many of her items, as well as incorporating questions related to levels of (1) enjoyment, (2) interest, (3) desire, (4) attraction, as well a (5) level of importance of attributes when shopping for a range of products and services. Items were chosen that we considered as being congruent with the typical consumption patterns of the multi-ethnic sample frame. These included categories related to recreation and holiday activities, motor vehicles, modes of transport, shopping venues, and general brand attributes desired. Each of the categories capture consumer attitudes and preferences using 7-point Likert scales B with relevant anchors for each of the product categories.

Survey

Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia, provides an ideal multi-ethnic and multi-cultural environment. It boasts two Western Australian campuses, as well as campuses in Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. We draw upon the abundance of Australian and international business students, as they offer a great source of ethnic diversity and reflect many of the characteristics of consumers within key Asian markets. Whilst it is argued that demographic characteristics are not conceptually independent from the socio-political ethnicity construct (Sharma, Shimp, and Shin 1995), the focus of this study is upon ethnic and cultural background. Thus the convenience sample chosen is an attempt to 'control’ these 'social variables’ B given they could account for some consumption variance, therefore biasing our findings. To ensure a relatively homogenous sample in terms of key demographics, such as age, education, income, as well as social status, we have selected second year students for our study. Furthermore, to ensure general validity of our research, we also included students from the National University of Kenya - Nairobi, Kenya.

Analysis

A total of 327 usable questionnaires were used for the analysis which comprised the following respondents - 72 Australians, 61 Kenyans, 51 Singaporeans, 54 Hong Kong students, and 89 international students from various Asian ethnic backgrounds studying in Australia. Given the competence of all students in English there was no need to translate the questionnaire, and subsequently the English language format did not prove to present any difficulties to respondents. The questionnaire was self-administered by respondents, and it took respondents approximately 45 minutes to complete.

Findings

Whilst not presented in this paper in detail, similarity of demographics and 'social variables’ indicate a high level of homogeneity between sample groups. Hui, et al. (1997) make the point that socio-economic status could be used to explain consumption variance rather than cultural factors s we needed to ensure that we were focusing upon the ethnicity construct proper. Individuals from the whole sample were then dichotomized into weak and strong ethnic identifiers across 21 ethnic indicators using k-means clustering (cf. Everitt 1993). The dichotomy resulted in 150 weak and 177 strong ethnic identifiers. Each of these clusters was then used to compare consumer preferences across a range of products and services using ANOVA in an attempt to empirically test our propositions.

Comparing the clusters of strong and weak ethnic identifiers across the range of product categories, depicted in the propositions are represented in tables 1-4. Firstly, the evidence presented (see table 1) supports the natural assumption drawn that people from the same ethnicity, particularly those that have stronger affiliations, have a predisposition towards their own ethnic kin B translating into the context of purchase - whereby supporting Proposition 1. Further support is presented in terms of the desire for strong ethnic identifiers to shop at the corner store, in which 'closer contact’ with the vendor occurs, as well as showing a very strong tendency for face-to-face shopping as characterized by the marketplace. Furthermore, stronger ethnic identifiers are more inclined to seek bus and coach transportation (see table 4) corroborating the core supposition that they seek a 'social context’ when purchasing.

Weaker ethnic identifiers participated in higher levels of entertainment that manifested through adventurous activities that involve higher levels of risk (see table 2). We believe that this is a reflection of them being less conservative in nature and more carefree than stronger identifiers. This mindset is also reflected in their preference for remote beaches where presumably they 'divorce’ themselves from the world B resonating a desire for lower 'social context’ entertainment. In contrast, stronger identifiers also gratify their entertainment through higher levels of family activity. Furthermore, they prefer more vocational activities such as educational and paradoxically intercultural tours, which we believe is a direct craving for the need to fervor entertainment within the social context - supporting Proposition 2.

TABLE 2

INCLINATION FOR LEISURE ACTIVITIES

TABLE 3

INCLINATION FOR EXPENDING DISPOSABLE INCOME

Approaching ethnicity as a social institution (Hui, et. al. 1997), it is not surprising that strong ethnic identifiers were more inclined to be generous with their disposable income in activities (see table 3), ultimately designed to preserve their own ethnic identities. The inclination to make donations to ethnic causes and charity tend to support the Proposition 3 that strong identifiers act in manners designed to strengthen their ethnic communities than weaker identifiers.

The need for 'ethnic-preservation’ also manifested through a higher preference for stronger identifiers to contribute more to their siblings in education, than were weak identifiers. This was presumably due to the fact that their children represent the future of the ethnic collective. In stark contrast, weaker ethnic identifiers were more inclined to expend excess disposable income on self-entertainment B indicating further support for Proposition 3, as this represented their preference for self-indulgence over and above the ethnic collective.

Finally, as expected, stronger identifiers are inclined to show preference for more practical and functional motor vehicles (see table 4). These types of higher involvement products are longer-term commitments; therefore, individuals with a higher collective mindset would be expected to place a lower emphasis upon self-indulgence in these purchases. Whilst this finding has not been attributed to any particular ethnic group, we argue that it is the 'higher level of perceived membership’ of the ethnic collective per se, that is translated into preferences for higher involvement products. Furthermore, as the sample frame consists of predominantly students, and they by and large do not have children and families of their own, this finding clearly cannot be attributed to their current lifestyles, but rather a reflection of a deeply engrained mindset. It could however be attributed to a stronger collective ethnic upbringing, thus providing support for our Proposition 4. Also, given weaker ethnic identifiers are expected to have less of a collective mindset, this indicates a higher level of 'individualism’. This, translated through higher levels of personal 'indulgence’, characterized by the preference of personalized motor vehicles and air travel, also provides empirical support for this proposition.

DISCUSSION, LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS

Our findings offer new evidence that ethnicity, particularly within the Australiasian region, impacts upon consumer preferences. It reinforces reasoning that ethnic groups should be regarded as a form of social organization (Hui, et al. 1997), and that processes within the collective social organization would be translated into consumption situations (Hirschman 1981). The evidence presented here tends to indicate that the consumption of products and services by strong ethnic identifiers reinforces their commitment to the ethnic collective in a number of manners.

Firstly, as certain individuals would be inclined to interact more often within the collective, we argue that the totality of these experiences within the ethnic group will have a bearing upon both the content and context of the purchase decision. The dynamics associated with ethnic group interaction therefore needs further investigation to test whether there are any distinct differences in processes between ethnic groups that are translatable into consumption behavior, as speculated by Hirschman (1981).

Secondly, the impact of 'non-ethnic’ institutions upon the individuals ethnic affiliation needs to be fully explored, particularly when they are an ethnic minority and/or they are of second or third generation. Breton (1964) points to the capacity of ethnic institutions to secure new immigrants commitment to their ethnic minority therefore it is quite possible that the second or third generation 'off-spring’ from immigrant families will be more prone to acculturation of the majority ethnic group. The acculturation process of ethnic minorities, from all generations, towards the major ethnic group, in terms of impact of upon consumption clearly needs further investigation.

Thirdly, comparisons need to be made between minority and majority ethnic group dynamics and processes to see if any differences exist and whether this can moderate consumption. This 'cross-ethnic’ comparison also needs to occur between minority ethic communities living within the same country. Ironically, the processes and dynamics within the ethnic group may also vary between similar ethnic groups living in different countries. Hui, et al. (1993) investigated and made comparisons between English, Italian, French, and Greek Canadians, however as ethnic groups like these, transcend across nation borders researchers nee to establish whether national cultural values moderate ethnic value systems B whereby impacting upon consumption.

TABLE 4

INCLINATION FOR MODE OF TRANSPORT

Fourthly, could the acculturation process (cf. Laroche et al., 1997; PeĀ±aloza 1995) occur at the broader ethnic-group level in which the dynamics and processes of entire ethnic group is influenced by the dominant ethnic group. Questions such as whether this causes a difference in the consumption variance between strong and weak ethnic identifiers in different countries also need to be addressed. The impact of the ethnic group upon second and third generation immigrants of the same ethnic extraction also needs further investigation. For example, does the 'same generation’ have a different level of affiliation towards their ethnic group, and what impact does this have upon consumption variance between strong and weak ethnic identifiers in one country, or even between strong ethnic identifiers in two countries.

Finally, whilst we never compared consumption variances between weak and strong identifiers across ethnic groups, we feel that this needs to be investigated more thoroughly. In order to help marketers tailor strategies directly towards each ethnic grouping, researchers need to develop a much more comprehensive, and clearer construct that will have general applicability in conceptualization and measure of impacts of ethnicity upon consumer behavior. In this regard it should offer the potential to have universal application across national, as well as ethnic boundaries. Clearly this matter needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency given the globalization and fragmentation of mass markets, as well as the diverse richness of ethnicity in the context of an ever-changing marketplace. Whilst the issues we discuss are not exhaustive, the identification of relevant 'interaction variables’ that could be universally applied to different ethnic groups from both within and across national boundaries is tantamount if a much richer and more sophisticated approach to targeting ethnic segments is to be achieved.

CONCLUSIONS

Our study has provided significant empirical evidence that, compared to weak ethnic identifiers, strong ethnic identifiers participate in consumption activities involving the social context. They were found to shop in smaller community retails outlets and their and own ethnic retail stores. Furthermore, it was found that, compared to weaker ethnic identifiers, strong ethnic identifiers tended to be more generous towards their ethnic institutions, as well as towards the general community. Weaker identifiers were more inclined to indulge in personalized motor vehicles and other modes of travel, whereas stronger identifiers were found to opt for more practical modes of personal transport, as well as rely more heavily upon the public system of transportation.

This study focused on identifying particular factors that might impact upon how strong ethnic identifiers behave different from other mainstream consumers in the country of residence of particular consumers, which conventional marketing wisdom assumes as behavior influenced by a particular national culture. Based upon empirical data from a range of diverse environments, and without theorizing on the relationship between mainstream and ethnic culures in a multicultural and multiethnic environments, our study provide empirical substantiation for the need to use ethnicity as a base for market segmentation. In this way marketers could target specific segments with marketing programs that enhance response of particular customer groups that are strong ethnic identifiers. Although this exploratory study identified important variables that substantiates the importance of targeting ethnic groups, given the specifics that underlie behavior of each particular ethnic group, marketers need to study patterns of each targeted ethnic group to increase chances for favorable consumer responses.

APPENDIX 1

ETHNICITY SCALE ITEMS

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Authors

Nexhmi Rexha, Curtin University of Technology, Australia
Russel P. J. Kingshott, Curtin University of Technology, Australia



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2001



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